Lawmakers restore funding for new metro Atlanta transit agency

VIDEO: Learn more about metro Atlanta's bus and rail transit system in the AJC's "5 things to know" series.

Update: The General Assembly Friday restored funding for the ATL Board that was cut earlier this week.

The Senate Thursday passed an amended 2019 state budget that cut about $329,000 from the new transit agency’s budget. But the final budget that passed the House and Senate Friday restored the money.

Original post: The state Senate has trimmed a budget request from a new metro Atlanta transit agency amid questions about its spending on a new boardroom.

The Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority (the ATL for short) recently paid about $305,000 to renovate a room to host its board meetings. The room cost taxpayers $183,925, with the agency’s landlord paying the remainder.

Chris Tomlinson, the ATL’s executive director, says the large room is needed to accommodate standing-room-only crowds that have attended its first meetings. But some senators have questioned the need for an expensive boardroom when other state facilities are available to host the meetings.

This week the Senate Appropriations Committee cut about $329,000 from the ATL’s budget request for the remainder of the 2019 fiscal year. The full Senate approved the amended 2019 state budget Thursday.

Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, who chairs the appropriations transportation subcommittee, said the cut was not directly tied to the agency's spending on the new boardroom. Instead, he said senators believe the agency has enough money to make it to the end of the fiscal year.

But when asked about the boardroom, he said state agencies need to “squeeze their dollars.”

Tomlinson said he will continue to work with the House and Senate as they finalize the 2019 and 2020 budgets.

The General Assembly created the ATL Board last year as part of a bill that could pave the way for transit expansion in 13 metro Atlanta counties. The board is responsible for transit planning and finance in the region, and one of its first tasks will be to create a regional transit plan.

The agency’s first year of operations was supported by nearly $2 million in emergency funds from then-Gov. Nathan Deal’s office. New Gov. Brian Kemp’s amended fiscal year 2019 budget included an additional $491,361 for the ATL Board. That money would pay for transit planning positions and related costs.

The House of Representatives approved that funding request. The Senate reduced it to $162,025.

“They haven’t even spent the money they have, and they’re already asking for more,” Gooch said.

The House and Senate must now negotiate a final 2019 amended budget.

In Other News