A train pulls into Doraville station. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)

Competition heats up for state transit funding

Bike share programs, bus stop shelters, replacement buses, park and ride lots and electronic passenger information signs.

These are just a few of the items that transit agencies around the state are competing to fund with an unprecedented, one-time allotment of $75 million in general obligation bonds that state lawmakers included in last year’s budget.

But while $75 million sounds like a lot of green, it won’t be nearly enough to satisfy all the hopefuls seeking money from the competitive GO! Transit program. Ten applicants are jockeying for 22 different projects totaling $120 million.

And even that’s probably a drop in the bucket in terms of need. There are transit systems in 122 counties in Georgia, but the vast majority did not apply because they couldn’t meet eligibility requirements.

“This is the first time the state has embarked on anything like this,” said Chris Tomlinson, executive director of the State Road and Tollway Authority. “There is going to be a lot of discovery in terms of how we educate potential applicants, how we set up the screening process and how the money is used.”

Many transit agencies couldn’t compete for the money because the GO! Transit program requires prospective investments to have a 10-year life span.

New buses are the greatest need for rural transit providers, and the smaller shuttle buses typically used in rural areas tend to pile up more miles and travel rougher roads than their large, urban counterparts, said Robert Hiett, president of the Georgia Transit Association, a nonprofit that represents the interests of transit providers in the state. So those rural buses generally have a useful life span of only five years, Hiett said.

Two metro Atlanta transit agencies — Cobb Community Transit and Gwinnett County Transit — have applied for money to buy buses.

'Really Under-resourced'  

Georgia is one of only a handful of states that don’t provide regular funding for transit operations. Xpress bus service by the Georgia Regional Transit Authority has been subsidized by the state for the past several years, but that is a lone example.

In every other case, a combination of local and federal dollars and fare box returns are primarily what keeps buses, trains and trolleys running. For that reason, the bond money from the Legislature was a very welcome allocation, even if the cash can only be spent on capital projects (not operations), and even though only urban providers are able to make use of it, said Hiett.

“We’re grateful to the Legislature,” said Hiett. “But from a regular ongoing standpoint, transit across the state is really under-resourced. We need regular capital and we need regular operating assistance.”

The 10 Contenders

Applications have come in from the cities of Albany and Columbus, the University of Georgia, Chatham Area Transit (in Savannah) and Athens-Clarke County. In metro Atlanta, the contenders are MARTA, the Atlanta Regional Commission, Cobb Community Transit, Gwinnett County Transit and Henry County.

MARTA’s request alone would sap 40 percent of the funds. The transit agency is seeking $30 million to replace its aging public address system and add up to 500 new electronic passenger information signs on station concourses, entrances, platforms and bus loops.

“Our public address system was built about 30 years ago,” said Rich Krisak, MARTA’s chief operating officer. “The speakers and acoustic technology and amplifiers are old and aging. New technology is incredibly better.”

A Bargaining Chip 

The $75 million in bonding funds was a bargaining chip in a complicated negotiation process in 2015 — the price for Democrats’ cooperation on passage of a sweeping transportation funding bill. House Bill 170 provides about $900 million a year for road and bridge improvements.

By comparison, the transit piece was a pittance. But it was important symbolically, according to state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, who had a critical role in helping find a bipartisan solution as the longest-serving member of the General Assembly.

Smyre said the transit bonds show that the Republican-dominated General Assembly is at least beginning to consider a state role for helping to fund mass transportation, primarily because it has become so closely tied to economic development and job creation.  

“This put transit in play in the political arena and put transit on the political horizon,” Smyre said. “Hopefully we can continue to revisit this topic after this round is conducted and we see what $75 million does to assist transit systems around the state. That will tell the story as to whether we get future funding.”

So What’s Next? 

SRTA staff will review the requests to make sure they meet the program requirements. An advisory panel made up of representatives from various state, county and municipal departments and associations will then recommend which projects should be selected.

The winners will be approved by the SRTA Board and announced in June.

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