MARTA budget: No fare hike, plenty of federal aid

The MARTA board of directors Thursday approved the agency's 2022 budget. (File photo by ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
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The MARTA board of directors Thursday approved the agency's 2022 budget. (File photo by ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

MARTA continues to rely on federal aid to balance its budget as it recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday the MARTA board of directors approved a $557.1 million operating budget for fiscal 2022, which begins in July. About 20% of its projected revenue will come from two rounds of federal aid for transit agencies. MARTA expects federal pandemic aid to help balance its budget through 2025.

The new budget includes no fare increase, though it assumes passenger revenue will rebound as more people return to public transportation. MARTA has not raised fares since 2011.

MARTA’s $749.2 million capital budget includes spending on new rail cars, the Summerhill bus rapid transit line, an extension of the Atlanta streetcar and the rehabilitation of five rail stations.

MARTA and other local transit agencies have been hit hard by the pandemic. Last year ridership plummeted as schools and businesses shut down. MARTA suspended most bus routes for nearly a year before restoring them in April. For months it didn’t charge bus fares to limit contact between passengers and drivers, though it resumed fares in September.

Even as revenue plummeted, pandemic-related expenses rose. MARTA stepped up cleaning of transit vehicles and stations, and it installed air filters and other equipment to protect passengers and employees. The agency also paid two rounds of bonuses for frontline and unionized employees.

Though the pandemic is waning as people get vaccinated, MARTA ridership has not recovered. On Tuesday passenger trips on MARTA buses were down 45% from pre-pandemic levels, while train ridership was down 63%.

Nonetheless, MARTA believes ridership will improve. It’s counting on $60.3 million in passenger revenue in 2022. That’s up nearly 37% from $44.1 million this year, but still less than half the passenger revenue it received in 2019.

MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker praised employees for their performance during the pandemic.

“We pivoted our service to keep people safe, froze vacancies and executed as many projects as we could while people weren’t traveling,” Parker said. “As customers come back, they will find we’ve improved their ride.”

MARTA is counting on $113.4 million in federal pandemic aid to balance the new budget, or 20% of revenue. Sales tax ($263.3 million) is its biggest source of operating revenue, with regular federal transit funding ($73 million) and other revenue accounting for the rest.