Some transit advocates are complaining that the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transportation Authority (MARTA) spends too much of its funding operating bus services. ‘Transit advocates upset with too much spending on transit’ might sound like an Onion headline but as reporter David Wickert detailed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, some of the region’s transit advocates worry that MARTA is spending so much money on bus operations that the agency will not be able to build new rail on the BeltLine, an industrial corridor encircling Downtown and Midtown Atlanta.
These types of arguments over whether to spend transit’s limited resources on operations or new capital projects occur all over the country so the underlying issues are relevant not just to Georgia but to the nation.
Understanding the current tension in Georgia requires a brief history of transit funding in Atlanta. When MARTA was created in the late 1970s, the Georgia General Assembly mandated the agency spend 50% of its funds on capital projects and 50% of its funds on operations. At that time, MARTA had two heavy rail lines to build plus a spur line. Fast forward 35 years, the rail system was built out—at least in jurisdictions that wanted rail service. During the Great Recession of 2007-2009, sales tax revenues declined, as is typically the case during recessions, and MARTA did not have enough money to operate its systems. Thus, the General Assembly relaxed the 50/50 capital/operations requirement, allowing a larger percentage of the funding to go to day-to-day operations.
One of the benefits of relaxing the requirement was that MARTA was able to operate more bus service. Former MARTA Chief Executive Officer Keith Parker made increasing the frequency of bus service, improving vehicle cleanliness, and increasing reliability hallmarks of his tenure.
Parker’s changes helped transit-dependent customers—people who rely on transit to reach jobs—the most. These customers take more transit trips per capita than transit-choice customers, who have access to an automobile and choose to ride transit. Parker believed that, from a policy perspective, these transit-dependent riders were MARTA’s core customers, which is why he focused on bus operations.
Just as MARTA was maximizing its bus operations, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Overnight, transit ridership plummeted. Between May 2019 and 2022, the region’s bus ridership decreased by 30% to 50% and rail ridership dropped by 50% to 80%.
To mitigate revenue losses from fewer riders during the pandemic, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act signed by then-President Donald Trump, and the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act of 2021 signed by President Joe Biden. Together, the three federal bills provided $69.5 billion to transit agencies across the United States.
But the federal stimulus funding is slated to run out next year and transit ridership hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels in most areas. Currently, rider revenue covers only 20% of MARTA’s operating costs, about half of its pre-pandemic percentage.
Today, transit-dependent riders are now a greater share of MARTA’s total ridership. A transit agency conducting a rational analysis of its customers and what its short-to-medium-term future looks like would shift resources to make sure it can serve those transit-dependent bus riders rather than building rail lines. But MARTA has been criticized by some transit advocates for taking such an approach.
Part of the criticism stems from MARTA’s plans. In 2016, Atlanta voters approved an additional half-penny sales tax, bringing the total sales tax dedicated to transit to 1.5 cents for every dollar. After voters approved the tax, in 2017, MARTA approved a plan to use the expected $2.7 billion in proceeds for 29 miles of light rail, 13 miles of bus rapid transit, new bus routes, and enhanced existing bus routes. Since 2017, MARTA has spent more than half of the new sales tax revenue on bus and paratransit services, including capital costs. The agency has set aside $134 million for capital expansion, but that’s not enough for some. For example, Matthew Rao, an architect who owns property near the BeltLine, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution rail construction should be prioritized over day-to-day bus operations:
Matthew Rao, an advocate for transit on the Atlanta Beltline, said spending so much on bus operations undermines the will of voters who believed they were supporting new transit lines.
“MARTA has misspent money on operations that was intended to fund capital projects,” Rao said.
MARTA officials say their expansion plans are still moving forward. But they say rising construction costs — not the bus spending — may force the agency to revisit those plans…
But MARTA appears to be backing away from the light-rail lines it announced in 2018. In February it said it will pursue cheaper bus rapid transit instead of rail on Campbellton Road. In April it said it may pursue bus rapid transit on the Clifton Corridor. And MARTA’s capital programs chief recently said light rail on the Atlanta Beltline may be too expensive to compete for federal funding.
News of the bus spending only increases Rao’s suspicion that MARTA never intended to build light rail on the Beltline.
“This makes everything so much worse that we thought,” he said. “We have to recoup that money.”
A lot has changed over the past five years. Today, inflation is soaring and construction costs are way up. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated transit ridership and may have fundamentally altered its future. MARTA’s transportation planners correctly realize that operating a transit system in 2022 is not the same as in 2017 and they have rightly adjusted their plans accordingly.
For the record, MARTA has always questioned rail on the BeltLine. In 2005, a five-person expert panel made up of the president of the American Public Transit Association, three Georgia Tech transportation professors, and the leader of one of the country’s largest transportation consulting companies raised major red flags about the rail project’s feasibility, lack of ridership projections and revenue. The report said:
As was noted to the Panel by several speakers, the amount of revenue generated from the TAD is expected to cover only about half of what will be needed (and depending on the design and technology involved, this could be an underestimate). It is highly likely that additional sources of funding will be necessary to cover the costs associated with capital investment. Also, very little information (and in some sense interest) was available on the expected operating and maintenance costs…
The Panel is surprised at the paucity of credible information relating to expected ridership of the BeltLine alternative. Of all the information generated in support of the BeltLine concept, ridership appears to be the least studied or understood. This is perplexing because much work less central to transit viability has been done on the concept.
And, as I detailed 11 years ago, one major reason MARTA agreed to build rail transit on the BeltLine was the public pressure brought on by the Sierra Club rallying its activists to pack public meetings and loudly demand rail, not buses.
In Atlanta and beyond, some transit advocates need to rethink their priorities. Transit’s core function is to provide mobility to low-income residents and workers who do not have access to automobiles. Building costly rail lines in hope of getting financially-secure residents to give up their cars isn’t a good use of taxpayers’ transportation funding and is a disservice to those who need quality, reliable transit.