Thursday, December 18, 2008

Legislators: Quit making excuses

A few days ago MARTA officials pitched state legislators for funds. MARTA is facing a $60 million budget shortfall, and is contemplating "draconian" fare hikes and service cuts. What do state legislators have to say?

When MARTA first announced that they were seeking state funds, Rep. Jill Chambers said:
“I think what they’re asking for is the best short-term answer for them,” said Chambers, “but it doesn’t address the years and years of ignoring transit infrastructure [by the MARTA board].”

Chambers long has criticized the board for being “more interested in real estate development than in laying track and getting people where they want to go.”
Chambers also wants MARTA to get folded into GRTA. After the meeting Tuesday, Sen. John Wiles said:
“I appreciate that MARTA is feeling the pinch of the economy, but until they prove that taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely, I won’t support a change in funding,” said state Sen. John Wiles (R-Marietta), vice chairman of the committee, in a statement issued after the meeting. “Funds should be invested in capital rather than operating costs.”
Frankly, both of these statements sound like a bunch of worn out bogeymen. MARTA has cut services, raised fares, elimiminated staff positions, and the head of MARTA is so well respected that she was elected to chair the American Public Transportation Association. Ridership is up to near record levels.  

It simply isn't fair to keep blaming MARTA when they have taken significant steps to improve management and operations.  State legislators have said "we'll listen when you shape things up," for years.  MARTA has done a lot, and now legislators are saying the same thing.  Chamber and Wiles are just making excuses when they have an opportunity to lead.  

On to the fisking:

First, Rep. Chambers complains about past decisions. There are plenty of past mistakes to complain about, but it ignores the many recent changes I mentioned above.  She is rehashing old demands. It is really just political red meat for suburbanites.

Then, she says they are more interested in real estate development. I guess that is a dig at the TOD stuff at Lindbergh station, which should really be lauded as an example of kind of public/private initiatives that will increase use of public transportation and is generally a model for how Atlanta needs to direct housing.  TOD initiatives and transit operations should not be mutally exclusive, and we shouldn't criticize MARTA for pursuing both.  

Finally, she says MARTA hasn't been laying enough track. I would love it if we had more miles of MARTA rail, but I think the economic and political forces in the metro region have made that a pipe dream. Rep. Chambers, MARTA would love to lay track in Gwinnett County - would you like to help make that happen? Saying MARTA hasn't laid enough miles of track is a pretty lame excuse to let it basically wither away now without state funding.

Sen. John Wiles thinks funds should be invested in capital instead of operating expenses. Why, exactly? Improving service and operations is how you generate more ridership and revenue.  MARTA is a mature system that needs to be focusing on solid customer service and increasing its ridership - things that state legislators have been harping on for years.  Maybe there is a good case for using funds for capital expenses, but Wiles doens't make it and right now the more reasonable case can be made for using it for operation expenses.

Oh, and he isn't convinced MARTA can manage its funds well. Nevermind the list of changes I mentioned above. I'm sure that there is a lot more that MARTA can do to improve management and operation, and I'm not going to defend them carte blanche. However, I feel safe saying that they have stepped up to the plate the last few years.  Statements like these (and Rep. Chambers' statements) are dog whistles.  

It is time for the legislature to stop making excuses. Stop using the same old bogeymen of the past and actually try and accomplish something. I know the do-nothing governor hasn't set a great example, but now is your chance to do something that will positivly impact the state for once.

Also, a big hat tip to Decatur Metro for getting me going on this post.  It was something I had intended to write about, but kept putting off.  

2 comments:

  1. Actually, real estate development focused around transit nodes is EXACTLY what we need to make MARTA more efficient. Check out this great study Alain Bertaud, a world-renowned expert of the spatial structures of cities. Simply laying more track will never work. Check out the comparison to Barcelona.

    "Clearing the Air in Atlanta"

    http://alain-bertaud.com/

    Section E, number 1

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  2. Here, here!!!! I would actually love to see MARTA expand within the city, rather than into Gwinnett. I'd prefer to leave those duties to commuter rail (at least until Gwinnettians decide they want MARTA). I realize this would be Mega-expensive, but in my opinion, the right move.

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