For metro Atlanta commuters who manage the patchwork between county bus systems, MARTA and Xpress, a barely noticed revolution is tiptoeing through the state Capitol.
For the first time in memory, a Georgia governor has proposed — quietly — that the state budget take on the operations of a mass transit system as its regular obligation.
So far, key legislators indicate Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal, $8.1 million for Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s Xpress commuter buses, has a serious shot.
Support would be a 180-degree turn for Georgia.
If approved, the immediate result would be that Xpress commuter bus service keeps running for its 9,000 or so daily riders, instead of going broke and shutting down this summer.
It would also break one of the historic barriers to continual, robust regionwide transit here: the lack of any entity prepared to fund it.
To be sure, other barriers remain, and may be fatal. But the Xpress allocation raises tantalizing questions: for other Georgia transit systems, including MARTA, which yearn for a piece of state funding too, and for the future of Atlanta’s balkanized transit systems, which many leaders believe are holding back the region’s progress.
“The state should take an active role,” said Mark Fite, 47, an engineer and Xpress patron who lives in Snellville — like most Xpress passengers, taking a long-haul ride from home in the suburbs to work in Atlanta. Fite said he believes the state should help fund all the area’s mass transit systems, and stop the patchwork’s inefficiencies. “I think it should be a regional solution.”
Melding county and city transportation systems is slow going, even though commutes don’t end at government borders.
For mass transit, the patchwork local mentality has been entrenched. Even if the state sticks to funding Xpress alone, it’s still a big change.
When The Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke the news in 2010 that state funds had begun filling gaps in Xpress operations, even the governor’s spokesman’s first reaction was that that could not be correct.
Highway repaving, certainly. Some bus hardware here and there, OK. But not the daily costs of fuel in the tank and drivers’ salaries.
That, the mantra went, was “local.” The state has long put money toward 127 small transit systems, but for capital costs, not operations.
Now, for the first time, money to operate Xpress is in the main annual state budget proposal, instead of temporary stopgap measures.
In recent interviews with the AJC, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Senate President David Shafer, House Speaker David Ralston, House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones, the chairmen of the Senate and House appropriations committees and transportation committees did not shoot down the idea of state funding for operations. Some were openly supportive.
The $8 million would get GRTA nearly to the end of the next fiscal year. It would come back and ask for another $4 million, officials said, for a total $12 million annual subsidy.
All the region’s public transit systems have traditionally run on some combination of fare receipts, local taxes and federal grants: Xpress, MARTA, Gwinnett County Transit, Cobb Community Transit, and smaller dial-up van services. Of them, only Xpress is managed by state government.
In the multicounty Atlanta area, GRTA has a huge advantage: Unlike other transit systems, it can cross county borders without much red tape or controversy.
But its federal and county startup money ran out. For four years, the state filled the funding gaps, but temporarily. When last summer’s transportation funding referendum failed, Xpress was out of options.
“A lot of folks in the state have come to rely on that,” said House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, citing Xpress’ benefits in taking cars off the road. “It’s probably OK as far as staying in the budget.”
Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill lives 200 miles from Atlanta, but said he wouldn’t mind state tax dollars running Xpress.
“Atlanta is the economic engine of the state, and you know we don’t need to make decisions that clearly impede its progress,” Hill said.
Singling out Xpress
Does that mean the door is open to funding other agencies? “Not necessarily,” said Toby Carr, the state’s transportation planning director, who reports to Deal.
“The GRTA Xpress is a state project,” Deal spokesman Brian Robinson explained in an email. “The Cobb and Gwinnett buses are local initiatives. MARTA has a dedicated funding source,” a 1 percent sales tax levied in Fulton and DeKalb counties just to fund MARTA.
All the same, considering funding for Xpress opened a Pandora’s box of controversy among transit agencies.
Butch McDuffie, director of Athens-Clarke County’s transit system, said funding Xpress was “awesome.” However, he said, “if you’re going to help out one urban transit system, you should help out the rest.”
Many of the Xpress lines rely on MARTA to provide stopping places and buses and trains to complete their passengers’ trips. Perhaps 10 percent of MARTA’s 123,000 daily riders are from suburban counties, according to regional figures.
MARTA has yearned for years for state funding in the face of fare hikes and service cutbacks. MARTA Chairman Fred Daniels at first declined to comment on the Xpress allocation. Later, he said that it was only helpful.
“It’s a positive sign really that the state is actually realizing the value of public transportation,” Daniels said. Emphasizing MARTA’s impending business overhaul, he said, “Once we achieve what I think will be fiscal sustainability in the next few years, we’ll stand ready for the state of Georgia to become a financial partner with MARTA as well.”
It’s hard to say whether that will be enough to break through Capitol attitudes.
“People do have opinions about MARTA,” said Hill, the Senate Appropriations chairman. “Who’s to say whether MARTA will ever be expanded to where it really needs to go, as long as it’s owned by the city of Atlanta,” Fulton and DeKalb.
That is the kind of talk that drives some MARTA advocates crazy.
Efforts to establish a regional transit agency have stalled again and again over who will control it and who will pay for it.
“The question would be how much of this subsidy is going to go to MARTA for providing a destination for the GRTA buses,” said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. “And the answer is, none.”
Why fund transit
Some, like Herring, suspect the Xpress money really denotes political pragmatism from a Republican governor.
Ridership surveys don’t show passengers’ political parties, but they show different demographics.
Xpress riders are more affluent than all the other metro Atlanta transit services’. Xpress passengers’ average household income is a bit under $75,000 a year, more than double Cobb and MARTA passengers’.
All four services, including Xpress, serve a majority African-American ridership.
Almost all Xpress passengers are “choice” riders: More than 98 percent have access to a car. For the other services, between a quarter and half of passengers have no access to a car.
Fite, the engineer, has access to three cars. He takes Xpress because “I love it. I don’t have to worry about the traffic. I can sleep or read; it’s very comfortable.”
In contrast, Latasha Johnson, 30, takes MARTA to her job as a cashier at Morehouse College every day because she has no other option. But like Fite, she believes the state should fund Xpress, as well as other agencies. “They should be merged,” she said. “As long as we’re going one way” — trying to take one trip — “it’s all the same.”
Deal and his spokesman say the issue is Xpress’ effectiveness against congestion.
“It maintains a high ridership and therefore keeps significant numbers of cars off the road,” Robinson said.
Doug Hooker, director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, said it wasn’t fair to expect a governor to make the leap to comprehensive transit funding.
“We’ll just have to take it for what it is right now and see how the future goes,” he said, “but we’re certainly encouraged.”
9,000: daily passengers
12: counties containing Xpress park and ride lots
5 million: gallons of gas saved per year by drivers off the road
$24 million: annual budget
$7 million: fare receipts
$5 million: ongoing federal funding
Source: Georgia Regional Transportation Authority