“And I can close my eyes and it doesn’t matter which agency you’re at. And it’s relative. If you have $12 million you needed $15 million. If you have $25 million you needed $50 million. I haven’t worked any place where being flush was the condition since I started out at Houston Metro 30 years ago, and Houston doesn’t have that condition today.”
MARTA’s current funding issue isn’t just making sure it has enough money to spend, it’s being able to decide how to spend it. The system has a legislative mandate to spend half its money on capital expenditures and half on operating costs. The system has managed to get dispensation from the legislatures to modify this 50/50 split in the past, but only for limited durations. This hard split of funds leaves the system with conundrums like being able to purchase more buses, but not being able to run them. Scott says this split also has the potential to be the seed for even more problems.
“What it does more insidiously is that it really winds up causing you to not be as good in terms of your regular business practices as you should be,” Scott says.
“Because when you wind up having that kind of forced stranglehold in terms of the split on your funding, it causes people to become more creative in terms of how they can wind up doing the things that they need to do using capital dollars,” Scott says, leading people to not consider what the long-term operating costs of a capital investment may be.
One particularly irksome issue for MARTA is the fact that while the state legislature is mandating how it controls the funds it has, Georgia doesn’t provide any funds itself for MARTA. It’s only one of nine states in the country that doesn’t provide any dedicated transit funding.
“When you look at the states surrounding [Georgia], I mean it’s like you try to find any rationale why Georgia is doing this. You know you say to yourself well you know it’s those Northeastern cities. I mean if you look at places like North Carolina and Florida, the ones that are right in our bailiwick in terms of what they’re doing and how they are beginning to really support mass transit,” Scott says.
“I very much believe we are the epicenter of the Southeast, but candidly, if we don’t quickly get about the business of really recognizing how behind we are in terms of public infrastructure, and particularly transportation infrastructure, and take some very serious steps to in fact wind up reversing what has just been a terrible trend, we’re going to find we are going to be left behind.”
Transit is kind of like Chinese food. No matter how much you get, eventually you’ll get hungry for more. If an area has a good bus system, people will start talking about bus rapid transit (BRT) or rail. And if you have bus and rail, the whispers of streetcars are starting to pop up in some places. Scott knows that while MARTA has both excellent bus and rail systems, it’s not a complete system.
“See I tell people I am not at all a modal elitist. I don’t think you have to have it all.”
What is a complete system? Is it a system that incorporates bus and rail? But what kind of rail is being used? There is a myriad of choices on the rail side alone — heavy, commuter, light, streetcar. And buses are expanding in variety every year.
“The other pieces that are critical, and this is part of working with our partners, are things that we do not control,” Scott says.
“When I talk about we need to make sure we get the product mix right but then the key to it is we also have to with our jurisdictions, work with things like having complete streets.”
Scott says that a key element many agencies miss is good pedestrian connectivity between the different modes the system offers. As she puts it, nobody wants to have to stand up in some mud on the side of a road while waiting for a bus.
“I tell people all the time, everyone coming to use us is first and foremost a pedestrian, and they have to use sidewalks and they have to use streets.
“It could be more valuable, to tell you the honest-to-God’s truth, for a community to wind up putting an investment in some pedestrian amenities and sidewalks in the first instance than it would in terms of putting a major investment in public transit to run down streets that don’t have those kinds of amenities there.”