Manager's Forum

Atlanta, Ga.
Beverly A. Scott, Ph.D., General Manager/Chief Executive Officer
Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA)

The Atlanta region has been one of the fastest growing areas in the nation over the last decade with its population doubling over the last 20 years. Not surprisingly, this rapid growth has created significant traffic congestion and a strain on existing infrastructure in our region. While we’ve grown exponentially, investments in transportation planning and infrastructure have not kept pace.

Georgia ranks fourth-lowest in the country in infrastructure investment — two-thirds the national average. As a result, the region has experienced the largest increase in traffic congestion in the nation — a 76 percent increase in travel delay. Congestion is having a severe impact on the quality of life and economic development in the region and has challenged us to come together as a state and region to look for solutions.

Regional planning has become an important issue among the various transit agencies that serve the Metro Atlanta area. MARTA is the largest and most experienced transit agency providing combined rail, bus and paratransit service. In addition, there are a number of local bus services as well as one state-run commuter service. As congestion has grown, it has become abundantly clear that we need to take a more comprehensive and integrated approach to transit service throughout our region.

Through the regional Transit Planning Board, state and local elected officials and representatives from the various transportation agencies are currently working together to develop a regional transit plan as well as options for funding and governing a comprehensive, regional system in the future.

In addition, the Georgia legislature is looking at new ways to fund transportation programs throughout the state. A legislative study committee recently released a report advocating for new sources of transportation funding, new approaches to building projects and an increased focus by state government to ensure that we are meeting Georgia’s transportation needs. This is a huge step in the right direction!

In order to have a world-class city and state, we need a world-class transportation system that is built on a vision that is bold, comprehensive and well-balanced. State and local leaders from throughout Georgia are clearly committed to this effort and work is underway. As we work together and support our leaders as they make the tough decisions, I truly believe we will find solutions needed to break the gridlock and keep our region strong.

Madison, Wis.
Chuck Kamp
General Manager
Metro Transit

In 2007, Metro Transit in Madison, Wis., recorded its second highest ridership count in more than 35 years and is on pace to break its all-time ridership number in the next couple of years.

With successful unlimited ride pass programs in place, an increasing number of contracting partners in neighboring communities and a riding public reacting to the sting of high gas prices, ridership has increased by more than 25.9 percent since 2000. Paratransit ridership has increased by 12.1 percent in that same time period.

Coinciding with this success, Metro has also found itself hit with the rise of fuel costs as well as a decrease in state operational funding. In 2008, Metro will receive about 34 percent of its operating expenses funded by the state compared to 42 percent about 10 years ago. As a result, the city of Madison’s share of transit funding increased 35 percent between 2003 and 2007, more than any other increase for other city departments.

With Wisconsin transit systems being typically property-tax funded, Metro Transit is an example of the shortfall of this revenue source. It is no longer able to support the community investments needed to sustain the growing popularity of mass transit now and into the future.

In 2006, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz appointed a long-range planning committee to explore ways to sustain the growth and success of Metro’s transit system in ways other than fare increases, service cuts and increases in property-tax support.

One of the top preliminary recommendations by this long-range committee is the formation of a regional transit authority (RTA).

At this time, Wisconsin is the only state in the Midwest that does not yet allow for the formation of a RTA. Local officials have begun work with the governor and state legislature to approve RTA authorizing legislation.

Ideal authorization legislation would recognize the benefits of planning, funding and operating regional public transportation systems that provide improved access to residents to get to jobs, school and other essential destinations.

Intended outcomes of the creation of a RTA in Wisconsin are to provide more stable local funding, more regional service coordination and a regional governance structure.

Discussion has started in the state legislature on the details surrounding Wisconsin regional transit authorities in the 60 plus communities that currently provide public transportation in the state.

Some of the main issues being examined are whether the proposed RTA should be county-wide or multiple municipality-based, a required or optional referendum to the public for authorization, level of sales tax needed to fund the RTA and the possible inclusion of transportation modes other than buses and paratransit.

A recent Madison college survey of area voters has shown a favorable public response to the RTA idea with the proposed taxing authority. A recent newspaper editorial has also pointed to this survey stating that despite community discussion on the specifics of RTA implementation, the community does find agreement on the general issue. The need in Wisconsin does exist to research and develop transportation alternatives such as provided by a regional transit authority to support and continue the successful growth of the community.

Hampton, Va.
Michael Townes
President/Chief Executive Officer
Hampton Roads Transit (HRT)

Hampton Roads, located in southeastern Virginia, is home to 1.6 million people and comprised of seven cities including Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Virginia Beach, each with different governing bodies. Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) is the region’s sole provider of public transportation with nearly 19 million passenger trips taken per year. With more than 45 fixed routes and 300 buses, HRT provides neighborhood, commuter express and shuttle services. Additionally, HRT will launch Virginia’s first light rail system, known as The Tide, in Norfolk in 2010. In order to sustain these services and plan for expansion and maintenance, a steady and predictable source of revenue is necessary.

Like many transit agencies, HRT is funded by a combination of local, state, federal and passenger revenue. On the local level, the seven municipalities that make up Hampton Roads fund 30 percent of HRT’s operations through city general funds derived mainly from property taxes. In turn, HRT contracts with each city in the service area separately, and each municipality determines how much service is to be provided in their area. What does this mean for our customers? It means limited service and only for those who need it most. Reliance on subsidies from seven local governments leaves HRT vulnerable to the erratic political and economic climate in each jurisdiction. This makes it difficult for us to create truly regional connections because one city’s wants may not necessarily meet those of its neighbor. Further, reliance on this source of local funds does not allow HRT to plan for long-term projects and forces us to compete year-to-year with education, public safety and other important municipal needs. More importantly, HRT is vulnerable to service cuts or reductions, which especially hurts those who are dependent on public transportation. While HRT has had to maximize its resources to provide services to its customers, the biggest threat to public transportation in Hampton Roads is the sustainability of local operating funds.

This fiscal situation presents HRT with its biggest legislative challenge — how to generate a stable local funding source. For years the Transportation District Commission of Hampton Roads, HRT’s board, has included the desire for a dedicated funding source as a top item on its legislative agenda.

Statewide, however, it has proven difficult to convince the entire regional delegation that transit requires investment in an environment of fiscally conservative constituencies who question the value of public transportation. Further, some believe that increasing the tax burden should only stand to benefit the building and maintaining of roads, pitting mode against mode. HRT continues to make the case that a dedicated funding source that provides a stable source of operating funds would create a system that operates at much higher frequency and service level and become a truly viable method of transportation, and inducing usage by those who typically use cars as a primary method of transportation.

Since 1996, legislators in Hampton Roads have tried to tackle the issue of dedicated funding. There have been several efforts in the Virginia General Assembly to provide such a funding source. House Bill No. 1364 allocated a 2 percent sales tax on fuel region-wide that would help fund public transportation in Hampton Roads. This bill, as well future efforts, failed. Had these measures passed, the source of funds would have provided a more stable, admittedly not totally stable, revenue stream for transit operations.

Locally, it has proven difficult to convince each municipality that it is in the best interest of city governments for HRT to be funded by a source other than property taxes. The current funding structure provides an element of control that officials are not willing to give away easily.

Having dedicated funding would enable HRT to reach all citizens throughout Hampton Roads by providing reliable services where they are needed most or are in highest demand rather than where municipalities are willing to pay for them. While HRT has worked with its elected officials both on a local and state level in past successful bids for dedicated funding, it remains our biggest legislative challenge. We hope that future efforts will prove successful.

Louisville, Ky.
J. Barry Barker
Executive Director
Transit Authority of River City (TARC)

The most significant legislative challenge for public transportation is getting recognized as a high priority and communicating to legislators their role in supporting it. Legislators must understand that public transportation has a role in improving social services, economic development, the environment and general mobility, and that every city or state’s quality of life depends on a robust transportation system. Whether at the local, state or federal level, legislators have a responsibility and a role in improving mobility options.

Another challenge, particularly for mid-sized and small cities, is the mindset that transit exists for low-income people who don’t have cars. Those of us in the industry know that an effective transit system attracts a diverse group of commuters and that “choice” riders are an important part of our customer base. People ride to help the environment, save on gas and car maintenance, and to avoid traffic congestion. It is sometimes difficult to get the attention of legislators to explain the array of benefits that flow from a well-designed and well-financed transit system.

State and local budgets are shrinking in virtually all states and cities, and transportation funding is one of the inevitable victims. Like other cities and states, the Transit Authority of River City (TARC) has to compete with other agencies and other transportation needs for limited funding. This occasionally pits our agency against some of our closest allies and best partners. This potential conflict may occasionally require some delicacy in making a request for funding. For instance, in Kentucky federal money passes through the state for smaller transit systems but is allocated directly to the large, urban systems. This means that state officials are generally more attuned to the grant matching requirements for rural and smaller systems and so are quicker to lobby for those funds to be included in state budgets. Because TARC, like other urban systems, receives funding directly, the assumption often is that we will also cover the match locally. The difficulty becomes garnering support for the larger, urban systems without reducing support for the smaller ones.

Like all states, Kentucky has Constitutional limitations on how transportation funds can be generated and allocated. It is commonly held that it is unconstitutional for gas tax funds to be used for public transportation. It is also prohibited for a local jurisdiction to levy a sales tax. These strictures may be addressed in the current legislative session with the proposal to create a local authority that can use tolls and other pricing techniques to pay for local transportation projects.

Finally, a particular challenge in Kentucky is the gulf between urban and rural legislators. Kentucky is fundamentally a rural state and many legislators are unfamiliar with transit. They believe it’s an urban issue when in fact there is federal public transportation funding going to all 120 Kentucky counties. Too often, they don’t realize that the vans running around their districts are public transportation geared to the needs of their constituents, just as 40-foot buses are in larger communities.

More Related Information:
Archived Article: Manager’s Forum — Local Politics
Transportation Video Network: The Benefits of Transit to Businesses