Who Will Save MARTA?

Has anyone else been following this MARTA $60 million budget deficit story?

Over the past week or so, we’ve gotten a nice, healthy taste of the impending crisis for MARTA, thanks to its heavy reliance on the 1 cent sales tax (it accounts for 52% of revenue).  As people buy less, MARTA receives less tax money.  This isn’t an uncommon way of funding public transit – this document I discovered thru Terminal Station shows that a 1 cent sales tax is the majority funding mechanism for most city’s around the country.

But what to do when the market collapses? (We could ask this same question about 401k dominated retirement plans!)

Who foots the bill for public transit when stops growing?  In ultra-dense areas, like NYC, where public transit is widely supported, legislators are thinking about implementing a payroll tax.  But that would never fly in Atlanta/GA.  So who will save public transit in car-smooching cities like Atlanta, which provide questionable support for transit even in boom times?

At a Tuesday meeting of MARTA minds, general manager Beverly Scott announced that it would do whatever it could to reduce costs, including a hiring and salary increase freeze,  freeing up some funding tagged for construction only, and reversing a prohibition on eating, which could invite food vendors (and their fees) into the stations.  But that won’t do much to ease the pinch.  Without some sort of outside help, MARTA predicts a “draconian” reduction in service and a huge ticket price increase in the coming year.

So, who will come to MARTA’s aid?  The state?  Yeah right.  The feds?  Maybe.  But every other transit org in the U.S. will be clamoring for the same help…so MARTA will be just one beggar among the masses.

So how big is the nation’s purse when it comes to its commitment to public transit?  Are the struggles of the U.S. auto industry a sign that we’ve moved beyond the automobile era and have turned a corner into a century where the auto lobby doesn’t rule supreme on Capitol Hill?  Or is this just a hiccup for the auto industry?

Once we get the answer to “Who Will Save MARTA?” we should have a much clearer idea.