When it comes to transit funding, the State of Georgia is missing in action

Posted in Maria’s Metro for the SaportaReport

Through all the chatter over what should be included on the Atlanta region’s transportation projects list, a loud vacuum can’t be ignored.
The vacuum? The State of Georgia.
Just what role, if any, will the State of Georgia play in contributing to metro Atlanta’s transit systems? And what role will the State of Georgia play in controlling the future of our region’s transit governance?
Consider this. The one-penny regional transportation sales that will go before voters next year will be raised (and invested) in the 10-county Atlanta region. If passed, this is money that metro Atlantans will contribute and invest in their own region’s future.
But exactly how much will the State of Georgia contribute to building and maintaining the Atlanta region’s transit systems — from MARTA, the Xpress buses, Cobb County Transit, Gwinnett transit, Clayton County’s buses to commuter rail between Atlanta and Griffin?
Unfortunately, the answer so far appears to be more of the status quo — virtually nothing.
The State of Georgia does not appear willing to step up to the plate to sustain and expand metro Atlanta’s transit infrastructure — despite the fact that the Atlanta region is the engine that drives the state’s economy.
For those who ask why should the state contribute to metro Atlanta transit systems, the answer is simple. Metro Atlanta contributes billions of dollars to the state’s coffers through the 4-cent sales tax and the 7.5-cent motor fuel tax.
The state has a vested interest in helping metro Atlanta thrive,  and that means having a healthy regional transit system.
Unfortunately, the agonizing process of developing a $6.1 billion list of transit and road projects has made it painfully obvious that there’s just not enough money to pay for metro Atlanta’s near-term transportation needs.
One key way to bridge the gap between metro Atlanta’s needs and ability to pay for them is for the State of Georgia to become a full partner in supporting the region’s transit systems.
But at the meeting of the executive committee of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable on Aug. 4 when it was prioritizing the possible transit projects, financial participation on the part of the state seemed doubtful at best.
Todd Long, director of planning for the Georgia Department of Transportation (who has been orchestrating much of the formulation of the project lists across the state), told Roundtable members not to expect any support from the state.
Here was the context. Members of the Roundtable had not included $180 million to provide funding to maintain the Xpress buses over the next 10 years as part of its top priorities.
Now remember, the Xpress buses are under the control of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority — a state entity that is completely governed by members appointed by the governor.
“As state planning director, you need to include the Xpress buses,” Long told the Roundtable members. “The state is not going to pick up the cost of Xpress. They will shut down Xpress. They don’t have the money in their budget to keep going.”
An interesting aside, Long — a DOT guy — was standing up for a GRTA expense, but was totally silent on whether money should be included to finance a commuter train between Atlanta and Griffin, as well as its sister project — a Multimodal Passenger Terminal in downtown Atlanta — a DOT project.
In fact, the overwhelming number of public comments at the end of the meeting was in support of the commuter rail project. And the Roundtable already had decided to include the commuter rail line as part of its second tier of transit projects.
Now consider a well-known fact. The largest transit agency in the state — MARTA — receives no regular operating support from the State of Georgia. In fact, MARTA is the largest transit agency in the country (the ninth largest) to receive no operating support from its state government.
As a result, MARTA (the backbone for all the region’s transit systems) has been operating on a starvation budget. It has had to cut back its rail and bus services, and it has had to approve a fare increase that will go into effect later this year.
To add insult to injury, the any money raised with regional transportation sales tax can not go towards supporting existing MARTA operations. Without a doubt, the most cost-effective use of transit dollars would go towards MARTA operations — to increase the frequency of its trains as well as its buses.
Now how egregious is this situation?
According to the most recent statistics (see Table 1-9) on the American Public Transportation Association website, the State of New York invests more than $3 billion a year in its transit systems — an average of $155 per person annually.
Massachusetts invests $1.2 billion in transit, or $181 per capita. California: $2.3 billion or $63 per person.  Pennsylvania: $1.1 billion or $91 per capita. New Jersey: $1 billion or $120 per capita. Maryland: $844 million or $149 per capita.
By comparison, Georgia invests $6 million a year in transit — 63 cents per person. Only three other states invest less per capita than Georgia — Idaho (20 cents); Montana (43 cents); and Wyoming (54 cents). Not one of those three states could be considered urban, transit-oriented places.
And then we hear from Long that the state will not even contribute to the state-run Xpress bus system. With that kind of stance, what are the chances that the state will support commuter rail or MARTA or any other transit agency in the state?
As an aside to our dear state leaders, let this serve as a warning. Regional transit governance is the next big issue on the horizon. If the state wants to take control of our regional transit systems (be it through GRTA or another state authority), it must be prepared to pay a proportional amount of funding to whatever power it will have.
Meanwhile, the vacuum must be filled.
The State of Georgia needs to become a full partner in metro Atlanta’s plans to develop and maintain a first-class regional transit system.

DeKalb businesses launch second improvement district

Atlanta Business Chronicle – by Dave Williams, Staff Writer
Date: Tuesday, June 21, 2011, 10:41am EDT – Last Modified: Tuesday, June 21, 2011, 11:24am EDT
Guardrail work along Mountain Industrial Boulevard

A second self-taxing community improvement district has sprung up in DeKalb County.
The new Stone Mountain CID was approved by the county commission last week and has elected its first board of directors.
The new CID’s members elected developer Emory Morsberger the district’s president, and Larry Callahan, CEO of Pattillo Industrial Real Estate, was chosen to serve as chairman.
Stone Mountain becomes the 14th CID in the metro region, all formed by commercial property owners who agree to pay a tax to finance improvements inside their districts.
The Stone Mountain CID is bordered roughly by Hugh Howell Road, East Ponce de Leon Avenue and Tucker Industrial Road. Other major roads running through the district include U.S. 78, also known as Stone Mountain Freeway, and Mountain Industrial Boulevard.
The new CID already has completed its first project, repairing and replacing guardrails along Mountain Industrial.
The county’s first CID, located in the portion of the Perimeter area inside DeKalb, has brought in more than $100 million in grants since its formation in 1989.

Northlake CID May Be Too Small to Energize

Tom Doolittle
“Northlake Station” blog editor, 8-year local writer, tennis coach
I’m not promoting a Northlake CID explicitly. Questions abound, but if we should have one, one aspect is worth discussing here: What size does it need to be to work – from recruitment to payoff.
The subject of a possible community improvement district (CID) came up at last week’s Northlake Overlay meeting (reported by Patch’s Ben Schnider, June 8). It has been assumed from the get-go that a CID if formed would be centered on Northlake Mall and would have essentially the same boundaries as the Overlay District. We appear hell-bent on affirming that the “Northlake” name must only be associated with the small area that converges on Lavista Road near the mall and I-285. That’s not a community, it’s a choke point.
A CID is an organization of commercial/institutional property owners that taxes each member to get things done collectively. No room for detail here, but if you’ve been to the area around Perimeter Mall, that’s a CID. The CID paid for the sidewalks, streetscape and lamps but also paid for feasibility studies, planning and reporting that keeps more work in the pipeline. You can multiply the amount of streetscape in Northlake by 20 and that’s just a start of what about 350 owners of high-end property can pay for. The Perimeter CID is up to about $5 million in collections per year, and it claims that every dollar can get matched 25:1 by local, state and federal government. The proof can be seen in the $50 million “fly-over” bridge that was just built over I-285. Do you see the painted highway guard rails near the manicured highway interchange at Ashford-Dunwoody? CID-paid. Need a powerful lobbyist for your area? A CID does that.
Perimeter CID is actually run as two CIDs – one DeKalb, one Fulton. However, their data is kept jointly. The district is about 40 percent larger than the Northlake Overlay (projected Northlake CID area). However, their property is worth at least 10 times that of the Northlake business area. My back-of-the-napkin calculations three years ago showed our overlay zone would generate about $750,000 a year contrasted with the Perimeter CID’s $4 million plus at the time.
Northlake’s lesser $0.75 million should beg reevaluation of our assumed CID area. The amount is enough to clean and secure the place and pay for some studies but a long way from what is needed to get help for roads and bridges. As envisioned, it’s not wrong; it can be the basis of a larger conversation. If you can call it Phase 1 of a more “complete” CID, the whole conversation changes. Of course, there are also many pros and cons to CIDs in general, so all stakeholders, businesses, residents and other partners could raise questions about CIDs in such a conversation too.
The Northlake Community Alliance website (www.nlake.org) says they are working with the fellow who started three CIDs in Gwinnett: Emory Morsberger. However, Morsberger told me he’s been dissuaded by a lack of interest from some major players, most notably Simon Properties. Simon has ignored the CID idea here since at least 2004 when the mall manager at the time peppered them with requests. That hurt because Simon did get involved in Buckhead’s and Town Center’s CIDs.
A developer and visionary, Morsberger is also the guy behind the Brain Train commuter rail plan (http://www.georgiabraintrain.com/) that would come through Northlake and Tucker (more on that another time). Morsberger understands how to shape and size CIDs. He formed them each on different concepts: one, a corridor along US-78; the next, Gwinnett Village (GVCID), which has business centers over a 15 square mile area; and lastly Gwinnett Place, a mall center like the Perimeter CID. In each case, he found a few leaders that paid for a full campaign to recruit the requisite members (51 percent of inventoried property owners). One, Vulcan Materials, a large quarry operation started GVCID. All of these have something which has power that can be overlooked in its influence – a specific jurisdiction that defines the community it serves.
See the GVCID map at: http://www.gwinnettvillage.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=248&Itemid=92
In my view, a CID of this type–or partially of this type–could be the answer to Northlake’s limited revenue base and lack of institutional leadership.
A Northlake CID could include both sides of the railway where only the mall side is included in the overlay – important because of the value of rail for growth. It could extend further south on Northlake Parkway and Montreal Road to Lawrenceville Highway and include the entire medical center and whatever revitalization will be stimulated by the expanded I-285 interchange. (Coincidentally, Georgia Power’s DeKalb economic development office is or was located in the industrial park across the tracks from the overlay boundary.)  The CID could potentially move toward Shallowford Road and merge with the proposed I-85 CID coming up from North Druid Hills Road, Clairmont and Buford Highway.
Conversely, Northlake’s business center(s) could be added (piggy-backed) to other envisioned CIDs, given the lack of commercial property interest in the overlay district. Above all, looking at CID boundaries afresh can surface new corporate and institutional leadership. New enthusiasm from a different business community may pay for property inventories and tax digest studies under the rubric of throwing out old assumptions.
One thing is for sure: By expanding the base, you’ll have to rely less on Simon Properties’ Northlake Mall for leadership. I think all forms of our local stakeholders would find progress faster if we didn’t focus so much attention on the mall and its owners.
Looks like we need another overlay meeting, DeKalb.

DeKalb County Schools seeks 1-penny tax increase

Atlanta Business Chronicle  – by Carla Caldwell, Morning Call Editor                       
Date: Friday, June 17, 2011, 6:06am EDT
The DeKalb County (Ga.) School Board will ask voters in that county to approve a five-year penny sales tax to cover a $475 million list of schools’ improvements and building, according to the Dunwoody Reporter. Voters go to the polls in November.
Projects the district hopes to tackle include replacing up to seven schools, the newspaper reported.
If approved, the new SPLOST would run from 2012 until 2017. Shoppers would pay the increase in Decatur, portions of DeKalb that fall within Atlanta, and throughout DeKalb County.
The school board approved a draft plan in May to keep the county’s school millage the same: $22.98 dollars on every $1,000 of value on DeKalb residences. The board is required to adopt a millage by July, the newspaper reported.