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Georgia’s pitiful support for transit worsens local funding feuds

A new Streetsblog USA post looks at the troubling system for funding transit in Metro Atlanta: “Atlanta’s Transit Flaws Are State’s Fault.” With the state providing only a small amount of money for public transportation, county and city leaders have to work hard, separately, to get tax revenue for projects in their districts.

Want to spend millions of dollars on Lexus Lanes for a highway in Cobb County? No problem. The State of Georgia will pick up the tab. No vote needed. 

Want to expand MARTA? Tough luck. Counties have to pay for that on their own – and get a majority of voters to approve it. 

A study from 2017 shows that Georgia spends roughly $14 million per year on public transit, with most of the money going to Xpress bus service in metro Atlanta. That’s a pitiful amount of money compared to other states.

Comparison of Georgia transit spending to other states. It's really low.
(Image source: AJC)

Georgia ranks 37th in transit spending per capita and 45th in spending per transit trip. Even neighboring sunbelt states like Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina rank much higher than Georgia on those counts. 

It’s no wonder that arguments about transit spending can be so volatile in Atlanta and throughout the region. The stakes are high, but the state funding is low.

 The More MARTA funds from a City of Atlanta sales tax will generate $2.5 billion in revenue over 40 years. That sounds like a high number, but it’s low compared to the $6.3 billion in capital and $4 billion in operations and maintenance tallied in the list of transit projects on the wish list. 

The amount of federal support Atlanta might get for those projects is a complete unknown. But we can make a fair guess that state support will add up to $0. That leaves us squabbling with each other locally as we try to get favored transit projects prioritized for tax-revenue spending. 

Anyone who follows the debate over how much money should go towards the full build-out of rail on the Atlanta BeltLine knows that the argument can be very heated and divisive, making enemies out of transit supporters who could be working together.

Is it possible for Georgia to ever change its tune on state transit funding? How do we fix this? 

Georgia uses statewide taxes to pay for a luxurious amount of highway infrastructure, including billions of dollars for a single “improvement” of a stretch of I-285. Meanwhile, cities and counties fight for scraps of revenue to provide transit. It’s a perverse system that hurts us in multiple ways.