Associated Press Writer
ATLANTA — After a debate that exposed partisan and racial divisions, the Georgia House of Representatives approved major changes to how metro Atlanta’s public transit system is governed and operated.
If House Bill 264 becomes law, MARTA would have to privatize many services, from payroll and human resources to technical support. The MARTA governing board would shrink from 18 members to 11, giving more influence to areas outside the city of Atlanta. The measure would also set lower debt limits on the transit system and it would bar new MARTA hires from pension eligibility.
The specific changes have various effective dates over the next several years, though the board reshuffling and pension restrictions would begin Jan. 1, 2014.
The Republican-backed bill passed on a largely party line vote, and, as has been the case through several decades of MARTA debates, floor discussion pitted black Democrats opposite most of their white colleagues from outside of Atlanta.
With the 113-57 vote, Rep. Mike Jacobs’ proposal moves on to the Senate.
The chamber also approved a separate bill that would give MARTA more flexibility on how it spends revenue from a penny sales tax imposed in Fulton and DeKalb counties. Current law requires that half of the money go to capital improvements, and MARTA executives have long argued that they need more flexibility to direct the revenue to operating costs.
That bill passed 156-14 and also heads to the upper chamber.
Jacobs, a Brookhaven Republican, sponsored the measures on the heels of a hard-hitting outside performance assessment of a transportation system long beset by financial difficulty and management instability. Jacobs said KPMG, the firm that MARTA hired for the analyses, noted that many public transit systems around the country follow the model called for in his bills. Jacobs said the report supports his contention that privatization could save MARTA about $50 million annually out of a total operating budget that exceeds $434 million.
“Yes, we need a comprehensive transit system,” Jacobs said, “but we will never get there if MARTA’s business practices aren’t changed.”
Without explicitly mentioning race, some black lawmakers asked Jacobs, who is white, whether he considered MARTA’s history in his approach. They argued the system has suffered from a lack of financial and political support from the suburbs, which historically have been overwhelmingly white.
Rep. Al Williams (D-Midway) said the state has been “an absentee father” to a system that white politicians thought “was from the wrong side of the tracks.” Now, he continued, “Here comes Daddy again ‘cause it looks he might make some money” off professional services contracts.
The sponsor also dismissed concerns from pro-union Democrats who warned that the privatization mandate and other provisions could threaten federal support for MARTA. Federal transportation law sets certain labor requirements for transit systems that get federal taxpayer money. Jacobs said his measure does not flout federal labor protections.
Rep. Ed Lindsey, a Republican who represents a majority white district in Atlanta, rejected the idea that it’s simply a matter of race. Smiling, he chided Williams, who hails from rural Liberty County and said he’d ridden MARTA “four times this session.”
“I’ve ridden a lot more than four times,” Lindsey said, waving his MARTA Breeze card at the House podium. He said his north Atlanta district “has more MARTA train stops than any other House district.”
The potential savings of privatization, Lindsey said, amount to “a lot of train service ... a lot of bus service.” He also noted that the residents from around Georgia pay sales tax when they work or travel in DeKalb and Fulton. “Lots of them have helped fund MARTA,” he said.