ATLANTA — UPDATE: Councilman Antonio Lewis, who spoke about this issue at the City Council meeting earlier this week, talked with 11Alive on Friday about his concerns and expectations ahead of a Transportation Committee meeting next Wednesday at which MARTA representatives will attend and address this issue.
You can watch his comments in the video player above this story.
Original story below
Last weekend in a public social media post, a recently-dismissed MARTA executive who'd been the agency's No. 2 in command made a startling claim - that the agency is more than $1 billion short to fund Atlanta projects with revenue from a sales tax increase approved by voters several years ago.
Beginning the post by announcing he had been fired from his position in early January without cause, the former deputy general manager at MARTA, Josh Rowan, later in the post laid out his claim about the agency's budget problems. Those also included an alleged shortfall of $160 million for Clayton County projects.
"To the Capital Projects Expansion and Innovation (CPEI) team, it was a pleasure to serve all of you, and I was looking forward to the complex projects we would construct together. You have a monumental task ahead of you to re-baseline the capital programs, considering a month ago, a third-party financial capacity analysis draft report projected a revenue shortfall in excess of $1 Billion for More Marta Atlanta and a revenue shortfall in excess of $160 Million for Clayton County," Rowan wrote. "It will be a monumental challenge to deliver these voter-approved portfolio of SPLOST projects in any sort of timely manner."
The post sent waves through the city's political and urbanist communities. Here's what we know about the response from MARTA and city leadership since the post.
What MARTA is saying
In a statement, MARTA essentially says the claim is taken out of context.
The transit agency said it has "hired a third-party vendor to prepare a financial model of MARTA’s future capital needs, including State of Good Repair, More MARTA Atlanta and Clayton Expansion Programs."
The model is designed to "allow MARTA to better plan for the timing, cost, and scope of future programs by modifying certain assumptions and inputs based on real world conditions." Basically - it's used to map out future funding structures and schedules for approved programs.
The shortfall numbers put forth by Rowan, according to MARTA, suffer from two flaws: 1) That the model isn't complete, and the figures he referenced are just one possible outcome if you feed it "a certain set of assumptions and inputs," and 2) That the full scope of MARTA projects is never fully funded, because by design they are approved under the assumption that they will require federal money to cross the finish line.
As for Clayton County and the additional alleged $160 million shortfall there, MARTA says "there is no projected shortfall" and that the agency is "moving full speed ahead" on expansion projects.
For the full statement, see the bottom of this article.
What City Council members are saying
The nature of the claims made in the post by Rowan got the attention of several Atlanta City Council representatives.
Councilman Michael Julian Bond raised the issue with the Transportation Committee chairman, Councilman Amir Farokhi, at the full City Council meeting on Tuesday this week.
"I have heard and I'm sure others have about there being a shortfall at MARTA, as it might result in some of our SPLOST funds (the money from the 2016 sales tax increase) that we have appointed - is the committee going to direct an action, or are you all gonna call MARTA over to ask them to explain? Or give an accounting, or give an explanation?"
Farokhi responded by saying, "Many saw the article over the weekend, noting the likely 'monumental shortfall' for both Clayton County and Atlanta projects. It's obviously a great concern to me, I presume a great concern to everyone on this body. They (MARTA) are slated to come before us in March for their quarterly report, but I'm going to ask they come before then to speak to us."
Later in the meeting, Councilman Antonio Lewis returned to the issue.
"I read some very disturbing news, an article from a credible source, from a source that worked at Atlanta and went to be No. 2 at MARTA (Rowan)," he said. "I'm worried about everybody's projects... when I heard my colleague next to me, Michael Julian Bond, ask the Transportation chair and vice chair to come before March, I stand on that."
Lewis said it was his hope that at the next Transportation Committee meeting, next Wednesday Jan. 25, that both MARTA CEO Collie Greenwood and Rowan would appear.
"Because this is a lot of stuff going on, I'm a little confused," he said. "I think I need to ask a few questions because the people in my community, they're gonna ask me questions when I walk in the community, and I like to hear from the horse's mouth."
In a statement to 11Alive on Friday, Farokhi said that he had asked MARTA to come to the meeting next Wednesday and that they had agreed. It's not clear if the CEO himself, Greenwood, will attend or whether it will be other representatives from MARTA.
“Given recent reports indicating that MARTA may not be able to deliver all of its planned projects in the City of Atlanta due to lack of funding, I (in my role as the Committee Chair) asked MARTA to appear before the City Council’s Transportation Committee next week. They agreed. We look forward to the conversation. It’s important to Councilmembers and our taxpayers, that MARTA provide full transparency next week," Farokhi's statement said.
The meeting is scheduled to run next Wednesday, Jan. 25, from 9:30 a.m.-11:30 a.m.
Full MARTA statement
MARTA has hired a third-party vendor to prepare a financial model of MARTA’s future capital needs, including State of Good Repair, More MARTA Atlanta and Clayton Expansion Programs. This model will allow MARTA to better plan for the timing, cost, and scope of future programs by modifying certain assumptions and inputs based on real world conditions. The model is not complete, and the numbers referenced by Mr. Rowan are one outcome that could be created using a certain set of assumptions and inputs as showcased by the vendor during a walk-through of an incomplete model.
The full list of More MARTA Atlanta projects has never been fully funded. That was the case when the project list was created by Atlanta City Council and voted on by Atlanta voters in 2016, and was the case when the MARTA Board adopted the current list of projects in 2018. Most of the projects require federal funding for which MARTA will compete. By its very nature, competitive funding is not guaranteed.
As for Clayton expansion projects, there is no projected shortfall. MARTA is moving full speed ahead on the Clayton Operations & Maintenance Facility and will have designs ready to present to the Clayton County Commission, the Clayton Advisory Group and the Forest Park Mayor/City Council in the next week. The Southlake/North Clayton BRT work is advancing as planned. And following the recent MARTA Board vote on the Locally-Preferred Alternative (LPA) for BRT along SR54, MARTA’s Planning Department is readying this project for request to enter the FTA’s Capital Investment Grant (CIG) program. As you may know, the Southlake/N Clayton BRT has already been accepted by the FTA into this program – which is the first milestone towards federal funds through the Small Start program. In fact, when MARTA submitted our request to FTA for the Southlake/N Clayton BRT, we were required by FTA to show local financial solvency. The attached 10 year Sources and Uses document was provided to the FTA and we stand behind this document.
MARTA meets quarterly with our jurisdictional partners and provides regular financial reports. Our books are open at any time. MARTA has a 40 year partnership with our jurisdictions. That relationship is primary and will continue even as employees, some more short-term and uninformed than others, come and go.