Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Transit chief: P3s help but won't solve transit funding woes

Sharon Road West station on Charlotte's light rail line. Photo: Nancy Pierce
The idea of using public-private partnerships to help fund transportation systems, including mass transit, is one of today's hottest topics in transportation policy circles. But the head of Atlanta's MARTA cautions that P3s, as they're known, aren't a silver bullet for transit systems.

Keith Parker, who headed Charlotte's transit system 2007-2009 and since 2012 has been MARTA CEO, was in town Tuesday, as a rail conference was kicking off. Parker spoke at a small event organized by the Transit Funding Working Group, a Metropolitan Transit Commission committee that's been pondering how CATS can move forward despite huge gaps between the 2030 plan and available money to built it out.

The working group has studied P3s, and a P3 conference was held here in March. In transportation, public-private partnerships are being used for bridges, tunnels, toll roads and High-Occupancy-Toll lanes such as the new HOT lane planned for Interstate 77 north of Charlotte. A private company, Cintra, has contracted with the N.C. Department of Transportation to build the lane and use the toll revenue to operate it. In Vancouver, a P3 built one of the region's rail lines.

P3s are touted as a way to get around a growing national problem of too many transportation needs and too little tax revenue to pay for them. With cars' gas mileage increasing, a decrease in driving among young people, and a national gas tax that's not been raised since 1993 and isn't indexed for inflation, trend lines for transportation funding are heading down.

In Atlanta, Parker has won praise for helping improve MARTA's relationships with the Georgia legislature and for bringing efficiencies to MARTA operations. And next week may see the first expansion of the system since it was launched 42 years ago in Fulton and DeKalb counties. A referendum is set for Nov. 4 in Clayton County, Ga., asking voters there whether to approve a 1-cent sales tax to expand MARTA into their county.

Parker, who described how MARTA is partnering with developers for transit-oriented developments on MARTA-owned land, cautioned the audience about the limitations of P3s, especially for transit programs. "They don't solve your revenue issues," he pointed out. And continuing revenues are needed, as well as capital expenses for building the transit lines and stations.

He quoted a popular misconception: "If you just go to the private sector they'll build all your trains for you."  That thinking? "It's just a myth," he said.

The Atlanta system is funded with a 1-cent sales tax in two counties. It receives no funding from the state of Georgia.  Mecklenburg County's system is funded with a half-cent sales tax in only one county.

For more on the recent transit funding challenges facing Charlotte, see "Mayor: Transit sales tax funding may be at risk" from