Atlanta city council OKs audit into billion-dollar MARTA programFILE PHOTO USED FOR ILLUSTRATION PURPOSES: A MARTA train passes over the mural at the corner of Dekalb Ave. and Arizona Ave. on Thursday, April 17, 2014. File Photo by Jonathan Phillips
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) — The Atlanta City Council on Monday approved a financial audit of a MARTA program that was funded by a 2016 half-penny sales tax.
On Tuesday, Atlanta leaders called for an audit into the “More MARTA” program.
“Are these public dollars being spent as the public intended them to be spent,” questioned Atlanta City Councilmember Amir Farokhi.
Farokhi, chair of the city’s transportation committee, said the public dollars are earmarked for enhancements and expansion.
He fears the transit system is overspending on consultants and planning efforts.
The audit’s scope will include all revenues and expenditures associated with the More MARTA Atlanta program. MARTA has until the next meeting of the council’s transportation committee on March 29 to respond.
In November 2016, the city of Atlanta overwhelmingly approved the local sales tax that was designed for the largest investment in transit enhancements and expansion in four decades. The program aims to improve transit services in historically underserved communities and increase access to employment centers throughout the city.
But critics argue expansion efforts have fallen short.
“Atlanta residents took a leap of faith when they agreed to impose a tax on themselves in exchange for more transit inside the city,” said Amir Farokhi, chair of the council’s transportation committee. “In particular, a regressive sales tax hits some residents harder than others. MARTA needs to repay that faith by periodically opening up the books to the people so that they can see how their money is being spent.”
The audit is being funded and overseen by the city’s department of finance. Council member Marci Collier Overstreet said this provision ensures integrity.
“If we are going to take the time and resources necessary to do this, then let’s do it right,” Overstreet said. “Placing this audit in the city’s hands guarantees that we can find an independent third party to review the numbers. This way we get the most objective assessment of the way More MARTA is going.”
On Tuesday, MARTA accused the city council of “playing politics” by demanding a full performance review of decisions made by previous MARTA and city of Atlanta leaders.
“This is yet another stall tactic from a collective group that has been wringing their hands and conflating the More MARTA program with the city’s Renew Atlanta TSPLOST program,” the agency said.
This position by the Atlanta City Council is disappointing and disingenuous. We have answered these questions, and instead of accepting the answers, Council is playing politics by demanding a full performance review of decisions made by previous MARTA and City of Atlanta leaders.
MARTA’s statement also said such an audit will delay all of its More MARTA projects.
“Every step of the program has been taken in concert with the city of Atlanta,” the agency said. “It was MARTA leadership’s expectation that after the recent city-requested resequencing exercise, we would focus on delivery of the program. Instead, that exercise is being used as an excuse to further delay. MARTA has the funding, bandwidth, expertise, and a clear path forward. All that is missing is the political will.”
Farokhi was joined by councilmember Marci Collier Overstreet and council president Doug Shipman at a press conference outside council chambers.
Overstreet said the relationship between the Council and MARTA is “contentious.”
“I would say that things that we were asking for were received in a combative kind of way, argumentative almost,” said Overstreet, when asked to characterize the council’s relationship with MARTA.
According to MARTA, rail and bus ridership is up month-to-month. Ridership is still down about a million monthly riders compared to pre-pandemic numbers.
Farokhi said he’s hopeful the two sides will be able to work towards a more collaborative relationship.
“This is coming from a place of wanting to seek truth after multiple conversations with MARTA in our transportation committee and not feeling certain that more MARTA funds have been spent as they’re intended to and wanting us, wanting more clarity, and residents and voters wanting more clarity on how these funds are being spent at the beginning of a 40-year timeframe,” said Farokhi.
“At this juncture, as the fiduciaries of taxpayer funds to implement the program, such a review will obligate MARTA to pause work on all More MARTA Atlanta projects, with the exception of the federally funded Summerhill BRT and Five Points Transformation, until this matter is resolved,” said MARTA in a statement.
Shipman said he didn’t believe any projects would need to be delayed, as the city is financing and overseeing the audit.
MARTA posted on social media that it is holding a public board of directors meeting with the audit committee on Thursday.
This story was provided by Atlanta News First.