MARTA and the Washington D.C. Metro: What do they have in common?

If you live in Atlanta, chances are you have heard all the recent fuss about MARTA.

Earlier this year Atlanta’s public transit agency threatened to shut down service one day per week if they could not gain access to a protected part of their funding. By law, this $63 million surplus, MARTA's capital budget, currently goes toward capital improvements and maintenance of existing equipment and lines. The part of MARTA's funding that keep the transit system running, it's operations budget, was seriously depleted and heading toward it's own kind of train wreck. MARTA’s dual budget system is mandated by the Georgia Legislature as what lawmakers call an effort to ensure that MARTA keeps their buses and trains in top running condition.

According to the transit agency, access to those capital budget funds was the only way that it would be able to continue to operate the same levels and transport its daily load of 500,000 riders per day. When the Georgia Legislature left town without deciding the key question of whether MARTA should have access to its capital budget, MARTA was left in limbo.

Luckily for MARTA, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), the agency responsible for planning in the Metro Atlanta region, was able to provide a quick fix by rerouting some federal stimulus money to MARTA’s operating budget. For now, MARTA will continue to run 7 days per week and until 1 am, with only a small fare hike projected for October 2009.

But the question of MARTA dipping into its capital budget to pay for operations expenses is still one worth exploring, especially in light of the recent train collision and derailment that took place in Washington D.C.

During rush hour on June 22, 2009 a moving southbound train collided with a stopped train ahead of it. This resulted in the lead train telescoping (i.e. plowing into the lead train and ending up atop it) and led directly to the deaths of the train operator and eight passengers. Along with the fatalities, several passengers were trapped for hours and 80 people suffered injuries. It has been reported as the worst Metro accident in Washington D.C. history.

Investigators soon found out that the wreck occurred as the result of a faulty signal. An improvement that had taken place just 5 days before on June 17th had resulted in a signal not reliably reporting when a train sat on the track up ahead.

It is just these types of accidents that Georgia lawmakers say they are trying to prevent when they restrict MARTA’s use of its capital budget.

State Representative Jill Chambers is the head of the Georgia legislative committee that oversees MARTA. She recently told the AJC that the legislators who enacted the dual budget system for MARTA: “realized that political boards, made up of political appointees, didn’t always have the sophistication to know when they were being taken advantage of or induced into not-quite-ethical or maybe even corrupt situations. So the 50-50 split was designed to make sure there would always be funds to repair and maintain the system.”

She also pointed out that the Washington D.C. Metro accident may have come as the result of just such a failure to properly maintain infrastructure.

Chambers also maintains that if MARTA leaders had had the flexibility to dip into capital funds every time operations needs were strained then perhaps MARTA would be in the same situation, where faulty maintenance led to loss of life.

According to MARTA officials, though their new budget covers fiscal year 2010, they will be back in a severe budget crisis by fiscal year 2011 unless they are allowed to dip into their capital budget.

What do you think? Should MARTA be allowed to dip into their capital budget in order to maintain current operations? Or is having funds available for safety more important than maintaining current standards of service? Or maybe you even have a better idea. Sound off in the comments.