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Transit riders in Atlanta face massive cuts, “wholesale restructuring” of service

Eastbound Originally uploaded by robholland
A family on an eastbound MARTA rapid rail train in Atlanta.

Transit riders in Metro Atlanta will soon require a new system map to find their way because the current map is about to be ancient history, a document fit for use only by archivists and history buffs. Of course, this would only apply to those who still have a bus or train to wait for after MARTA goes through with massive cuts this year. This story from the Atlanta Journal Constitution was included in a few headline posts from the usual suspects earlier this week, including one of ours, but the desperate situation in Atlanta is worth a closer look.

Wrap your head around this number: MARTA is facing a budget deficit of $120 million, on an operating budget of $399.1 million, making their deficit nearly a full third of the operating budget.

As a result, the cuts the agency is forced to consider are downright shocking. More than half of Atlanta’s 131 bus routes could be cut entirely, and rail service will be cut severely. Wait times for a train could be as much as 30 minutes on weekends before 7 a.m. and after 9 p.m., and even rush-hour train intervals could be as much as 12 minutes. The AJC pegs the cuts as approximately 25-30 percent of all service.

While the loss of routes or the inconvenience of long waits and increased transfers will result in some riders going back to their cars or finding other options, what about the thousands who depend on MARTA as their transportation lifeline to reach work, get to the doctor or pick up their kids at school? The “lucky” ones might have an alternative, a longer wait or less convenience. But too many riders will be left completely stranded, unable to get to important destinations as routes disappear entirely in the South’s biggest metro and the economic core of the state.

The popular refrain among some Atlantans is that MARTA is a bloated bureaucracy that wastes money. The truth is far different. MARTA enjoys the lowest cost per-mile of passenger rail service for any heavy rail system in the United States, and survives on a penny sales tax from two counties, with no dedicated funding stream from the State of Georgia. They are the largest transit agency with no such dedicated funding source in the country.

Atlantans: Tell us your story of how these cuts will affect you.

This year’s situation was narrowly avoided last year when the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for the region, found a way to transfer $25 million in last year’s stimulus funds to MARTA. In return the agency spent $25 million of capital funds on infrastructure improvements around their stations like better sidewalks, crosswalks, and other vital bike and pedestrian improvements to improve access.

The creative deal with the ARC was necessary because by a curious — and old — piece of state law, MARTA has to evenly split their tax revenues between operations and capital funds (they have a capital budget of $388 million this year), meaning they aren’t even able to set their own operating budget.

The Georgia State Senate passed a bill that would have removed that rule, allowing MARTA the flexibility to set their own operations and capital budgets. This would have enabled the agencyto basically plug budget holes with a share of (formerly) capital funds — never an ideal situation, but one that would have staved off dramatic fare increases and wholesale cancellation of service. Unfortunately for Atlantans, that bill died in the Georgia State House on the last day of the legislative session, leaving many upset and frustrated at the State’s failure to act.

Even with the funds from the ARC, MARTA had to raise their base fare $0.25, and weren’t able to restore all of the service that had been proposed for cuts, though they did avoid the drastic step of closing down service entirely one day a week.

MARTA Board Chairman Michael Walls pointed out that this was no permanent solution to the crisis, noting “this is a one-time infusion of funds” in a MARTA press release. “We are facing increasing deficits in the coming fiscal years. It is imperative that we identify a permanent, dedicated source of funding for transit as soon as possible in order to avoid more drastic cuts in the future,” he said.

That future has become the present, so what will the State do this time? Will they remove the barrier that prevents MARTA from making their own budget? At a broader level, what help will the federal government provide for the hundreds of other transit agencies facing this same crisis? Will they turn their back on the millions who depend on public transportation each day?

Want to do something? Here are three things you can do:

  1. Tell Senator Harry Reid to include funding for keeping transit systems running in the next round of jobs-creation legislation he’s planning to bring to Congress.
  2. Tell us your story! How are these cuts going to affect you in your daily life? Will you be going back to your car? Will you be stuck with no way to get to work? We want to know.
  3. If you’re in Atlanta, join up with the Citizens for Progressive Transit or the Area Coalition for Transit Now Facebook page calling for Gov. Perdue to call a special legislative session. These groups are also joining with others in Atlanta to organize a “Ride MARTA” day in late March to drum up support statewide.

No Comments

  1. Stephen Lee Davis

    14 years ago

    Some other resources that might be worth looking into, especially if you live in Atlanta:

    Jay Bookman in the AJC on the potential economic impact: http://blogs.ajc.com/jay-bookman-blog/2010/02/02/economic-impact-of-a-crippled-marta-would-be-substantial/

    ACT Now on myths about transit in Georgia: http://bit.ly/aThZHd

    CFPT plan for 2010, including details about getting rid of the 50/50 rule: http://www.cfpt.org/blog.php?id=137

    And the faces of MARTA: http://preview.itsmarta.com/100-faces.aspx

    If you’ve got a story like that you want to share with us, you can do that here: http://action.smartgrowthamerica.org/t/3224/petition.jsp?petition_KEY=475

  2. Pingback: Atlanta transit is hosed — Yikes! « Jamie Buss's Blog