thoughts on our local redheaded stepchild

By which I mean MARTA. Y’all know I can go on and on about public transit, so settle in. (The short version: what should be done with MARTA? Comment below.)

The first thing you know is that MARTA is contemplating a simultaneous fare hike and set of layoffs. Now, trust me, even if you never take MARTA, bringing a one-way fare up to $2 is not a good thing. New York’s system, which is far more comprehensive (and established as a part of the city’s fabric; it’s much easier to imagine Atlanta without MARTA than New York without its subways), just went to a $2 fare last year, and that was only after some court battles and much bitterness.

There is some controversy over how much MARTA can dip into the sales tax pool, which you can contact your state legislator about; Robert at Bloglanta has more.

For the time being, at least, state funding is not going to be an option. It’s not fair — MARTA being the only urban transit system in the country without state funding; even the DC system gets, I suspect, money from Maryland and Virginia — but it’s not going to change any time soon.

The discussion at last night’s Citizens for Progressive Transit fundraiser — to which my boyfriend and I were late because of (wait for it) traffic — a number of transit options came up, including bus rapid transit, the Belt Line and the push for a streetcar on Peachtree — but MARTA itself did not, except obliquely in a rant about public transit serving as a “jobs program”. I haven’t spoken to any of the CfPT people directly about this — their comments are welcome — but I wonder if it’s easier for them to concentrate on fresh projects like the Belt Line rather than have to patiently explain to people over and over again that MARTA is no more corrupt or incompetent than most government agencies. [Update 3/31/05: See Joe’s comment below on how this was a misperception on my part.]

(By the way, if you were there, here’s the New York Times story on childless cities I referred to in the Q&A session.)

So: given that neither state funding nor more building is in the cards, what to do with poor MARTA? To make matters worse, its options seem to be either raise fares across the board and thus hurt the people who need it most, or hurt its most reliable sources of income (i.e. employer-bought transit cards and Braves shuttles). I’d still like to know how much it costs to put a sign at every stop saying that Bus X is supposed to arrive here at Time Y and go to Station Z, which MARTA seems incapable of doing, but let’s assume for the moment that even that is unaffordable.

So what would you do? Decrease service to unpopular stations? Shut down some stations or bus lines altogether? Try to work out an advertising deal where every MARTA train gets No-Calorie Coke stickers on its outsides? Go for a contract deal with some of the smaller private bus lines that run on Buford Highway? Shut down the entire thing for a week in protest so that Atlantans can realize that MARTA is nice to have around? Make the Braves pony up the $1 surcharge instead of the fans? Toss out some ideas. It’s not like you can make things any worse.

8 Comments so far

  1. Jen (unregistered) on March 30th, 2005 @ 12:00 pm

    They can stop advertising on tv. I saw TWO MARTA ads last night during Sex and the City. You don’t need to advertise MARTA, people know it’s there.

    Also, I don’t know if you saw this.. but they’re going to start building apartments on the backside of the Lindbergh Station. Housing around the stations is a good start.

    And they should start pumping heat into the stations during the winter months. Uhm, but that won’t really save money.

  2. shoobie (unregistered) on March 30th, 2005 @ 1:45 pm

    i thought this town’s red headed stepchild was Luke Schenscher.

  3. Joe (unregistered) on March 30th, 2005 @ 5:10 pm

    To be honest, speaking as part of the CfPT board, contrary to the impression given, we see MARTA as the backbone for a larger public transportation system that our region needs.

    Before you got to the screening, we spoke a little about MARTA and gave a legislative update on the Senate Bills that are now held up by Jill Chambers.

    What makes these other projects so important is that they also would support MARTA. We are for all public transit (especially rail!), existing and proposed.

  4. scott partee (unregistered) on March 31st, 2005 @ 9:25 am

    I think the most important thing that MARTA could to is to OVERHAUL the system with a smart card based tiered fare system similar to London, DC or San Francisco. One pays according to the distance one travels and the time of the journey. Make the fares flexible and time-based. Go ahead and jack up the fare to the airport to $2.00, but make a zone in Midtown/Downtown/Buckhead that, during lunchtime, is fifty cents with a free roundtrip as long as the total trip is less than 1.5 hours. With an inventive and flexible fare system, and stored value cards, MARTA would be capable of doing all sorts of cool things to increase ridership.

    As it stands now, if MARTA raises the fare to $2.00 it would cost me $4.00 to take the train two stops for lunch. That’s ridiculous and only executives at MARTA who were foolish could believe that a system that presents its potential customers with such an option is optimal.

    I agree with Joe that MARTA is an important “backbone”, but unless they can extend its reach by A LOT, and not just a little, I think it’s “finished” as far as build out goes. What’s needed now are smaller, cheaper options such as streetcars, trolleys or dedicated throughway buses that connect areas of town that are now underserved by MARTA. Beyond that, somebody needs to build something that goes to Cumming to get people out of the hell that is 400 into the city north of Sandy Springs. By the time somebody coming down 400 has hit the first available MARTA station at North Springs or whatever, they’ve already sat in traffic so long that they might as well drive on into the city.

  5. Joe (unregistered) on March 31st, 2005 @ 10:06 am

    Good news: MARTA is currently implementing a smart card system, and with fare gates that can’t be jumped like the current ones.

    Further good news: the long term plan is to integrate the payment system among all the existing systems… MARTA, CCT, GCT, GRTA, etc.

    Today, the legislature is taking up a bill (SB 150) that will give support to streetcars. It’s quite apparent the bill was specifically designed for the Peachtree Streetcar, but the same could be used for streetcars on Memorial Dr. or Buford Hwy. To me, it would make sense in the short term to build MARTA to Holcomb Bridge, then build a street car line along Holcomb Bridge. They say that the current densities wouldn’t support something like that (and that’s probably true), but I think it would be a huge boon to Roswell.

  6. Jessica (unregistered) on March 31st, 2005 @ 10:19 am

    A Holcomb Bridge streetcar is an awesome idea. As would a Buford Highway streetcar — heck, why not a Pleasant Hill streetcar or a Main Street/Alpharetta streetcar?

    If I sound sarcastic, it’s unintentional. Rather, I think the perception right now is that the city of Atlanta is the only place to do transit experiments, but it would be perfectly possible for other metro communities to get in the act.

  7. joey (unregistered) on April 1st, 2005 @ 5:53 am

    my gosh! not $2 per fare!

    try any other cit yin the world.

    ’tis ~$5 / single here in london village :(

  8. Tony Simon (unregistered) on April 1st, 2005 @ 8:54 am

    Joey, everything that’s $2 here is going to be $5 or more in London. Bad comparison.

    The problem seems to be that the state won’t extend any precious funding until MARTA can balance their books. But in order to balance their books, they have to cut costs. While that seems logical, the only way they can cut costs any further is by cutting potentially profitable services (ie – 15% of bus service), or raising rates, both of which only serve to lower ridership. So, they “cut costs” and revenue ends up dropping and they remain waist deep in red ink.

    What’s needed is a burst of cash and some aggressive planning to swing momentum in the other direction. MARTA is the only major public transit system in the country that doesn’t receive state funding. I can understand the rural argument that state dollars shouldn’t fund Atlanta projects, but what’s good for MARTA is good for Atlanta, and what’s good for Atlanta is good for Georgia.

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