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Can't get there from here 

Once upon a time, MARTA was synonymous with mass transit in Atlanta. Now, it's just one financially strapped piece in Atlanta's transportation mess

This is not an exaggeration. It really happened, and former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell has thousands of witnesses to prove it. In October of 1971, Massell was desperate. He had an important message to get to the people of metro Atlanta, and there was only one way he could reach the audience he needed the most. It was time to take to the air.

In one month, metro Atlantans would be asked to approve a 1 percent sales tax to fund a transit system that would either propel the city into the international limelight or become such a burden that it would drag the city to new lows.

Three times before, voters in six metro counties had said "no thanks" to the referendum that would create the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. But Massell had been working the phones for months.

With support secured in the inner city, Massell took his message to the very people he thought would appreciate rail service to downtown the most: suburban commuters.

So, in the weeks leading up to the MARTA vote, thousands of suburbanites silenced their radios and turned their attention to the whir of heavy machinery from above. Imagine their surprise when they looked up to see a man leaning out of a helicopter, yelling through a bullhorn something about a new mass-transit system and how they'd never have to be stuck in traffic again. Imagine their shock when they realized the man was Atlanta's mayor, Sam Massell.

A lot has happened since Massell's wild helicopter ride. MARTA did what it set out to do, kind of. It gave the city an air of legitimacy. It was a necessary element in convincing the International Olympic Committee to choose Atlanta for the 1996 games.

But MARTA is a shadow of what it could have been. Metro Atlanta's roads are more choked than ever with cars spurting out carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and volatile organic compounds. Some 950 deaths a year are attributed to the region's air problems. Atlantans put more miles on their cars than do the residents of any other city. And MARTA has utterly failed to temper the metro area's car-crazy sprawl: One prominent real-estate consultant says more undeveloped land was bulldozed here during the 1990s than in any other settlement at any time in human history.

"I think definitely MARTA has been a big disappointment," Massell says. "I was very disappointed then, and I'm equally disappointed now. We have a world-class system, but it's not working like a world-class system. It's awarded honors almost every year as the safest and cleanest system, but with all that it attracts less than 4 percent of the riding public. Now that's disgraceful."

Most public officials and the majority of Atlantans have accepted MARTA's role as a minor player in Atlanta's sprawl and traffic game. Like a prisoner, MARTA is confined in Fulton and DeKalb counties, and even there the transit system is seen as a last resort for 95 percent of population.

MARTA's main source of revenue also is chained to Fulton and DeKalb. The state gives MARTA no money, and the federal government pitches in only 10 percent of its operating budget. The rest comes from fares (39 percent) and the 1 percent sales tax (49 percent) Fulton and DeKalb residents approved when Massell was mayor.

The result: MARTA is far from the regional transit system its creators envisioned, unable to expand rail service beyond its boundaries and unable to tap vital financial resources every other American transit system enjoys. Although Fulton County represents a fifth of the metro area's population, three-fourths or MARTA's 560,000 trips originate there. Twenty-five of the 36 rail stations and two-thirds of the track miles are in Fulton. The system is so limited that the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority -- an agency created last year by Gov. Roy Barnes to help solve the region's air and traffic problems -- is expected to end up either operating or coordinating most of the metro area's mass transit system.

"The fact is, MARTA is not a regional system, although when it was originally formed, it was certainly conceived that it would one day become one," says GRTA Executive Director Catherine Ross. "If it were [a regional system], there would have been no need to create GRTA."

You can't blame MARTA for all its limitations. Transportation experts say most of them are rooted in the hostility of outlying counties. MARTA's original design wouldn't have provided for as much rail in the outer counties as it would in Fulton and DeKalb, and voters didn't want to be taxed for something that appeared to benefit other counties more.

But the most striking aspect of the suburbs' hostility had to do with race. Doug Monroe, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's first traffic columnist, recalls that Joe Mack Wilson, a now-deceased Cobb legislator and mayor of Marietta, confided to him in 1990 that race was a major factor in the defeat of the original MARTA referendum. Wilson opposed MARTA because he was representing constituents who had fled Atlanta amid fears it would be governed by blacks and were wary of the African-Americans MARTA would presumably bring to their newfound suburb.

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