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.

Cobb "was a rapidly growing haven for white flight," Monroe says. "A lot of people were opposed to MARTA for several reasons. Still, as a Southern city, it's always been racial."

So, it's no surprise that Massell's aerial campaign had little sway. Cobb voters had already nixed the MARTA idea back in June 1965. In '71, Massell learned that Gwinnett and Clayton counties would be no different: Only 23 percent and 21 percent of voters there, respectively, voted for MARTA.

With MARTA's defeat in the three counties, hopes for a regional system evaporated. The outlying counties were destined for gridlock.

To better understand MARTA's failures, one must imagine the fantasy Atlanta that could have been had MARTA been accepted by the entire region. Imagine a commuter. It doesn't matter where she lives, maybe Alpharetta, maybe Grant Park, maybe Lilburn or Douglasville. Like hundreds of thousands of people, she works in one of the "edge cities" just outside Atlanta.

Briefcase in hand, she steps out the front door and walks to the end of the street to catch the bus. She has just enough time to buy a cup of coffee at the bus shelter before hopping on. In less than 15 minutes, she files off the bus and descends to the subway. She sips her coffee for another five minutes until the train shows up. The people on the train are quiet, some of them nap, others poke at PalmPilots and talk on cell phones. She checks out the MARTA map posted across the aisle and spies that her station is the next one, the engineer confirms this over the PA system.

One more trip up the escalators and she's standing on a sidewalk on, say, U.S. 41 just outside the Galleria complex in Cobb County. The walk to her office is entertaining and relaxing because -- in this fantasy world -- Galleria has been designed to cater to pedestrians and MARTA riders, rather than to cars. Instead of being forced to cross a vast parking lot, she walks by cafés and shops with picture windows. Mixed in with other people -- many of whom she runs into every day -- she feels paradoxically like the citizen of a big city and the resident of a small, friendly town.

But MARTA's fate, along with the region's, was sealed by the 1971 vote. By the time contractors started digging tunnels for the rail system in February 1976, the design of the rail system and the range of the bus routes made it apparent that highways and developers, not transit and planning, would determine the metro area's layout.

Today, commuters from outlying counties face a drive that takes the same amount of time it did when an electric trolley car ran from downtown Marietta into Atlanta -- about 55 minutes. Driving in air-conditioned comfort isn't the only difference: There's stress, which no government agency or environmental group could ever quantify; there are the lethal compounds expelled with every step on the gas pedal; and there's the possibility that a telephone-talking, makeup-applying, coffee-drinking, newspaper-reading driver could at any moment swerve into your path and put your lights out forever.

Even Monroe, one of MARTA's most outspoken proponents, admits that he drives when he has to get somewhere: "I quit using MARTA a long time ago because it doesn't go where I want to go."

Monroe's not the only critic among folks who might be expected to be MARTA's most-enthusiastic supporters. "'Screw it. I'll just drive,' is an easy thing to say," says Jeff Rader, executive director of the Regional Business Coalition. It's also an easy thing to do. Before his office moved downtown, Rader himself struggled to learn when and where to catch which buses and whether they went to one or another station. Rader -- who is heavily involved in the debate over Atlanta's transportation and air problems -- persevered and learned to navigate the system.

But he says the difficulties of deciphering the bus system make regular bus riders members of a "secret transportation society." "Unless you are persistent in finding out about it, you'll never factor MARTA into transportation decision making."

Truth be known, MARTA can get you to many places, as long as you aren't in a huge rush and you make the seemingly insurmountable effort to learn how to work the MARTA system to your advantage. But chances are slim that a bus stop is in walking distance from a home outside the perimeter. Most public-transit users in those areas are forced to drive to a parking deck, then catch a bus, then switch to rail.

MARTA's efforts to increase ridership in just the two counties it serves are minimal and mostly ineffective. Often, regular riders don't have the option to take their car because they don't have one. The recent migration intown has improved rail ridership, but the single mode that promises to do more than rail to keep people out of their cars -- buses -- shows almost no increase in popularity.

Intown neighborhoods have plenty of bus stops, but shelters are rare, making public transit an option only for those who don't need to concern themselves with rain, freezing cold or Atlanta's sizzling summers. Most MARTA stops are merely poles with a MARTA symbol stuck on top. There are no signs indicating when the bus comes by or where the bus will end up. The only way to find out is by calling MARTA's service hotline.

MARTA's board hears suggestions on how to improve the system all the time. Rader suggested that they send a guide on how to pick transit-oriented locations to businesses inquiring about moving to the area. To date, MARTA has done nothing.

Rader says MARTA's leadership has given in to complacency: "What they assume is there's a basic level of ridership out there no matter how bad services are. In order to balance the books, they minimize the cost of operation. This is a least-cost mentality. When you offer an inferior product, people still aren't going to buy it because it's below value."

MARTA interim General Manager Jack Stephens is well aware that improvements in the system are needed. He says he'd love to make MARTA more convenient. He knows there are obstacles to access that keep people hopping into their cars every morning. He knows more bus shelters, posted schedules and more convenient routes would go a long way.

To some extent, however, even those problems are part of the larger crisis MARTA faces: It's simply a cash-starved system with two counties sharing a disproportionate burden of its operating cost.

"We'd love to do stuff like that, but logistically it's a nightmare. And the resources just aren't there," Stephens says. "Funding is a difficult issue, always has been. [The sales tax] hasn't given us all the money we wanted."

And here's the really bad news: The region's cure to MARTA's shortcomings may, at least for MARTA, actually be worse than the disease. At MARTA's annual luncheon for local elected officials last month, GRTA's Ross unveiled a grand vision: She hopes to link a whole network of outer-county bus systems to MARTA, similar to the way Cobb's bus system ties in to MARTA stations. Clayton and Gwinnett counties are expected to have working bus systems beginning in early 2001, and other counties may follow. Where gaps between the county systems and MARTA occur, GRTA may operate its own shuttles. GRTA is working on plans to install express buses that could run from Cherokee County to Perimeter Center station, from Douglas County to downtown, or Henry County to the airport.

The end result would not be to build MARTA into a regional transportation system, but rather to build smaller transit systems that would feed into MARTA, in a manner similar to San Francisco's BART system, which is composed of several separate transit agencies.

"The bottom line is, a rider doesn't care whose name is on the train, as long as it gets to the station on schedule," Ross says. "And we will work with MARTA to make sure all of these systems connect in a way that gives riders a seamless, high-quality experience. Schedules need to be coordinated, and some kind of regional fare card needs to be adopted, so passengers don't even realize when they are transferring from a GRTA express bus to a MARTA train."

The local systems would feed passengers into MARTA, boosting ridership significantly. But GRTA's solution could make MARTA's funding problems even worse. Here's why: Each MARTA rider cost the system $3.85 in operating expenses in fiscal year 2000. So the $1.50 fare covers only 39 percent of each rider's trip. The federal government chips in another 38 cents per ride, and the Fulton and DeKalb sales tax adds another $1.89. This adds up to be $3.65, 20 cents short of what it takes to pay for someone to ride MARTA. To cover that 20-cent shortfall, MARTA had to dip this year into its reserve fund.

Stephens says additional riders would help finance the system as long as MARTA didn't have to add more trains. But what about a year or two from now when the new bus systems start dumping off more MARTA riders? More people means more trains, and trains ain't cheap. One could cost between $3 million and $5 million, and that financial burden would more than likely fall on the shoulders of Fulton and DeKalb residents.

"We're going to have to work on that," Stephens says. "The bottom line in working that out is to convince the public that we have arrived at a method that will assure residents of Fulton County, DeKalb County and the city of Atlanta that they are not providing subsidies for those coming in from the outside. What that method is going to be, we don't know yet."

Monroe, the former columnist, doesn't mince words about the problem.

"I think the suburban counties are leeches, leeching off of Fulton and DeKalb counties' sacrifices, and it's not right," he says. "The well-to-do people in the suburbs can catch a train without the tax burden of the person who lives in the inner city. It is manifestly unfair."

GRTA officials offer little hope that MARTA will get any compensation any time soon for its region-wide services. While GRTA spokesman Chuck Walston does say a distance-based fare should be considered in the future, he insists that the existing fare itself is enough for suburban riders -- adding that they pay sales taxes when they buy lunch while they're on the job in Fulton or DeKalb counties.

"No doubt some of this should be looked at, but the solution should be fair and equitable and realistic," Walston says. "All things said and done, it's a pretty equitable deal now. MARTA is a good deal, even if you don't ride MARTA. It's keeping hundreds of thousands of people off the roads you are driving on."

The subsidy issue has generated surprisingly few protests from DeKalb, Fulton and Atlanta officials. One exception is Fulton County Commission Chairman Mike Kenn, a conservative Republican who took office two years ago. These days, Kenn would dangle out of a helicopter with his own bullhorn if he thought he could convince Cobb and Gwinnett counties, the state of Georgia -- hell, anyone at all -- to help fund MARTA.

"Why should Fulton and DeKalb be penalized by having the highest sales tax in the state," he asks. "We have to change MARTA's funding mechanism. The one penny sales tax is insufficient to meet MARTA's operational requirements of today."

Kenn has little hope of winning his argument. He says Gov. Roy Barnes, who holds the key to any movement on the issue, has expressed no interest in using state funds to support MARTA. A Barnes spokeswoman didn't return telephone calls for this article.

"Unless funding and equity are addressed, MARTA will have to continue increasing fares, and there's a direct correlation between an increase in fares and a decrease in ridership," Kenn says.

Kenn's desire to change the way MARTA is funded has little to do with advocating mass transit. In fact, he and other conservatives argue that we should openly embrace our love affair with cars.

"Even if you pump $100 million in expanding MARTA lines or simply improving the existing lines, the increase in ridership isn't there. You don't get the bang for buck," he says.

That view reflects the influence of the conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation, which published a study in June that said Atlanta should downplay mass transit and tighter land-use restrictions, and instead focus on building more roads. The report, written by California transportation consultant Wendell Cox, argues that the Atlanta Regional Commission's 25-year, $36-billion transportation plan will make traffic congestion worse.

Following his advice certainly would be bad for MARTA, since the ARC plan puts 55 percent of that $36 billion into mass transit. While he's received a polite hearing from GRTA, however, Cox's plan is unlikely to be adopted any time soon. For one thing, computer modeling by the ARC has shown that more roads would actually lead to more pollution and that more mass transit would cut pollution. For another, GRTA and other local leaders seem intent for now on proceeding with the current plan.

Even so, any course of action is likely to take MARTA for a bumpy ride. Atlanta's urban renaissance presents the transit system with its greatest opportunity in 30 years to remake the lay of the land in a way that will lure more riders, but the renaissance presents its own problems.

"Our real challenge for increasing ridership is retrofitting older areas so they are transit friendly," Stephens says. "We need to be able to grow ridership. When MARTA was built, the hub of the city was downtown, and now people are coming back to downtown. That type of movement could be very beneficial to MARTA. We will need to position MARTA to take advantage of that new patronage."

But recent battles show how easy it is for MARTA to run into serious roadblocks when it tries to retrofit the city with dense development and a more complete transit network. Proposals for a rail line that would have run from South DeKalb Mall, through Decatur, by Emory and to MARTA's Lindbergh Station were defeated by neighborhood groups. In a separate dispute, BellSouth and MARTA drew fierce opposition from neighborhood groups that filed a lawsuit to stop construction of a huge mixed-use project adjacent to the Lindbergh rail station.

BellSouth will anchor the 5-million-square-foot, 47-acre development. The company will move 3,500 workers into an office complex on the site and plans parking spaces to serve those employees at the College Park, Indian Creek, Doraville and the North Springs stations. The Lindbergh station project will include more offices, shops and housing. The idea seems simple enough: people living and working along MARTA lines would use the MARTA lines. There would be less traffic, less smog.

But, when you get down to it, it's not so simple. Richard Hubert, a lawyer representing the Garden Hills Civic Association, says he can see the need to add dense development along MARTA lines, but not at the expense of a 50-year-old neighborhood that already grapples with traffic. The project is on Piedmont Road across from Lindbergh Plaza, in the middle of a busy commercial district full of shops and fast-food joints. It calls for 10,000 parking spaces, which Hubert says would attract too many cars and would encourage folks to drive and not use transit.

"This BellSouth MARTA plan is the bitch goddess 'development' in full sail, going wherever the wind blows it," he says.

"A rapid transit system should not engage in commercial real-estate development," Hubert adds. "It's an abuse of what MARTA was created to do. What they should do is build a transportation system that pays for itself."

Despite its opposition, the BellSouth project is moving forward. But whether MARTA can help turn the region toward the kind of transit-oriented developments that seem to be the system's only hope for real growth remains unclear.

At the same time, MARTA's financial bind appears already to be getting tighter -- and nastier. Two weeks ago, the Fulton County Commission voted one of its three appointees, Arthur McClung, off the MARTA board because he'd voted along with a majority for a 25-cent fare increase, due to take effect in January. MARTA staff and most other board members argued that the fair increase was simply unavoidable.

That action may be a sign of the kind of controversy MARTA is likely to face in a future of intimidating responsibilities and unyielding demands -- demands made even more difficult by the bind the agency was placed in 30 years ago, when it was trapped in Fulton and DeKalb counties with a regional mission and no financial help from the state or surrounding counties.

"There were always a lot of different agendas," Massell recalls. "Everyone didn't share the same vision. Compromises were made, and MARTA paid the price for that."

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