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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.
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