Xavier Murray, who works long hours as a security guard, relies on public transit to get him where he needs to go. But soon, he might not be able to rely on the bus for the hour-and-a-half trip to visit his son. Starting this summer, Yvonne Cobb, a grocery store clerk, might need to block out three hours for her daily, six-mile commute. And Tiffiny Nash might have to travel two miles by wheelchair – down a street with cracked sidewalks – to catch a bus to her physical therapy sessions.
Atlanta's beleaguered transit agency is in deep shit. It needs the state's help to lift it out of a $120 million shortfall – one that could result in 30 percent cutbacks to its already strained train lines and bus routes. The problem is, the state has never been too interested in MARTA's well being.
In fact, MARTA is the only major transit system in the nation that gets no funding from the state – the product of an indifferent Legislature and decades of disdain for public transit riders. As a result, MARTA's image, service and bottom line have suffered.
If the state fails to intervene this time, MARTA's board is considering slicing into bus and train service in June. The cuts would be unprecedented. Wait times for trains could increase to as long as 30 minutes. More than 1,000 transit employees could be laid off. More than half of the system's 131 bus routes – including some of its busiest – could disappear. And nearly all the bus lines that survive most likely would have to be redrawn to make up for the cuts.
Local elected officials say that, beyond simply disrupting lives, the cutbacks could cause job loss, could cut into Atlanta's $11 billion tourism industry, and could imperil the city's competitive edge over such cities as Charlotte, Orlando and Dallas. What's more, the cuts would come at a time when transit ridership has dramatically increased, gas prices are predicted to rise, and access to jobs is increasingly vital.
"You've got an awful lot of people in the Atlanta area who've adopted MARTA as their means to get around," says Jim Durrett, a MARTA board member. "And there's a very high likelihood that their only option is going to be taken away from them. It'll be devastating."
After spending most of the decade dipping into reserves to avoid major cutbacks, MARTA is now pinning its hopes on the General Assembly to soften the blow of what potentially could be the biggest cuts in MARTA history. The transit agency is hoping state lawmakers will approve a measure that they failed to pass for two consecutive years: a one-cent sales tax that would allow local governments to fund public transit, roads and other transportation projects.
If that legislation fails again, the transit agency's hoping to at least be freed from a Draconian funding restriction that's forced cutbacks at times when money's been in the bank.
Of course, the Gold Dome has a history of snubbing MARTA – and right now, it's the only place the transit agency and its riders can look to for help. Lawmakers have less than 10 days to act. Good luck.
For a state that contributes zero cash to the operation of MARTA's buses and trains, Georgia -- particularly Georgia Republicans -- sure enjoy telling its biggest transit agency what to do.
In the early years, the transit agency's biggest threat was rural lawmakers. Now it's predominantly suburban politicos who criticize the transit agency as a bloated, inefficient operation that should fend for itself. But statehouse Republicans weren't always to blame.
Massell, who was Atlanta's mayor from 1969 to 1973, helped lobby for the one-cent sales tax referendum in the city of Atlanta and DeKalb and Fulton counties that to this day provides more than half of MARTA's funding. The problem is, the law that created the one-cent sales tax requires that the transit agency spend no more than half of the revenue on operations. (The other half must be spent on maintenance and new projects.) MARTA would sooner spend a much bigger chunk of the money on operations – a move that would help stave off cutbacks. As it stands, MARTA's operations fund is dwindling, thanks to the faltering economy. And that's left MARTA deep in the red.
Egan, who represented Fulton County in the House and Senate and was considered one of the most effective Republican politicos in the '60s and '70s, remains a MARTA supporter. He says that because of MARTA's service to the airport – and its $2.1 billion role in the state's economy – the transit agency deserves state funding.
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