For several months last year, after Hurricane Katrina sent gasoline prices spiking, the sign in front of the Omega Holiness Church on Memorial Drive said, "We the people, have the power to fight greed. We must cut back on buying gasoline."
The banner's author, the Rev. Richard Cobble, was hinting at a bit of revolution. That's not a surprise. For a pastor, Cobble's civil disobedience streak is mighty long. As a vice president of Concerned Black Clergy of Atlanta, he is one of the few African-Americans in the city to challenge the mostly white transportation establishment.
The vast majority of MARTA riders are African-American, and they were adversely impacted when MARTA cut 15 percent of its service because of budget shortfalls. Yet most of the grassroots groups pushing for more funding of mass transit, such as the Sierra Club and Citizens for Progressive Transit, lean to the lighter side of the rainbow.
Cobble is one of the few voices speaking out for low-income African-Americans in the transportation arena. He's an active member of Friends of the Beltline, and directs the Concerned Black Clergy's efforts to increase spending on public transportation, which is probably more unpopular in the Republican-controlled halls of power now than it ever has been.
He says the state's refusal to aid the financially beleaguered transit agency is a massive failure to provide the most basic services to the Atlanta region. And he's got a doozy of a plan to put pressure on the Legislature and Gov. Sonny Perdue: a citywide strike.
"Public transportation typically is one of the main amenities of a well-organized city, and we don't have that here in Georgia," he says. "What it boils down to is the fact that they have not done a good job in looking after the general interests of the people. Those people in the General Assembly -- I've never seen such a bunch of arrogant, narrow-minded individuals in all my life."
Specifically, Cobble blames the General Assembly for mucking up MARTA's funding structure from the beginning. Only Fulton and DeKalb counties and the city of Atlanta financially support the transit agency. MARTA is one of the only major transit agencies in the nation that doesn't receive state funding.
"MARTA has been crippling along and trying to survive on the fares that they bring in, and the General Assembly still hasn't done anything," he says. "There's a majority of blacks who patronize MARTA, and MARTA is a large employer of blacks, and so you got legislators looking at MARTA like they don't want it to exist."
The legislator most commonly accused of beating up on MARTA is Rep. Jill Chambers, R-Atlanta, chairwoman of the MARTOC committee, which oversees MARTA's finances. During the past two years, Chambers has scoured MARTA's budgets and contracts, and has berated the agency for what she deems unnecessary expenditures.
Until recently, Chambers also held up a piece of legislation that allows MARTA to spend more money on operational costs than capital costs. That bill was approved by the MARTOC committee March 17, and is expected to pass through both the House and Senate.
It only will allow MARTA to continue to limp on, and won't fundamentally fix what ails it. What Cobble and other MARTA supporters want is a complete overhaul of the agency's funding structure so the state pitches in with taxpayer money.
Chambers says that type of change is beyond her committee. "We're very limited, and it's tightly defined what we're allowed to do," she says. "Other than request financial documents and contractual documents, we're not allowed to do much."
Chambers says that integrating MARTA with other mass transit operations, such as bus services in Gwinnett, Cobb and Clayton counties, however, could one day lead to a state-funded transit system. By then, though, it would no longer be MARTA.
Cobble is convinced that the refusal to fund MARTA is race-related. He notes that the state is willing to spend $147 million to remake the Ga. 316 and I-85 interchange, and is pursuing a $1.8 billion job that could grow I-75 to 23 lanes -- congested areas along the routes of mostly white commuters.
"I've been sitting in on a lot of these meetings on transportation funding for years, and it's obvious to me that this is a black and white issue, and it's ... holding this entire state back," Cobble says.
He says he's proposed to other members of Concerned Black Clergy that the group encourage its church members to strike, to shut down Atlanta for one day, to send the General Assembly and Perdue a message.
"That's what we're going to need to do, just shut down the city. And a lot of folks say, 'Let's negotiate, let's talk,' but that ain't working," he says. "We'll make them look up and say, 'The problem is transportation.' And I'm sure it can be done through the clergy.
"Georgia is gearing up for a gubernatorial campaign and what we want to do at the Concerned Black Clergy is to push this to make it a major issue."
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