People have heard me bitch about Atlanta’s mass transit system in the past. In this weeks Creative Loafing, a local free indie paper, there’s an excellent article about WHY Atlanta’s mass transit system sucks.
MARTA’s fallen and it can’t get up
If somebody doesn’t help the crumbling backbone of Atlanta’s transit network, it’ll whither away and die
BY MICHAEL WALL
Every five minutes or so on weekday afternoons, a small herd of people files up the stairs from the train platform at MARTA’s Lindbergh station. Then, they stampede toward the buses idling outside.
They’re professionals in business suits, and laborers in dirt-smeared T-shirts. They’re teenagers wearing headphones. They’re families with shopping bags. Occasionally, they’re tourists.
Some walk. One or two leap up the steps three at a time. If they don’t make their connections, they could wait an hour for the next bus home.
It’s 2:19 p.m. on a Thursday. Near the top of the stairs, Hispanic workers pressure-wash the station’s rock and cement floor, while riders from the last train briskly walk toward their buses.
One man walks down the steps. He’s wearing a V-neck navy blue sweater over a white dress shirt and a black tie. A bright MARTA ID tag hangs from a string around his neck. A walkie-talkie is attached to his shoulder.
He is Stan Williams, the guy who makes sure the trains run on time.
In 1998, Williams quit his job as the manager at a CVS store and joined MARTA to become a rail station manager. Four years later, he was promoted to rail-line supervisor.
Williams watches passengers each day as they rush on and off the trains, in and out of the stations. But he’s seen up close something riders in their hurry might miss: Atlanta’s rapid-rail system is straining under a combination of age and neglect.
Despite the relative youth of MARTA’s rail lines (the first train ran from the Avondale station to Georgia State in June 1979), most of the system’s cars are so outdated that MARTA can’t get parts for them. The maintenance department either has to make the parts itself or hire another company to customize them.
When a train breaks down, which happens about once a day, it’s up to line supervisors like Williams to get there fast. He must fix the car that stopped working, patch it temporarily or move it out of the way.
Riding with train operators is the best way to keep mobile, to spot potential problems and to patch them quickly. So when he makes it down the stairs, Williams waits for the next train headed south. “Airport” says the red marquee.
“Here we go, rush hour,” he says to driver Curtis Jenkins as he ambles into the operator’s cab. Jenkins’ turtleneck, dark glasses and beard make him look intimidating, like the original Shaft. But he’s really a jovial guy.
“This is when the fun starts,” Jenkins answers.
Williams sticks his head out of the left-hand window to watch passengers get on and off. When the doors clear, he presses a blue button on the inside of the car. The doors close.
Over the next seven hours, he’ll monitor the line between Five Points and North Springs by hopping on and off trains headed in either direction.
Jenkins pushes up a joystick and the train starts moving. With deceptive smoothness and in no time flat, it reaches 55 miles per hour.
The state of Georgia spends plenty of money on transportation projects — so long as those projects meet the state’s own peculiar brand of political correctness.For instance, the Department of Transportation intends to spend $291 million this year on “developmental” highways — roads that, by definition, aren’t needed to relieve congestion. The DOT also moved March 18 toward approving a $106 million commuter rail line to Lovejoy, a town with a population of 2,495, 12 miles north of Griffin.
The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority is spending $27.5 million on the start-up and operation of three suburban bus systems that will feed into MARTA; it’s already subsidizing buses in Cobb and Gwinnett.
And April 15, Gov. Sonny Perdue announced plans to spend a total of $15.5 billion on transportation projects.
Meanwhile, the state will supply MARTA with squat. The system handles five times as many riders as those five suburban bus systems combined. But the state will give it only $2 million to purchase vans and small buses for disabled and elderly riders.
Lawmakers won’t give MARTA a dime for fuel, salaries, or maintenance of its stations, buses and trains. Nor for that matter will they provide money for any of the system’s day-to-day needs. They never have.
MARTA will maintain its most notable distinction as the only major transit agency in the country that doesn’t get operating money from its state government. No wonder, then, that a key weapon in metro Atlanta’s battle for clean air and less congestion is dying a slow death right before our eyes.
Williams rides south, standing inside the operators’ cockpit, in front of the doors that lead to the passenger car. Jenkins sits at the control panel.
Both men have heard rumors that MARTA’s brass is considering another round of furloughs and layoffs. (A few days after we rode together, MARTA General Manager Nathaniel Ford announced a major round of cuts involving mainly bus service, but more layoffs are expected.)
“I heard the job cuts are coming, possibly in June — 400 jobs maybe,” Williams says.
Over the last two years, MARTA has reduced its work force by about 700, and now Williams is worried about keeping his own job. “I’m not the last on the totem pole, but if they don’t get me on this go ’round, then there’s the next one,” he says.
Jenkins also heard the June cuts would number 400. The two MARTA veterans commiserate about how much harder their jobs have gotten since the last round of layoffs, in December, and how much worse MARTA’s service has gotten.
Williams’ turf used to be smaller, but now he and the other line supervisors are spread out over larger territories. “Already, not only am I doing my job,” he says, “I’m doing two or three other people’s jobs.”
He admits that the cuts have worsened the agency’s infuriatingly spotty service. “Trains have to sit and wait for supervisors to arrive, which takes longer because we have a bigger territory to cover.”
The fiscal crisis has rushed up on MARTA. About 15 years ago, the agency was making more money than it needed to operate. Officials set up a reserve fund in case MARTA ever faced hard times. This time last year, MARTA projected it had enough money in those reserves — nearly $35 million — to make up for another four-and-a-half years of budget shortfalls.
But hard times arrived with a vengeance. Ridership is down 15 percent from 2001, the year that brought the Sept. 11 attacks and a 25-cent fare increase. In the same period, MARTA’s primary source of income, a 1 percent sales tax levied in Atlanta, and Fulton and DeKalb counties, has declined by $23 million to $273 million. The agency is projected to finish 2004 with a budget shortfall of $54 million.
To make up for the lost income, MARTA officials dip into the reserve fund. Despite a smaller work force, and despite route cutbacks and reduced maintenance, the reserve fund has shrunk to $19 million, only enough money to last another year and a half, officials now estimate.
If the reserves run out, MARTA will be broke. It won’t have enough revenue to buy fuel for its buses, pay its employees or power its electric trains. So MARTA officials are doing the only thing they really can do: They’re cutting back — again.
Williams says, “If we could get assistance from the state … .” But he doesn’t finish his sentence. It’s as if the concept is so outrageous that there’s no point in contemplating it.
At 2:37 p.m., Williams walks out of the train doors into the Five Points station. He joins the crowd rising up the escalator and enters the station’s bustling core.
Five Points, the system’s hub, puts MARTA’s crumbling infrastructure in plain sight. Tiles are buckling and lose. Water stains streak the ceilings and the walls. Mineral deposits from the leaks have created stalagmites next to the rails.
Most of the turnstiles don’t work, and as we walk across the station’s brown tile floor, we notice a dozen anxious riders waiting in line either to pass through the gates that do work or to hand their tokens to an attendant who lets them in.
Designed 30 years ago, the Five Points station was imagined as the dazzling anchor of a modern rail system that would serve a five-county metro area. But suburban fears of urban (read: black) crime led voters in three counties — Clayton, Cobb and Gwinnett — to reject MARTA service, along with the penny sales tax that would help fund the system.
For about an hour, Williams shows me the run-down corners of a structure that never quite met its potential. He chitchats with other employees and helps customers find their way to the right platform.
At 3:39 p.m., we step onto a shiny new car headed up to the North Springs station at the top of the line. All seats are taken and three or four people are standing, holding the handrails.
The train fills as it hits the stops under Midtown, then emerges to zip over the I-85/I-75 Connector. If the automobiles below are moving at all, they’re so slow you can’t tell.
Those cars stuck in traffic are an argument for MARTA’s existence. Road builders and some developers claim Atlanta can build its way out of metro Atlanta’s traffic mess. But the hard truth is that more roads tend to get filled with more commuters, who drive longer distances. That’s the cycle that created the congestion to begin with. And more commuters going longer distances do little to solve the region’s air pollution problem.
Despite its modest reach, MARTA keeps a surprisingly large number of cars off metro Atlanta’s roads. Overall, the system has about 470,000 riders a day. That’s a substantial benefit to a region already suffering from ozone smog.
The traffic jam below makes a MARTA ad over Williams’ left shoulder all the more ironic. It thanks MARTA riders for “using mass transit to: Reduce air pollution, Reduce traffic congestion, Reduce fuel consumption.”
The train slows just before it reaches the Sandy Springs station, where most riders turn their heads to look out the left side of the car. Their eyes are drawn by MARTA’s latest attempt to earn a few more bucks. It looks as if a silver Cadillac sedan is zigging and zagging right next to the train, but it’s just an eye-catching commercial.
Screens lit with images of the Cadillac are attached to a tunnel wall, level with the train’s windows. Much like thumbing through the pages of an old-fashioned flipbook, the train zips by the images and makes them look like a moving car.
MARTA has earned about $7 million this year by wrapping buses in advertisements. It’s developing a new revenue stream with ads like the Cadillac images alongside the train.
Seeing that innovation gives Williams an opportunity to praise his boss, Nathaniel Ford. “Mr. Ford came in here, inherited a lot of the financial strain when he became CEO, and has been searching for ways to make money,” Williams says.
Ford has searched for new revenue streams in his four years as general manager. But he’s also found controversy.
WSB-TV reported in February 2003 that the new GM spent $23,000 remodeling his office. In a year and a half, he expensed $15,000 for food and drinks.
In December, the MARTA board voted for Ford’s hefty raise when it renewed his contract for five years. His base salary will be $205,000, but with bonuses and allowances, Ford could earn $265,400 this year, and up to $309,500 by 2009. Ford deferred the salary increase and bonus for six months. He said he wanted to set an example of fiscal restraint.
Still, the raise came just as MARTA was eliminating 100 positions. That didn’t look good. And it didn’t endear MARTA management to state leaders. In fact, state DOT Commissioner Harold Linnekohl and Georgia Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Steve Stancil, both of whom sit on the MARTA board, voted against renewing Ford’s contract.
Another recent scandal has done even more damage to the agency’s reputation. Nearly three months ago, board member Mychal Walker admitted he accepted $20,000 from a French company competing for a $100 million contract to upgrade MARTA’s fare system, including the rail stations’ 25-year-old turnstiles. Board members have asked Walker to resign, but he’s refused.
Even before the recent controversies, state officials had a lukewarm relationship with MARTA. Before his 2002 re-election defeat to Sonny Perdue, Gov. Roy Barnes seemed to be edging toward a bailout, either with state funding or a state takeover. First, he created GRTA, which contracted with MARTA to run some of the new suburban bus systems. Many transit advocates thought the next step would be for GRTA to swallow MARTA and turn it into a state-run transit system, which might have seemed less of a bogeyman to suburbanites.
But Perdue’s attitude toward MARTA has been chilly from the get-go. In October, he chose Stancil, a former Republican legislator who voted against GRTA’s creation, to be GRTA’s executive director. Stancil admits MARTA is the spine of the region’s transportation system. But, he says, MARTA “needs to show us that they’re willing to right their own ship, and then come to us if it gets righted. If that happens, I think you’ll see that the state is responsive.”
Before Stancil’s appointment, in a letter to Ford last July, Perdue declared it was up to the agency to tighten its belt by eliminating underused bus routes and doing a better job of monitoring its own performance.
MARTA already has eliminated some underused routes and is in the process of cutting another 15 percent of its bus service. And a year earlier, Ford actually implemented a system to monitor performance, much like the one Perdue seemed to be calling for.
An audit mandated by the General Assembly two years ago found that MARTA performed as well or better than other big transit agencies in the areas of cost effectiveness and service.
But the audit also found that MARTA performed poorly when it came to administrative overhead. MARTA was overstaffed, the auditors said. Since the audit was done, however, MARTA’s work force has gone from 5,200 employees to about 4,500.
Meanwhile, the state itself is dumping another financial burden on MARTA. The suburban systems funded by GRTA link directly into MARTA’s stations. Clayton County’s buses tie into MARTA’s Airport station. Gwinnett’s go to the Doraville, Arts Center, and Five Points stations. Cobb’s buses connect at Arts Center, Hamilton Homes and Five Points.
Those riders pay MARTA’s $1.75 fare on their return trip to the ‘burbs. But under a reciprocal agreement with GRTA, their suburban bus fare allows them to transfer to MARTA for free. Even if they were paying both ways, their fare would only cover about a third of the cost of a ride. The rest of their trip is covered by federal grants and by Fulton, DeKalb and Atlanta sales taxes.
The funding imbalance led Atlanta City Council, and the Fulton and DeKalb commissions, to vote two years ago against giving MARTA any more sales tax revenue after the year 2047. They did this not to shut MARTA down, but to signal to the state and neighboring counties, “It’s your turn to pitch in.”
It’s not unfeasible that one day those county buses could pull up to a MARTA station and find the gates locked, the windows boarded up and bus driveways closed off with chains.
Suburban commuters stand shoulder to shoulder in the aisles of the train carrying Williams to the sparkling clean North Springs station. Rush hour is in full swing.
The train comes to a stop. Williams and the rest of the crowd shuffle out. As the passengers head down an escalator toward their cars, he splits off and walks across the platform to a kiosk that serves as his office where he writes up his shift reports.
Connected to the station, and visible from Williams’ window, is a six-story cement parking deck that holds more than 2,000 cars. Most have Fulton, Cobb and Forsyth county tags, a few are from Gwinnett. Because it’s always full, MARTA built another three-story parking deck next door. That deck is overflowing, too.
Pointing to the parking decks, Williams says, “Gwinnett, Cobb, Clayton — they are all using the system, but they will not help the system. They all tie into MARTA and reap our benefits.
“It’s only a penny sales tax.”
A BANNER DAY IN MARTA’S DEMISE
April 15 is a momentous day in Atlanta’s transportation saga.
At 10 a.m. in the Empire Room of the West Tower of the Sloppy Floyd building, Gov. Sonny Perdue unveils the state’s most expensive plan to date to fight congestion. He carefully outlines his plan to spend $15.5 billion in six years, almost entirely on roads.
During his speech, the word MARTA doesn’t pass Perdue’s lips. Asked afterward if MARTA would get any of the money he talked about, he answers that MARTA would get some. Then he says Steve Stancil would be a better person to answer that question.
Stancil steps forward to announce MARTA will get $2 million. His voice drops when he says he and DOT Commissioner Linnekohl already have arranged to meet with Perdue in the fall to discuss getting MARTA in on the next round of state bond money.
It’s the first clue that Perdue might consider giving substantial state money to MARTA.
Later, the governor’s spokesman spins MARTA’s fate more negatively to an out-of-town paper. “Nobody rides MARTA,” he tells the Macon Telegraph. “Its ridership is dwindling. [Perdue] needs to be convinced the ridership will be there … and [MARTA] can be economically viable.”
At 2:21 p.m., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announces that 20 metro Atlanta counties don’t meet new clean air standards. Only 13 counties didn’t qualify under the old standards, which scientists said didn’t do enough to protect people from air pollution.
The new designations will trigger more stringent controls on pollution from industrial plants, and will require state transportation planners to come up with new ways to reduce vehicle emissions. Among the options: cleaner, more expensive gasoline; more commuter buses; and even commuter rail.
At 7 p.m., in Atlanta City Hall, MARTA board Chairman Michael Walls hosts a public hearing to take comments about the agency’s decision to reduce its bus service by 15 percent. To save $11 million, MARTA officials will eliminate four routes. They’ll also combine and shorten 107 other routes.
When they go into effect June 26, the service cuts will impact more than 2,000 Atlantans, and they will drive MARTA’s ridership down even further.
Walls catches an earful from dozens of aggravated people who depend on buses to get to and from work. Activists wearing “Save MARTA” stickers stand up and condemn Perdue. Others complain about MARTA’s many shortcomings, from buses that run hours late to horrible customer service.
Walls wasn’t hearing anything he didn’t already know. But he’s convinced the struggling transit agency can do little more on its own to improve or expand its services.
“The more services we cut, the more riders we lose,” he says in a separate interview. “The more riders we lose, the more services we’re going to have to cut. It’s a downward spiral.”
MARTA officials say they’re looking at another 10 percent cut in 2005. And in 2006, if a new source of money isn’t found, the agency will increase fares again. The spiral continues.