State-MARTA jousting match

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

There’s long been a dysfunctional relationship between MARTA and the state, which oversees and restricts the transit agency’s budget but offers no financial support of its own. It’s also frustrating for riders like me when MARTA, which has had spending issues, trims its service. At a recent meeting of the state oversight committee (MARTOC), there were some icebreaking signs of progress, but it still didn’t do much to instill confidence that a robust partnership between MARTA and legislators was in the works.

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State-MARTA jousting match

By Tom Sabulis

Scenes from a recent meeting of MARTOC, the Georgia legislature’s oversight committee on MARTA, in which state legislators and the transit agency manage to puzzle the public observer:

First scene: New MARTA CEO Keith T. Parker calls “minimal” an annual $3 million lost in fare evasion. Yes, he means that $3 million is “minimal” in the context of MARTA’s overall $427 million operating budget. Still, according to MARTA, it has saved much less — $1.5 million annually — by extending wait times for train riders with the cuts it made in 2010. Therefore, one calculates, that by reducing fare evasion another 50 percent, MARTA could pay to reduce those waits from the current 13-15 minutes to 10 minutes.

Such a move would be more than a minimal fix for those of us who use the system every weekday. With ridership numbers “drastically dropping,” according to one MARTA offical at the meeting, it makes sense to improve service.

Parker said MARTA is working on cutting fare evasion through more police presences. “Our leakage problem is nowhere near what other major systems have,” Parker said. “But it sends a message that we are not taking care of the system.”

Next scene: MARTOC member Sen. Fran Millar says he doesn’t understand why MARTA ignores distance-based pricing: Why, for example, does someone traveling from Alpharetta to the airport pay the same fare as a rider going from Midtown to Hartsfield-Jackson. “It just doesn’t seem right when all these toll roads we’re putting in on I-85, on I-75, you pay so much for so many miles,” Millar said. “How come we’re doing it in the HOV lanes but we’re not doing it with MARTA? We’re not very consistent in our transit policy as a state. I don’t get it.”

He has a point. It seems like MARTA is missing out on a revenue opportunity with distance-based pricing, depending, of course, on the cost of instituting such a system. Parker called it an “extremely complex topic” that would benefit from a full briefing, which MARTOC chairman Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, agreed to schedule.

Another scene: MARTA is installing security cameras on its buses and trains; 300 of the 500+ buses now have them. Sen. Millar wanted to know why MARTA has not publicized the move to security cameras. “I just don’t think people are aware it’s a new MARTA,” he said.

But marketing and advertising cost money. It feels odd to hear a state legislator suggesting the transit agency crank up marketing and public-relations about something many riders already know about, because they see the cameras in the buses. If the state feels strongly about advertising, maybe it would consider paying for it. (By my count, the AJC since September has published two stories focusing on the security cameras, and another three that mention them.)

Summing up, MARTA leaders came to the MARTOC meeting to announce some steps in deficit reduction (five vice-president level jobs were eliminated, with two new ones being added) and some good news for riders (security cameras, a “Ride with Respect” campaign targeting boorish behavior, the re-opening of some station restrooms).

For MARTOC members, however, there weren’t enough specifics about plans to increase revenue, aside from modest fare hikes down the road which, apart from distance-based fees, they seem to discourage. (Presumably, the distance-based system they want to research could decrease fares for some short-haul riders.)

Final impression: For all the affable small-talk between legislators and MARTA officials, the meeting had the air of awkward political theater, whereas many Atlantans would hope instead for a partnership. On one side is the state, which contributes nothing financially to MARTA yet influences its fate legally. On the other is MARTA, which has mismanaged money for years, yet has to serve a widespread public and manage union employees, while submitting to an unyielding General Assembly.

Conclusion: The mass-transit stalemate continues. You wish there was a more productive way to improve the system for workers who depend on it.

To watch the July 22 meeting, click on the MARTOC link at www.house.ga.gov/communications/en-US/VideoBroadcasts.aspx

7 comments Add your comment

MANGLER

August 6th, 2013
2:08 pm

Setting up a facebook and twitter page would be free and require minimal maintenance. Anyone who follows or likes MARTA would get any relevant updates on closures, delays, cameras, whatever. Just my 2 advertising cents. How much would a few “like up” signs on the waiting platforms cost? Less than a commercial on a radio station that we’ll just flip channels from.

David

August 6th, 2013
1:11 pm

Fran Millar’s statement that you can get on MARTA from Alpharetta and go to the airport for the same price is comical. Fare based transit is train only. Dunwoody is closer to two train stations than any station is to Alpharetta. By the time you drive to a MARTA station from Alpharetta you may as well keep on trucking to the airport. Chicago METRA has a distance based system, but if you live in the Chicago area and are the distance Alpharetta is from a train station you live in the middle of a corn field.

Glad to be Gone from Georgia!

August 6th, 2013
12:30 pm

The fact is the reprogramming the fare system to provide a distance based fare structure is very costly because it is a proprietary system. Combine that cost with the trips and fares lost due to the increased fares for patrons traveling greater distances, and the envisioned extra revenue doesn’t materialize. Sen. Millar should stick to things he knows about or understands. Not sure what that is, but it ain’t MARTA.

BHG

August 6th, 2013
9:29 am

Brian: How are those 3 systems wildly successful and MARTA not so much?

From my experience in DC, the transportation system has more frequent trains, runs longer hours, and, most importantly, takes people from where they are to where they want to go. It seemed like no matter where I was in the DC area, there was a train station just a few blocks away. Even in the ‘burbs, it was at most a short drive or bike ride.

My biggest gripe with MARTA right now is that, for someone living in Alpharetta/Johns Creek, it’s not a short trip to the nearest station or even bus stop. If I’m driving that far already, I might as well just keep on going to my destination. And if I plan on staying out late, forget about taking a train back home.

Of course, the solution to those problems requires will and budget, both of which seem to be in short supply around here.

Road Scholar

August 6th, 2013
5:51 am

MARTA has been collecting data on a mileage based system for years. Why do you think they make you swipe your card when you enter and exit a station?

Brian

August 6th, 2013
4:56 am

How about an article studying Boston, Washington DC and Chicago and comparing them to MARTA? DC I think is the only one doing distance based fares, why? How are those 3 systems wildly successful and MARTA not so much?

SAWB

August 5th, 2013
11:17 pm

The State of Georgia should assume the funding responsibilities for MARTA and place it under the control of GRTA making it part of a larger regional transit authority or get out of the way. I agree all organizations need effective oversight, but it seems a properly formatted Board representing the local municipalities that actually fund the Authority would be more effective and eliminate another needless layer of Government. Also, MARTA should aggressively pursue real opportunities to outsource as many functions as possible to the private sector.