Special series: A lesson on frugality for MARTA from out West

(Note: This concludes a special series examining MARTA. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here or Part 3 here.)

MARTA says it needs another $50 million a year to survive. It can find half of it out West.

I’m talking about places like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Honolulu, San Diego and Denver — places that have significantly cut their transit operating costs by contracting out bus services.

Those first three cities have outsourced their entire bus service. These outfits are still funded with the traditional transit model, with a mix mostly of taxpayer funds and passenger fares, but they are not run by in-house employees. Private firms do the work.

The results are impressive. Honolulu in 2008 was able to provide 41 percent more bus service than MARTA at about three-quarters of the total cost. Its operating cost per passenger mile was just 51 cents vs. MARTA’s 93 cents.

In Las Vegas it was 57 cents; in Phoenix, 80 cents.

In all, 11 of the nation’s 50 largest public bus systems contracted out at least 10 percent of their bus service in 2008. All 11 have cheaper operating costs per passenger mile than MARTA’s bus operation does.

MARTA’s bus service isn’t uncompetitive only when compared with privatized services. The vast majority of the top 20 don’t contract out any bus service, and yet most have lower costs than MARTA does.

The most marked contrast, however, is with the 11 that do use outside operators. As a group, they have privatized just over half their bus service, at a per-mile savings of 39 percent compared with MARTA.

Including the bus service they do run in-house, these agencies are collectively 30 percent less costly than MARTA.

The private model applied to MARTA

What if MARTA were to privatize about half its service, and in doing so achieved similar savings? It could increase bus service by one-eighth over 2008 levels while holding expenses steady; cut bus costs by a ninth while providing the same amount of service; or settle on some combination of new service and lower costs.

Cutting bus costs by a ninth from 2008 levels would save MARTA $22 million a year. Privatize all bus service, and MARTA might save as much as $43 million annually.

So, why haven’t more transit systems embraced contracting?

“Too often the mission of public transportation providers has been to grow and protect the transit organization as opposed to maximizing the product we provide,” said Cal Marsella, then-CEO of Denver’s transit authority, in a 2008 interview with the Reason Foundation.

“The organization is not the thing. Mobility is what people vote for and expect.”

Along the same lines, he noted, “The first answer to improved quantities of quality mobility service is not always the provision of more … money but rather looking inward to existing operations to determine if more cost-effective means are available …”

That point resonates for metro Atlanta in two ways. As policymakers prepare to ask citizens to approve a new penny sales tax to fund new transportation infrastructure, they must assure us that all options, including transit, will be as cost-effective as possible.

The second way relates specifically to MARTA. Whether or not MARTA enters a holding pattern in terms of growth, it will be crucial for MARTA to make all its operations as lean as possible.

Transportation in our region is much too important to do anything else.


88 comments Add your comment

Horrible Horrace

May 20th, 2010
2:23 pm

And those employees, if ya can call them that, that vandalized the Marta trains/busses should be arrested for vandalism & malicious mischief, destruction of property etc and then FIRED.


May 20th, 2010
2:24 pm

Again, “Go Away, MARTA”……MARTA privatize? are you kidding? That’s too easy and makes too much sense……Besides, we’re talking black here and even tho it makes all the sense in the world it ain’t never gonna happen because “It’s a Black Thing”.

To Horrible Horrace…..this is worth saying again.

May 20th, 2010
10:30 am
Dismantling Marta is the only answer.

Marta will never make a profit.
Marta will always have their hand out.
Marta will always be inefficient and inept at everything.

Marta is a fine example of a financial bottomless pit and chock full of stupid and inept employees, from top to bottom.

Churchill's MOM

May 20th, 2010
2:25 pm

Horrible Horrace 2:21 pm

I doubt that Bryan works for MARTA, just gets paid by them.

Mason Hicks

May 20th, 2010
2:26 pm

I am a proud MARTA supporter. And Bryan is correct. Despite the hyperbolie surrounding MARTA’s reputation; which is more or less correctly described MARTA’s performance under previous administrations, MARTA is well known throughout the public transit industry as a well managed agency. I’m not completely against contracting out a portion of MARTA’s bus operations. In fact, I’ve recently discovered that much of Charlotte’s bus system is managed by a Texas-based subsidiary of Paris’ (the French Paris) RATP. I’ve been told that Charlotte’s bus system is well run. For such out-sourcing to be successful, one has to place close attention to both the contract, the potential contractor, as well as to who will be overseeing and governing the whole process. Unfortunately, I’ve seen nothing to suggest that their is adequate incorruptible competency in Metro Atlanta; or in Georgia for that matter.

Horrible Horrace

May 20th, 2010
2:28 pm

If I didnt know any better I would swear that Barack Obama is the top dog, head honcho, the big cheese that is operating Marta.

Kyle Wingfield

May 20th, 2010
3:23 pm

Church’s: I saw your question(s) about bus driver pay. That’s something I’m still looking into. But for now I can say this: In fiscal 2009, 19 bus drivers grossed more than $75,000, including overtime. The highest-paid driver grossed $96,562.27.

Horrible Horrace

May 20th, 2010
3:31 pm

Bus drivers grossing $75K?!! Just imagine how many other employees are grossly overpaid.

Bryan -- MARTA supporter

May 20th, 2010
4:09 pm

@ Churchill’s MOM and Kyle,

It’s racist because to bulk of the riders are poor Blacks that can’t afford cars. No transit system in the WORLD is making a profit and they all will need additional assistance at one point or another. So instead of working to get additional funding what do they do… just cut an entire bus service? Did CCT just get cut? GCT was in a financial crisis as well but they didn’t just cut the service. They cut routes, cut weekend service, and increased wait times for bus. Something would have been much better than nothing and I’m sure the bus riders of Clayton would have been more satisfied with that alternative than to just not have any service at all beside GRTA that only runs during rush hour and only goes to downtown and midtown, which most of the folks riding C-Tran were probably not going.

Trust Kyle you can be racists against your own race. I’m a young Black professional and when I was younger (18 or 19ish) I’d always have older Blacks look at me like I was just a thug in the street because I had braids and tattoos and wore urban clothes. They didn’t think or even ask to see if I was in college, which I was and making good grades. They thought they were better than me because I didn’t grow up in the suburbs. I grew up poor and at times in the projects.

@ Horrible Horrace

Your comments don’t even make sense and I shouldn’t have even replied to give you that satisfaction. No I don’t get paid by MARTA, I pay them to use their services.

Thank you Mason Hicks for seeing what it really is. There are a lot of folks in this area that make it not what it could really be. I love ATL but there are just some folks here that are just so in the backwoods it makes no sense.

Bryan -- MARTA supporter

May 20th, 2010
4:13 pm

If it is not racially inspired thinking that holds MARTA back just look at the comment by Not A MARTA Fan May 20th, 2010 2:24 pm. It’s a Black thing huh?

Kyle Wingfield

May 20th, 2010
4:32 pm

What you’re describing in your 4:09, Bryan, has more to do with class issues than race imo. (I mean class vs. class, not saying you are classless, for the record…) But there’s also a problem in that you’re assigning race-based motivations to people making decisions that have very clear financial factors. I don’t think you can ignore money and just put the whole thing down to racism.

Bryan -- MARTA supporter

May 20th, 2010
4:46 pm

@ Kyle

Yeah that particular situation is more class based the way it was worded. I understand what you were saying but there are a lot of upper class blacks that don’t like who they are and are racists against their own people. Unfortunately I’ve ran into a few.

You are right also about the financial factors also but just cutting an entire system? There are other alternatives than that. I apologize I don’t remember the lady’s name but she offered I think it was 2 million dollars that was there for board to put toward C-Tran. If I’m not mistaken there was controversy with her about not paying taxes or something like that. I’m sure with cutting some routes (like route 500 for sure) and reducing frequency, and maybe even cutting Sunday service there could have been a better alternative than just cutting an entire bus system.

I can’t find anywhere else where a major transit system was just cut and ended like that. Now to be truthful I just did a quick search so if there is one in recent years I definitely could have over looked it.

Bryan -- MARTA supporter

May 20th, 2010
4:51 pm

Whether you agree or not, I strongly feel racism played a significant behind the sceens roll in limiting the expansion of MARTA in it’s early years and still does. But it is not the only thing. I did what to clarify my stance on that.

Churchill's MOM

May 20th, 2010
5:32 pm

Bryan — MARTA supporter….that big chip on your are carrying around is not doing you any good, throw it away and you will be much better off. This whole thing is about money and MARTA’s failure to make good use of what they nave not race.

Maybe when you grow up you will have the $96,562.27 bus driver job.


May 20th, 2010
5:50 pm

Bus Drivers, school teachers, school administrators — so they are overpaid it seems, based on what people want to pay in taxes. So how did that happen?


May 20th, 2010
6:16 pm

I would like to see how Wingfield arrived at these numbers. Something is wrong. On an hourly basis, MARTA bus operators are certainly not overpaid. They work hard and long for their money.
I suspect an “agenda” on this. Power and control from politicans and special interest, as usual.

Bryan -- MARTA supporter

May 20th, 2010
6:19 pm

Churchill’s MOM

Sorry you have me mistaken. I’m so not worried about the racist people out here. I’m young, Black, educated, I’m getting my money, and I’m living good. I’m the American dream and America’s nightmare all wrapped in one. I’m just telling what it is. I’m telling the truth about MARTA and part of the reason why it hasn’t been expanded.

If you really want to get technically on my very first post at 12:37 pm I barely mentioned race at all. Actually just once in the very first line. You are the one that “bit” on your post at 1:43pm and made it an issue about race and that is what I’ve focused on since. Seem like you and some others made this a real issue about race. Even your comment about making 96K can be taken as racial to a point whether you ment it like that or not. Don’t hate on the bus driver that is skilled at his/her craft and works the overtime to get that kind of money for their family. I’m not making that money. I’m working hard myself to get that kind of money on day. Seems like YOU are the one that has a problem with a bus driver working some regular blue collar job making that kind of money while you are probably not making anywhere near that.

Kyle Wingfield

May 20th, 2010
6:23 pm

Bubba: I didn’t “arrive” at these numbers; MARTA itself reported them to the Legislature…see the 2009 MARTOC report here: http://www.itsmarta.com/reports.aspx

Tiger Woods + Jesse James = SuperBAD meets SuperEVIL in "SuperUGLY!"

May 20th, 2010
6:37 pm

Redneck Convert (R–and proud of it)

May 20th, 2010
8:01 am

“So I think old Kyle done hit upon something here. We can operate MARTA the way businesses operate. The minute it starts loosing any money, we just dump the passengers out into the street and file for bankruptcy and walk away with our Golden Parachutes. Or maybe we can just raise the fare to 100 bucks each way and when people quit riding we can say MARTA wasn’t wanted so it’s time to fold it up.”

I like your way of thinking, Redneck Convert. Why didn’t I think of that sooner? You get the bonus checks and the helicopter ready and I’ll get the shredder fired up….


May 20th, 2010
5:50 pm
“Bus Drivers, school teachers, school administrators — so they are overpaid it seems, based on what people want to pay in taxes. So how did that happen?”

Jefferson, I’ll tell you how that happened: everybody wants to be a CEO walking away through the escape hatch with a Golden Parachute and nobody wants to be the supposedly unappreciated bus driver, school teacher or principal in line to be the first to get the ax when the economy goes bad. Besides, everybody knows that CEOs of billion-dollar corporations and Wall Street investment bankers have WAY more to offer this society than schoolteachers and educators ever have or ever will. That’s why CEOs get multimillion and billion-dollar salaries with benefits and are the first in line to get taxpayer-funded billion-dollar bailouts during economic downturns while teachers and educators are first in line to get put in their place with “non-renewals” of teaching contracts because a teacher who lives it up on an exorbitant salary of $30,000-a-year is infinitely more greedy than a CEO who barely scrapes by on a meager salary of $100 million-plus-a-year and just manages to escape through the backdoor with a truckload full of money while the rest of the company goes down in flames.

Jefferson, remember, evil teachers BAD. Innocent CEOs GOOD. Teachers are the devil and Wall Street investment bankers are angels. I’m pretty sure that all of those CEOs with those Golden Parachutes and those Wall Street bankers with those “unfortunate” mortgage investments could have learned to count high enough to steal, eh, I mean, “misplace” all of that money on their own without the help they had from of all of those modestly paid teachers growing up. Of course I’ll give the greedy CEO and Wall Street bankers a pass and scream like hell when a schoolteacher wants a modest “cost-of-living increase” to help keep a roof over their heads. Evil teachers’ unions, damn government schools. How dare they warp our values!

Hillbilly Deluxe

May 20th, 2010
7:07 pm

Kyle @ 6:23

Good grief. That thing is 200 pages long.

Michael H. Smith

May 20th, 2010
8:09 pm

A lot is going on with some other really serious issue.

Is it time to move onto a different subject?


May 20th, 2010
9:22 pm


Many cities do use taxi cabs for para transit service. Atlanta is one of the few major cities that does not require their taxis to be handicapped accessible. To ride in a cab would require a person to be of sound mind and body which many para transit providers are not

Second how do you reimburse such a system is a problem. There have been reports of contractor fraud in some cases in other cities.


May 21st, 2010
12:33 am

So after this “series examining MARTA”, it would be nice to see your plan for how they should operate. I’ve read all kinds of criticism, much of it glass half empty rock throwing, some of it just plain out to lunch, & alot of just general griping. So how would you propose it all be done better? Is less funding & more cost-cutting, as specific & general those are, all you have to say? Nothing about how we will ever see the Metro area’s serious transportation issues improved?


May 21st, 2010
1:56 am

John, when will the “true believers” realize the mantra of “This is what Democrats will never understand. Private companies will ALWAYS run more effecient than any government run organization.”, in light of what we’ve seen the last ten years at least, is as bogus as saying the reverse?
I’m not even going to begin listing all the huge corporations, from automakers to banks, energy companies to airlines, investment firms to media companies, & yeah, even newspapers, that haven’t shown me they know how to run all that efficiently!

I see, too, we haven’t yet outsourced our military, called for an end to all public education, as well as medicare & the VA, & even all the toughest talking conservative members of congress haven’t made a mass migration away from their “government-run healthcare” plans. Plus, can you tell me what delivery company on the planet will take any letter you give them, and delivery it door to door, anywhere in the US, including Hawaii & Alaska (for no extra charge), for 44 cents?

Pretending the government shouldn’t do anything, and we only need count on “the free market system” (that even Greenspan says doesn’t exist) to make everything right, cheap, and for a profit, sounds good around campaign time, but as a blueprint for forward progress, you’ve got to be kidding….

Churchill's MOM

May 21st, 2010
7:48 am

Bryan — MARTA supporter 6:19 pm

I have the ultimate job, stay at home mother, I hope you are able to do the same for the mother of your children. I don’t draw a salary but am very happy with my situation.

You can’t have it both ways, 1 of MARTA’s biggest problems is mismanagement, the numbers show they are not controlling cost, thus they are stealing from the poor black people you are so worried about.


May 22nd, 2010
5:09 pm

England is still paying the price for privatizing public transportation in the Thatcher/Majors era. Private companies milk the system for cash, and walk away from their contracts leaving an infrastructure that is decrepit from lack of proper maintenance. Case in point, adding a car to a train adds costs, but not revenue. If passengers can be expected to stand for 45 minutes twice a day every day, the private company will not add a car. In 2004, the rail system was still using the slam door cars like the ones in the WWII movies. Romantic, as long as your not the one that must travel in them every day.


May 22nd, 2010
5:49 pm

Kyle – when i tried to research just what the savings were, I kept running across studies by supposedly impartial think tanks that are actualy mostly conservative, republican, business groups. I know privatization is a mantra for conservatives; however, it also comes with a great loss of control and lack of accountability to consituents. Plus repeatedly now, privatization has failed to perform in many sectors as it has promised. It often looks good on paper but in practice, over time, not so much. (Much like the current Atlanta parking meter privatization.) You have to remember that a lot of cost-savings promised by free-market competition and efficiencies are balanced by them actually being for profit groups. Often with ties to conflicting business groups. Many cities that have experimented with privitizations of services, have had mixed luck. Wouldn’t it be better just to demand a higher level of accountability and transparency from MARTA, demand more audits and oversight?


May 24th, 2010
12:34 pm

Why do conservatives ALWAYS conclude that privatization is a silver bullet? Privitzation can go and has gone VERY badly in many cases and is not always the answer.

Kyle Wingfield

May 24th, 2010
2:29 pm

Intown: I don’t think it’s a silver bullet. I also acknowledge that it won’t work in every instance. But when it has been successful in similar circumstances for other agencies/governments, I think we ought to give it a serious look. And MARTA would have the luxury of learning from whatever mistakes other transit agencies have made. After all, even in a particular kind of situation, privatization can be done well and it can be done poorly.

Bryan -- MARTA supporter

May 25th, 2010
12:18 pm

@ Churchill’s MOM May 21st, 2010
7:48 am

Where are your numbers at showing that? There was really only one incident of mismanagment and that was with Ford spending $1,000 of MARTA’s money on personal expenses, and he was made to pay that money back. Other than that none. MARTA is one of the most cost efficient systems in the coutry. Look what they have to work with: No state funding but they have control on how MARTA’s and for that matter the tax payers money is spent, limited Federal funding because of no real investment into the system locally by the ENTIRE metro Atlanta region, and a sales tax funding that isn’t garanteed to generate the same type of revenue for the system year after year.


These are facts! Most non MARTA supporters don’t have any facts just personal opinions and stereotypes. The ones that do can only come up with one or two issues that they may be talking about in MARTA’s 30 years of service! Come on. You have to do better than that.

Privatizing MARTA « MARTA Rocks!

May 27th, 2010
12:23 am

[...] took notice.  And of course, we must dissect his every argument.  Starting with this article.  A lesson on frugality for MARTA from out west In this special nonsense, Kyle argues for the privatization of MARTA and how it can save MILLIONS [...]

CCT Girl

May 27th, 2010
12:26 am

Kyle Wingfield

May 27th, 2010
10:10 am

CCT Girl: Thanks for the link. I left a comment on your blog.


May 27th, 2010
4:58 pm

Marta is a failure because it is designed to serve a downtown that doesn’t exist anymore. The subways that work NYC, DC, London (that I have experience with) go to where the jobs and entertainment are. Marta doesn’t. It was planned for political reasons not for the convenience of the those who would pay to ride it.


May 27th, 2010
5:16 pm

Kyle Wingfield:
does our system of roads in this state turn a profit? Does it even break even? Or does it require millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars every year? Just wondering…

Scott G.

May 27th, 2010
5:52 pm

Cutting the Braves shuttle sounds like a huge mistake. With the highly limited train routes available, there are many people who ONLY take MARTA to big events downtown. Making even that inconvenient will cause them to lose more business. With thinking like that, no wonder they’re in trouble.


May 27th, 2010
8:36 pm

Scott G.:
MARTA has a daily average ridership of over 450,000. The Braves average gate attendance is maybe 30,000 if they’re lucky and for only 81 dates in a 365 day year. I bet that only a few thousand fans per game actually take MARTA and the Braves shuttle. I wouldn’t describe this number of people as “many” in the grand scheme of things.

There may be people who only take MARTA to Braves games, but it is a minuscule number of people compared to the people who take it to get to and from work, school etc. You know, those important things aside from a baseball game. If cutting that shuttle saves money, then to me it is the first thing you cut. If the Braves shuttle is so important to the team.

CCT Girl

May 27th, 2010
11:04 pm

Thanks for the comment, I responded!

Frances Young

May 31st, 2010
1:09 am

At less then $20 an hour even with overtime how does these drivers make close to $100K a year? impossible