MARTA Riders’ Union Takes Parta in Debate over Public Transit: MARTA is Smarta When We All Take Parta

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(APN) ATLANTA– The Atlanta Transit Riders’ Union (ATRU) believes in the power of the people who ride buses, and has appropriated public transit as a populist issue, Atlanta Progressive News has learned. ATRU claims two major recent victories in 2005 and the group hopes to continue its success in 2006.

In 2005, The Riders’ Union successfully prevented MARTA from raising riders’ one-way fares by twenty-five cents ($0.25) to two dollars ($2.00) from the current fare of $1.75. ATRU also prevailed in its grasssroots lobbying efforts to restore Bus Route 61 that serves the Bowen Homes Public Housing Project in 2005.

“Our campaign is not a [top-down] lobbying campaign,” Terence Courtney, 34, Coordinator for the Atlanta Jobs with Justice (JWJ), said. The Atlanta JWJ is coordinating the Riders’ Union, although the leaders stress their main tactic is empowering others and educating them about how to have an effective voice through collective organizing.

“The people most affected have to be organized and activated…only a movement of direct action and protest is going to move those who make decisions to do the right thing,” Courtney told Atlanta Progressive News.

Atlanta JWJ is composed of various unions, students, faith groups, and other activists working in Atlanta communities where transit cutbacks hurt the most.

“One of the keys to our victories was going out there and building relationships with present organizations in their communities,” Courtney said. “[We] listened to them, went to their meetings, and got their input.”

In June 2005, after ATRU protesters scolded MARTA leadership in front of the Lindbergh headquarters, the MARTA Board unanimously approved the 2006 $323.5 million budget without a fare increase.

In August 2005, ATRU and the Bowen Homes Tenants’ Association joined together to protest the cut of Bus Route 61. Courtney informs APN as of Dec. 31, 2005 that Route 61 has been restored.

Chioke Perry, 42, President of the ATRU, said he got involved in grassroots campaigning in Spring 2004 out of “frustration.” That year, MARTA cut Bus Route 90, which went from roughly the Jonesboro Road area to the Oakland City Station, a route that Perry relied on heavily.

Perry also felt frustration over public servants not helping MARTA and public transportation to “blossom,” choosing instead to leave public office and take on private projects, he said.

Perry participated in a protest march held by the employees of the Hamilton E. Homes MARTA Station in front of the Department of Labor in 2004; his grassroots involvement “sort of snowballed from there.”

ATRU has three (3) goals for the future, unions leaders tell Atlanta Progressive News. The first goal is to convince leaders to help MARTA with state funding. MARTA is the only U.S. transit system not receiving funding from the state.

MARTA uses revenue collected from a one percent sales tax in Fulton and DeKalb Counties and the city of Atlanta along with rider fare to pay for its operation, which Courtney, Perry and many others say is simply not enough.

“Transit has been great for the state of Georgia,” said Perry. “There are other communities around the state that will stand to benefit from the state funding this entity.”

The second goal is to “democratize” the MARTA board. Courtney wants people who know and work the system to have a voice. By putting more union voices on the board, Courtney feels the rights of union workers, and working families who use public transportation, will be protected.

Typical consumer driven empowerment models call for at least one-third of Board Members in a decision-making body to themselves be consumers.

Courtney complains that counties like Cobb, Clayton and Gwinnett, which contribute nothing in the way of resources to MARTA, get to make decisions about service and job cuts.

ATRU leaders feel those who do contribute to and run the system should make those decisions and have an equal voice.

The third goal is to maintain MARTA as the only transit provider and planner in the region. “Let’s put all this money, effort, and resources into something that’s already broken that serves the vast majority of people here in the city, and that’s MARTA,” Courtney said.

ATRU wants to take on new commissions like the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), which ATRU leaders say does not provide for community stakeholder participation.

“Their (ARC) plan for a transit planning board or transit service board is… another attempt to create this bureaucracy that will control transit instead of putting it in the hands of people who will ultimately have to carry out any decisions around regional transit,” Courtney said.

“Transit is a human right, therefore it should be public, [not privatized],” Courtney said.

ATRU plans to continue working in communities like East Atlanta that have lost part of their bus service and in some cases continue to lose. “What we’re finding out is that the elderly folks who voted for MARTA and put trust in the system to service their needs [are] the first ones having their services cut,” Perry said.

“We’re [the people] holding them [the politicians] accountable for spending our tax dollars,” Perry added. The ATRU will continue to go into the communities to help “build coalitions…and create a sort of bridge so that people will be able to advocate for their own needs.”

Jonathan Springston is a Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News.  He may be reached at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com

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