Riders Oppose MARTA Fare Increases, Service Cuts

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(APN) ATLANTA — MARTA officials are spending this week making its case to the public for fare increases and service cuts while giving riders a chance to voice their opinions.

Several dozen citizens packed council chambers at City Hall Tuesday night, June 16, 2009. Many signed up to speak out on proposals in MARTA’s fiscal year 2010 budget, which is designed to close a multi-million dollar operating budget gap.

Many complained existing conditions on MARTA are less than great. Samantha Boyce, a regular rider of the 24 Belvedere bus, noted riders already suffer through unreliable buses, rude drivers, and long wait times that result in riders being late to work and other obligations. Further cuts would only make the problems worse, she said.

“We’re the ones who are suffering the most,” Boyce said. “We are at their mercy.”

For the last decade, MARTA has been forced to dip into reserves to make up budget gaps. But recent political and economic realities have put MARTA in an even tighter corner.

The poor economy is driving down expected sales tax revenue from Fulton and DeKalb Counties, which accounts for half of MARTA’s operating budget, by $74 million.

The Georgia General Assembly left the agency in a bind earlier this year after it failed to pass SB 120. This legislation would have lifted State restrictions, allowing MARTA to access funds in its capital reserve, about $65 million, to make up the operating gap.

Walter Jones, Director of MARTA’s Office of Management and Budget, said Tuesday the State is imposing “outdated and outmoded restrictions” on the agency and noted Georgia provides no funding to the agency.

To avoid disaster, MARTA is proposing a package of changes to make up the gap for FY 2010, which begins July 1: raising the fare by $.25 to $2.00; a $1 parking fee increase at four lots; no train service after midnight; increase in wait times for trains by several minutes; elimination of bus routes 23, 182, 245, and 273; and changes in 41 other bus routes.

MARTA last raised its fare in 2001 from $1.25 to its current level of $1.75 and committed not to raise fares for five years. Officials tried to raise the fare again in 2005 but, as previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News, community opposition from groups like Atlanta Transit Riders’ Union squashed the plan.

Jones said adjusted for inflation, current fare should be at $2.17, implying a fare increase is long overdue.

MARTA estimates the fare increase will generate an extra $4.8 million, and that the service cuts will generate an extra $8.4 million for 2010.

The agency is using other measures to plug the gap, including drawing $32 million out of operational reserves, $19.2 million in cost containment measures, and $6.4 million in safety enhancements.

MARTA workers are sacrificing as well: no annual merit increases, an increase in medical benefit contributions, and up to 10-day furloughs for all non-represented employees.

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 732, which represents MARTA employees, has agreed to a 15-month deferral on collective bargaining on economic matters due to the current economic slump.

The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) threw MARTA a lifeline in May 2009 when it agreed to send the agency $25 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds originally earmarked for long-term transit projects in Atlanta.

The lifeline is a one-time payment, which MARTA plans to use towards its operating costs. After the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) signed off on the lifeline last week, MARTA announced it will reallocate $25 million of its own capital money to fund transit-related infrastructure projects inside the MARTA service area.

Jones said MARTA can “put off a day of reckoning” with this proposed package but warned drastic options could be back on the table next year if the economic crisis does not abate and if more revenue streams do not become available.

“Relying on one-time grants and reserves is not a long-term solution,” Jones said.

The Board is set to vote on the budget June 22. If approved, service changes will take effect August 15, 2009 and the fare increase on October 1.

Public hearings continued at 7 pm Wednesday at the South Fulton Service Center on Stonewall Tell Road in College Park and the Maloof Auditorium on Commerce Drive in Decatur.

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for The Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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