Metro Atlanta is choking under the weight of its own success. Traffic here is frequently compared to the legendary gridlock in the significantly larger Los Angeles, but we can only expand interstate lanes so much until we run out of physical space. There is also a limit to how much longer we can afford to spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Developing a successful and vibrant public transit infrastructure would therefore be a significant step in solving these critical problems.
Unfortunately, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) sometimes has a well-deserved reputation for being unreliable, dirty and impractical as a transportation method. When metro Atlantans need to get from point A to point B, many eschew the public transit system because it lacks an adequate reach. Presently, its buses only operate within the Fulton and DeKalb counties, and its train lines consist of a measly cross-shaped route that primarily serves downtown and the airport and barely anything else.
The system’s lack of rail service on the Clifton Corridor (of which Emory is a part of) is a particularly major oversight because it is one of the largest employment centers in the state. On any given day, the corridor handles 30,000 employees, 15,000 students and thousands of hospital patients.
Even more importantly, MARTA has been the victim of nasty racial politics throughout its history. The belief that buses and trains carry crime into the neighborhoods is entirely unsubstantiated and a half-baked excuse that attempts to cover up a fear of the socioeconomic and racial demographics that ride public transit. Nevertheless, this argument has been surprisingly effective in preventing MARTA’s expansion into the suburbs and hindering its operations within its existing district.
The decisions made early on during MARTA’s formative years to not establish it as a comprehensive transit system is the reason why MARTA’s footprint today is so pitifully small.
Metro Atlanta cannot afford to make the same mistakes it did 40 years ago when MARTA was first established. This aversion to transit in favor of asphalt and fossil fuels is “future-proofing” our city.
It is not surprising, then, that by failing to provide comprehensive service, MARTA was the only major transit system in the entire country that lost ridership in 2013.
In addition, MARTA is the butt of jokes within the Georgia House of Representatives. Georgia legislators — especially rural ones who have no bearing on city transportation — love criticizing and micromanaging the agency, including handcuffing it with oppressive regulations. Some of the proposed restrictions included radical reshuffling of board appointments and the privatization of certain functions, controversies that continue to saddle the agency’s efforts to claw its way back into the black.
Even worse, MARTA is the only major public transit system in the country that receives no funding from its home state. Other agencies may receive up to a quarter of their operating budget from their state government. But Georgia doesn’t give MARTA a single penny. In 2012, it was predicted that the agency would be financially insolvent within four to five years.
When I first arrived in Atlanta as a first-year student, MARTA was in midst of a dramatic downward spiral. Routes had been slashed, trains were removed from service and wait times skyrocketed along with fare increases. Ridership predictably plummeted. A transfer in the downtown Five Points station one weekend took 20 minutes as I waited for the train to show up. “Never again will I ride MARTA,” I remember thinking.
Faced with these mounting problems, MARTA’s remarkable turnaround last year has been nothing short of miraculous. The agency has restored the routes it cut during the Great Recession and managed to scrape together funding for sleek new buses, and maximum wait-times in some downtown train stations actually decreased to five minutes. Last week, my wait-time in the downtown Five Points station was the time it took me to walk from one train platform to the one I was transferring to, a dramatic improvement.
Today, the agency has gone within a few short years from being on the verge of bankruptcy to operating in the black. MARTA’s new CEO has worked to great lengths to establish positive working relationships with former critics in the state legislature, leading to the suspension of many spending restrictions the legislature placed on the agency, such as a policy that had limited MARTA’s budget to exactly half on maintenance and half on operations. Additionally, the agency has looked into developing parcels of unused parking lots in order to generate additional revenue.
Last July, voters in Clayton County voted by an overwhelming 74 percent margin to join MARTA. Service is expected to begin there this March, the agency’s first expansion since its inception 40 years ago. Proposed expansions will increase MARTA’s rail footprint into northern Fulton County and, finally, through the Clifton Corridor.
MARTA’s resurgence couldn’t have happened at a more critical time. Our roads and highways are at capacity and expanding them is a not smart transportation policy. But despite its recent successes, MARTA still has a reputation problem within the state government because Atlanta and Georgia are still stuck in a destructive car-dependent mentality. This year, the Republican-run state legislature is actually considering raising taxes to pay for an overhaul of the state’s transportation system. Governor Nathan Deal has called it “the largest interstate expansion since the 1980s.” Unfortunately, not a single cent of the expected additional $1 billion revenue will go to MARTA.
Metro Atlanta cannot afford to make the same mistakes it did 40 years ago when MARTA was first established. This aversion to transit in favor of asphalt and fossil fuels is “future-proofing” our city. Young millennials, who increasingly prefer a transit-oriented and walkable lifestyle, would be much less enamored with Atlanta if it continues to disregard MARTA. When people cannot get to work in a timely manner as is happening on our interstates right now, then the region will simply stop growing. This isn’t acceptable.
Most people who have ever ridden MARTA have experienced inconveniences while riding on or waiting for it. There are certainly legitimate concerns over how MARTA is operated, and a severe deficiency in infrastructure cannot be improved overnight. Still, it remains an important backbone of the region’s transportation infrastructure.
So ride MARTA. Enjoy the comforts of reading a book or playing Candy Crush while zipping past traffic. Vote! Let the local politicians hear the millennials support for transit. Atlanta is at a crucial crossroads. Unless it begins to receive the kind of political and economic support that its sibling agencies in other cities enjoy, MARTA will never reach its full potential, and we’ll all be stuck in traffic because of it.
Edmund Xu is a College senior from Los Altos, California.