It is not in MARTA’s best interest — nor the region’s — to raise fares at this time

By Maria Saporta

It’s a well known pattern.

Public transit systems experience a financial squeeze. They raise fares. Ridership drops. That causes more financial hardships. So then transit services must be cut. That causes ridership to decrease. So fares are increased. And the downward cycle spirals further down.

Now MARTA finds itself in just this situation. It currently is considering a 25-percent fare increase from a $2 fare to $2.50.

Raising fares at this time is the wrong move for MARTA and metro Atlanta.

For the past decade, due to extraordinary scrutiny from the state government and others, MARTA has been obsessed with its operating budget shortfall.

The reasons are many — but two overshadow all others

MARTA is the largest transit agency in the country that receives zero operating support from its state government. And two, MARTA’s revenues are dependent on the one-cent MARTA sales tax that is levied in the City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties. The recent recession has caused sales taxes to drop, causing serious financial pressures on MARTA, state and local governments.

So MARTA now finds itself with diminishing reserves and few options to keep its transit operations healthy.

Given the negative domino effect that occurs when fares are raised, there have to be other options.

First of all, there needs to be a strategic shift in the way public transit is viewed. The level of ridership must carry as much weight as the transit agency’s budget picture — a double bottom line, if you will.

Increasing transit ridership has multiple positive outcomes. The more people who ride transit directly translates into fewer people driving cars, which in turn reduces congestion. That means there’s less wear and tear on our roads, and there’s less pressure to widen highways and expand our road infrastructure — both expensive propositions.

But there also are several other benefits to increased transit ridership. The air becomes cleaner. People use less gasoline, making us less dependent on foreign oil. And the use of transit contributes to a healthier urban environment and lifestyle.

In short, there are tangible financial benefits in getting more people to ride transit, and somehow those benefits must be entered into the overall equation.

It is in the best interest for both the State of Georgia and the 10-county Atlanta region for there to be increased transit ridership. And as we try to develop a regional transit system with a unified governance structure, there’s an opportunity for the state and the region to begin providing financial support for MARTA and other transit agencies.

Although House Bill 277 is flawed by not allowing any new revenues to cover MARTA’s operating costs, transportation leaders believe there are ways to work around that unfair restriction.

A region-wide governing entity for transit could change that formula by allocating funds to the new entity. Also, MARTA could get needed budget relief if it had the permanent flexibility to use its entire penny sales tax on operating expenses. (The new regional sales tax could be used for MARTA’s capital improvements).

But there’s another reason why it’s the wrong time to raise fares. Several years ago, MARTA adopted its “BREEZE” card” for the public to pay its fares. As promised, the BREEZE card was supposed to permit MARTA to create a distance-based fare structure. That means that people riding the longest distances would be charged more. (Several other transit agencies in the nation have adopted this method of fare collection).

In a recent conversation with MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott, there will need to be a one-time investment in software to implement this system. But that would be a capital expense, something that would be allowed under HB 277.

A region-wide BREEZE card would be a monumental step forward in creating a seamless regional transit system — whereby people riding Cobb County Transit, or Gwinnett Transit or the X-Press buses would be able to use the same method of payment and travel between the various systems.

All these are real options for the near term. — especially if voters approve the regional one-cent sales tax in 2012. But that tax won’t pass if the region and the state continue to underfund MARTA — forcing it to cut bus and rail services and raise fares.

To get the tax to pass, a regional transit system must be put in place, and people living in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb must be convinced that the MARTA jurisdictions will be fairly treated. That all will become obvious when the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable presents its list of projects in October.

In the meantime, MARTA must stand strong and true to its mission of public transit by encouraging increased ridership at this critical time in metro Atlanta’s history.

This is not a time to be alienating its loyal riders or providing yet another reason for people not to ride transit.

On the contrary. With gas prices circling the $4 mark, this is an opportunity for MARTA to reverse the downward cycle into an upward motion — more riders, more service, more revenues, more friends, more financial support.

Our region depends on it.

MARTA’s Proposed Fare Increases for FY2012
Base fare would go from $2.00 to $2.50
Reduced fare would go from $0.90 to $0.95
Mobility base fare would go from $3.60 to $3.80
Weekly pass would go from $17.00 to $23.75
Monthly pass would go from $68.0 to $95.0
Mobility pass would go from $115.00 to $122.00

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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