By Guest Columnist MICHAEL WALLS, chairman of MARTA’s board of directors
For more than three decades, metro Atlanta has awakened every morning secure in the knowledge that MARTA trains, buses and para-transit vehicles were up and running.
Day after day after day, year after year, MARTA has provided safe, reliable and affordable transportation to millions of people who have come to depend on the critical services we provide. As chairman of the MARTA Board of Directors, I can’t tell you how proud I am of the fact that we carry 500,000 passengers daily.
Lately, however, some sadly misinformed detractors of mass transit in general, and MARTA in particular, have questioned the vital importance of the service to our customers and to the broader community. For those who still don’t understand the significant role we play in the overall health and prosperity of every Georgian, let me set the record straight by telling you exactly why MARTA truly matters.
Of course, MARTA matters to residents in our core service area who need to get to work in order to feed their family but have no other means of transportation. For those customers, MARTA represents more than just access to a paycheck. It also offers a crucial measure of self-respect and independence.
To a patient with advanced kidney disease, for example, MARTA matters because it enables them to travel to a dialysis clinic to receive life-sustaining treatments. We’ve found that an estimated 10 percent of our customers use MARTA to stay connected to medical services. Without MARTA, many of them would likely use government-funded insurance — such as Medicare or Medicaid — to pay for their transportation at a substantially higher cost to the state.
For devoted worshippers of every faith, MARTA also matters because it enables them to get to their church, mosque or synagogue — seven days a week.
For the roughly 35 percent of our customers who choose to ride mass transit although they could drive, MARTA matters because it allows them the luxury of reading a book, solving a crossword puzzle or catching a few extra winks of sleep on the way to work. And don’t forget: MARTA also matters to commuters who prefer to drive because it effectively reduces the number of cars travelling the region’s badly overcrowded roads and highways.
For residents and visitors alike, MARTA matters tremendously to our quality of life. If you’re heading to the Peachtree Road Race on July 4th, watching musical legend Paul McCartney perform at Piedmont Park, going to a hometown game for the Braves, Falcons, Hawks or Thrashers or leaving on a business trip from Hartsfield-Jackson airport, MARTA makes all of that possible.
As if that weren’t enough, consider these statistics drawn from recent studies:
* MARTA reduces air pollutants daily by removing 185,000 cars from Atlanta roads every day which directly affects children and adults who suffer from asthma and other chronic, respiratory illnesses
* Annual traffic delays in Atlanta would jump by 1.25 million hours annually if MARTA service was discontinued resulting in $245 million in lost “opportunity costs”
* MARTA saves money: typical customers who regularly use our service spend $8,397 a year less on transportation than peers who are auto-dependent.
There’s no doubt that MARTA is an invaluable asset to those who use it on a daily basis or on special occasions. But what’s often overlooked is that MARTA also provides a host of benefits for those who have don’t use the service and never plan to do so. That’s true regardless of whether you live in Buckhead, the Blue Ridge Mountains or Bremen.
But don’t just take my word for it: Studies conducted by the Carl Vinson Institute at the University of Georgia found that MARTA’s presence contributes about $2.1 billion in total economic output for Georgia and is responsible for 20,500 jobs statewide. (That’s in addition to the 19,600 jobs linked to MARTA in the Atlanta region.)
The same UGA study also showed that, in 2001, MARTA contributed $52 per capita in disposable income to residents within the region. It may come as a surprise that MARTA also generated $27 per capita to Georgia residents during the same period. While those amounts might not seem like much, they illustrate why MARTA is a sound economic investment deserving of permanent funding from our state government, and from the region.
Remember, no matter where you live in Georgia, the Centennial Olympic Games was the event that elevated our capital city and home state to international prominence. MARTA was inarguably a key component of our winning bid because organizers recognized it would be needed to accomodate the huge number of visitors who eventually showed up on our doorstep.
With MARTA serving as the transportation linchpin for this super-sized event, Georgia gained 33,500 jobs and recorded a $200 million increase in tax receipts, according to the book “Mega Events and Modernity: Olympics and Expos in the Growth of Global Culture” published by Maurice Roche in 2002. The author estimates that the overall impact on Georgia’s economy as a result of the Games was $3.5 billion.
I’m not suggesting that MARTA was solely responsible for that Olympic windfall. But without MARTA, our Olympic dreams may never have come true.
So, even if you don’t plan on setting foot on a MARTA bus, train or Mobility van, we pledge to continue providing the kind of high-quality transit services that boost our economy, improve our environment and enhance our communities.
Someday soon, I’m confidently hopeful our neighbors across the region and around the state will come to recognize that investing in public assets that benefit us all, such as MARTA, is what really matters most.