By Maria Saporta

Advice from afar — show MARTA some love.

When the 2012 LINK delegation of metro Atlanta leaders recently visited the communities of Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Arlington, Va., the group was repeatedly told that it needed to invest more in public transit — especially its signature system of MARTA.

“You have not embraced MARTA,” Chris Leinberger, a developer who is a senior policy advisor for the Brookings Institution and is quite familiar with the Atlanta market. “Your companies have not embraced MARTA.”

As a result, the region is paying the price in its real estate market and its appeal to the young, creative class of workers who are essential to the economy of the present and the future.

Washington, D.C. should know. Both MARTA and the Metro system both received federal funds to build an urban rail transit system in the early 1970s. In the intervening period, the greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan area has continued to expand its rail footprint and invested in Metro’s operating base.

Trains run frequently enough for riders to be able to rely on the system as a viable mode of transportation — especially combined with a strong pedestrian network and a bicycle network that includes trails, bike lanes and an extensive bike-sharing program.

By comparison, MARTA has barely expanded from its initial investment, and because of a lack of operating dollars, the system has had to cut back service on both its rail and bus lines. As a result, it is not a reliable mode of transportation for people who have other options.

MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott talks to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed about how MARTA can help shape the future of Atlanta, especially the multimodal station (Photos by Maria Saporta)

During the closing discussion of the LINK trip, much of the focus turned to MARTA and the need to invest in the system.

“Could we please come together as a region and figure out how to make MARTA our MARTA,” pleaded Beverly Scott, MARTA’s general manager, after the group saw the dramatic comparisons between metro Atlanta and D.C. “We have a $6 billion investment operating at 30 percent of its design capacity. Please, it would be great if we could figure out how to make MARTA our regional MARTA.”

For the record, Scott has been open to reconfigure MARTA so it would be part of a regional entity as well as changing the system’s name to help change the perception of the transit system.

But Scott is in the last year of her contract, and there’s great concern about what will happen when she’s gone.

It also doesn’t help that there has been little to no progress on creating a regional transit system with a new governance structure. A proposal that would have gutted local control of the metro system died in the state legislature.

Interestingly enough, it took a major train crash for Metro (officially call the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority — WMATA) to change its governance structure.

Robert McCartney, columnist for the Washington Post, said that in 2009 “there was a terrible crash on the Washington Metro system” that killed nine people. The crash highlighted the system’s problems in governance, management and deferred maintenance.

A super wide sidewalk in downtown Washington, D.C. with three rows of trees demonstrates city's walkability

The business community and the regional planning agency joined forces to propose dramatic changes to the system.

“It took a tragedy to get things done,” said Jim Dinegar, president and CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade who worked with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to spotlight the operational and governance needs of Metro.

The solution was to have a shared governance structure between the State of Maryland, the State of Virginia, the District of Columbia and the federal government. The federal government then invested millions of dollars to bring the system up to a state of good repair. The solution helped clear up the confusion of who was really in charge of the system.

“We had a blue-ribbon commission with real recommendations,” said Dave Robertson, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. “It took an outside voice. We can do better than this.”

Showing that the Greater Washington, D.C. area is not so different than metro Atlanta, Bob Buchanan, president of the 2030 Group, summed it up this way.

“Transportation issues are so politicized,” he said. “Everybody is willing to fix it, but they’re not willing to pay for it.”

And then there was another common truth. Rushern Baker, county executive of Prince George’s County, Md., said there is greater understanding that “we can’t grow unless we grow as a region together. Transportation is the one issue that every one agrees can be fixed regionally.”

: A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, studies Washington, D.C.'s bike share program with Mike Goodno, a bicycle program specialist with the D.C. Department of Transportation

So what’s the message for Atlanta?

For years, there’s been a lack of commitment from the business community to stand up for MARTA when it is tackling other regional issues.

As I’ve asked before, why hasn’t the metro Atlanta business community rallied to MARTA’s defense as it did when Grady Hospital was in trouble?

Rather than wait for a tragedy to occur, the Atlanta business community working with the Atlanta Regional Commission should take the lead to face the region’s transit needs head-on.

A blue-ribbon panel — not driven by the state-controlled legislature — could come up with a series of recommendations on how to develop sustainable funding for MARTA and other transit systems and what kind of transit governance structure would be best for our region.

Currently, all eyes in metro Atlanta are focused on the July 31 referendum on a one-percent regional transportation sales tax.

Although the referendum is a bit of mixed bag for MARTA (revenues from the tax can’t go towards MARTA’s existing operations), it will include $600 million to help bring the system to a state of good repair.

Of course, MARTA has stated that it needs closer to $2 billion to get the system where it needs to be. The transit agency also needs to have flexibility on how it is able to spend its tax revenues rather than an unworkable restriction that says 50 percent goes to capital and 50 percent goes to operations.

The bottom line, however, is that whether the referendum passes or fails, MARTA will need all the love, support and money it can get from metro Atlanta’s business and civic communities.

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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  1. Except for the fact the escalators are often not functioning, the Metro in DC is an awesome transportation system. It is possible to get just about anywhere you want to go in the city fairly easily. Sadly, MARTA’s routes are so limited it’s difficult for most of the population to rely on it.

    1. One of the biggest differences between the DC Metro and MARTA is that the Washington DC Metro Area has five regional commuter rail lines (3 MARC lines, 2 VRE lines) along with very heavy Amtrak service to feed riders into the DC Metro heavy rail network while the Atlanta Region, which has almost the same population as the DC Capitol Region at just under six million inhabitants, has no commuter rail service and relatively sparce Amtrak service with only one train a day running through ATL running between New York and New Orleans (the Crescent).

  2. Jan, I have to agree.  Atlanta (metro) is really spread out.  I challenged an (un-named) reporter from the AJC to take transit from her home to the new AJC complex on the northside and tell me how long it took.  After the rail and bus connections, it came out to one hour and 38 minutes.  The reporter gets there in 40 minutes by car.
    Most people are not going to do the bus transfers anyway.

    1.  @SteveBrown
       The D.C. Region also spreads out somewhat as well, stretching across 19 counties, three states (Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia.
      The difference is that the DC Region has a lot more transportation infrastructure than Atlanta, including regional commuter rail, the aforementioned Metrorail (which is much more comprehensive than Atlanta’s MARTA), heavy Amtrak service (which is an absolute necessity in the densely-populated and often extremely-congested DC-Philly-NYC-Boston Northeast Corridor).
      The DC Region has also been much more aggressive than Atlanta with (targeted) investments in their expressway and surface road networks with the seemingly endless just-completed massive reconstruction of the Springfield Interchange (the busiest freeway interchange on the entire Eastern Seaboard where I-95. I-495 & I-395 converge), the controversial construction of the InterCounty Connector toll road through the Northern DC suburbs in Maryland (DC’s version of our erstwhile Northern Arc) and the expansion of the I-495 Capital Beltway in which two HOT lanes are being ADDED on each direction of that legendarily busy eight-lane interstate loop highway.

  3. The DC Metro is also much more heavily utilized because their trains run much more frequently than Atlanta’s MARTA trains.
    The trains on the DC Metrorail run every six minutes during the day while MARTA trains run every 15-20 minutes during the day making a ride on the DC Metrorail a lot more convenient than on MARTA in Atlanta.

      1.  @EricScottSembrat
         Of course this is due to MARTA’s cuts to services due to their budget crisis as MARTA used to run their trains every 7-10 minutes in the past (what seems like an increasingly distant past at this point).

  4. Great article. It really brings home how large MARTA’s separation is from most aspects of the city.
    No wonder MARTA has the hardest time going anywhere people want it to go.

  5. Let’s not forget that D.C. had a tremendous build-up of new jobs in their condensed downtown.  Atlanta is not going in that direction.
    Unfortunately, a lot of those D.C. jobs were government jobs which arrest our tax dollars (or borrowed funds from China) and give little in the way of production to our economy.

    1.  @SteveBrown Steve, you are right on target. In metro Atlanta, only 8% of the population and 9%of the jobs are in the City. To benefit the region, transportation planning should not be focused on just moving people into and out of downtown Atlanta.

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