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Guest Column

While only some of us use transit, all of us NEED transit

By Guest Columnist JIM DURRETT, executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District and chairman of the MARTA board

This isn’t a bike story, but I have to say that one of the great things about riding my bicycle to work is that I have so many opportunities to say “good morning” along the way. It charges my batteries. I’m just sayin’…

Now to the topic at hand – metro Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure. My good friend, Brian Leary, who developed and ran with a great idea to turn Atlantic Steel into Atlantic Station and who, today, runs Atlanta’s BeltLine efforts, used to crack me up with a single PowerPoint slide.

The slide was filled with nothing but letters that meant everything to people like me who are immersed in the transportation and land planning world, but looked like gobbledygook to the uninitiated masses.

I live and work in a world of acronyms and abbreviations. I run the BCID. Yesterday I attended ARC’s TAQC and RTC meetings as MARTA’s chairman. With me were folks who were members of GRTA, ACCG, GMA, GDOT and others. We want to have an RTP and a TIP that will best serve our MSA, and 2010’s HB277, which became the TIA, gives the RTR the opportunity to begin to implement Concept 3. The results of IT3 should guide us.

Jim Durrett

E-I-E-I-Oh Boy!?! Please, K-I-S-S (keep it simple, stupid)!

So what does all of that mean in everyday terms?

The Atlanta region is where it is and what it is because of transportation. First, the railroads. Then, the airport. The confluence of the Interstates and major investments in transit in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Transportation is the glue that holds everything together, the pipeline that moves goods and people. It is the lifeblood of our economy.

The Atlanta region we live and work in today had its most explosive growth during the age of the automobile and road-building, so how we grew was inevitably based on the automobile as THE means for getting around. The result is predominantly drivable sub-urbanism and congestion on our roads.

As we have come to better understand the relationship between development patterns and transportation investments, the changes to our region’s demographic mix, transportation’s impact on air quality and the ever-increasing cost of oil, a new appreciation for transportation investment and a balanced approach to transportation has emerged.

What I mean by a balanced approach is an investment in infrastructure that serves many different ways of getting around: cars, buses, trains, on foot and bikes.

Transportation wonks call this “multi-modal transportation.” The right mix depends on where you are –the local context. But whatever that mix is, enhancing our connections and providing more choices is of paramount importance.

To me, the most important investment we can make is in transit. I know I have a bias as chair of the MARTA board. But I also use the system extensively. And what I have come to understand is that SOME of us use transit, but ALL of us need it. Transit keeps tens of thousands of cars off of our region’s roads every day so that people who are driving benefit. Transit gets workers to jobs. Transit moves millions of people a year at a fraction of the air quality impact of the automobiles they would otherwise be taking.

And transit provides us with opportunities to smile and say “good morning,” building the social capital that makes Atlanta truly special. Do me a favor, please. Take the survey at the atlantaregionalroundtable.com and express your feelings about where we should be headed with our transportation investments.

And have a great week!


  1. Burroughston Broch May 15, 2011 9:55 pm

    Jim, I think that we cannot make regional transit work until we make the existing transit work, particularly MARTA. Let me give you an example of why MARTA doesn’t work.

    I travel from Hartsfield a lot, usually park at the Dunwoody Station and take the train to the airport (38 minutes). That works OK, but the reverse at night is a regular horror. Last Friday night I was on the train or waiting for the train from 950PM until 1130PM (100 minutes). And these trains were not empty – the gold line was jammed until we got to 5 Points and the red line was 3/4 full on leaving Lindbergh. This is a regular occurrence. Why my journey should take 2.5 times as long on one direction as it does another is beyond me.

    To top it off, when I asked staff a question all I got in return was a stare or a surly response. That’s why some people won’t ride MARTA, particularly at night. Let me ask a pointed question – what would it take to get the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union out at MARTA and hire some pleasant employees who are focused on customer service?Report

  2. Jim Durrett May 16, 2011 9:16 am

    BB: the reduced service level at night is due to our budget crisis last fiscal year. We hope to be able to add back service over time as our condition improves. We have been doing this with some of our bus routes throughout the year, which saw considerable cut-backs. My hope is that with increased appreciation for what transit provides all of us AND with an improving economy, that we will be able to increase train frequencies to address your specific consternation. Regarding your experience with customer service, every patron should be treated with respect and be given good information. We recognize that this is an issue and are in the process of addressing it. I will pass your complaint along to senior management. To indict an entire union for the behavior of a few is a step too far, I believe. Thanks for reading and commenting.Report

  3. a transit fan May 16, 2011 12:04 pm

    Jim, if you really want increased support for MARTA, you should focus on what people do experience. The absence of some cars from roadways, due to alternatives, isn’t felt the same as their presence would be.

    Riders do experience MARTA’s service, so decent customer service is obviously important. However, since MARTA needs more support than ridership provides, one could argue that exceptional customer service is paramount to yielding a positive, average experience with the infrequent rider and, in turn, to favorable political support from those individuals (and any non-riders they may influence).

    MARTA may have explanations for low frequency service and service interruptions, but there’s no excuse for retaining employees that render poor customer service.Report

  4. Why wasn’t there an option to raise fares so that service wouldn’t have to be cut? It’s a similar issue that happened when Clayton County discontinued their bus service last year. I’m sure that frequent riders, especially those who are dependent solely on bus and train service, would gladly pay more to be able to keep the buses and trains going rather than having no service at all. It’s clear evidence of an extreme level of incompetence in these transit agencies such as MARTA, etc, that they would rather be solely dependent upon existing and additional tax revenues from the government that likely aren’t forthcoming anytime soon (such as how MARTA keeps halfheartedly begging the state for additional revenues, the same state gov’t that can’t even keep up with routine road maintenance due to one of the lowest, if not the lowest, gas tax in the nation) than to raise their own fares to the level that it would take to provide the level of service that a major international metro area like Atlanta needs to function. MARTA is barely trying to provide bare bones service for a circa-2011 nominal fee of $2.00 while waiting for the state to give it more money rather than raising their fares to the actual level of $3.00-$6.00 to operate and maintain the system and buying bonds to expand the system and payback the bonds with those more adequate fares.Report

  5. a transit fan says:
    May 16, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    “MARTA may have explanations for low frequency service and service interruptions, but there’s no excuse for retaining employees that render poor customer service.”

    For agencies like MARTA there is no excuse, there doesn’t have to be an excuse because they’re incompentent just like the government of the city and the state that they operate in.Report

  6. juanita driggs May 18, 2011 8:58 am

    Mr. Durrett, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The gobbledegook of transit-related acronyms confuses and “balkanizes” the issues for riders, citizens, taxpayers. Until there is strong, purposeful leadership and a uniform rational approach to solving the region’s transportation challenges, there will be no positive movement. I don’t see that happening at the state level so that means you and your transit counterparts in this region need to get your collective acts together and start speaking with one clear voice.

    I’m glad to hear that you use MARTA when you’re not biking to and fro. I’d hope that the other board members also do so regularly. I doubt it. Frankly, board members who don’t ride shouldn’t serve since they grasp little reality of what’s actually happening on the system. I’d also like to see all of you paying for your ride just like everybody else and not getting a free pass on the system. This would send a clear message that the riding public needs to hear.Report

  7. Eric Hovdesven May 18, 2011 11:34 am

    Great article and points.

    Though BB’s experience of 100 minutes seems unusual since even late at night the trains are supposed to run every 20 minutes. They should have done an announcement.

    I take MARTA daily though rarely after 10 pm so I can’t comment on delays after that. However before 10 pm I find MARTA runs to schedule.Report

  8. Rob Augustine May 18, 2011 12:52 pm

    The future of our Metro Atlanta Region depends on having a system that will move people around between homes, jobs, entertainment, and shopping. We don’t have a viable system now — one that doesn’t get bogged down and making it time consuming and difficult to get where you want to go.

    We need a comprehensive system that will move more people, on time, with a dependable schedule free of being bogged down in traffic or other problems. Look at every other major Metropolitan Area in the country and you will see a region wide transit system to accomplish this task. The fact that we don’t have this in Atlanta means our economic future is in jeopardy. The continued delays, lack of leadership, and inability to get some definite plans and new inrastructure in place means we are years behind on this essential regional undertaking.

    It will take some time to put in place what a region of 5 million and more people actually needs to move around. And we will suffer for this lack of foresight and dedication to a regional solution.Report

  9. Burroughston Broch May 18, 2011 3:24 pm

    @ Eric Hovdesven.

    Sadly, the 100 minutes is routine at night, and can stretch longer. You wait up to 20 minutes at the airport, then ride to Lindbergh (longer than normal with single-tracking for maintenance), then wait at Lindbergh for the North Springs train, then ride to Dunwoody.Report

  10. @ Burroughston Broch May 18, 2011 at 3:24 pm:

    With frequent experiences like yours, it’s no wonder that commuters would rather drive their cars and risk getting stuck in traffic than to constantly put up with MARTA’s constant ineptness and incompetence crap. Motorists can get stuck in and have to detour massive traffic jams and still get there at times get to where they’re going quicker than riding MARTA. Why doesn’t MARTA just charge increased fare rates for peak-hour/rush-hour and late-night/overnight service so that the trains and buses can run more frequently, especially in heavily-traveled corridors instead of charging circa-2011 bargain-basement fares and providing the bare-bones minimum service to go with it? Oh yeah, that’s right, they can’t because MARTA (along with GDOT) and other transportation agencies in this town are INCOMPETENT! To still be (sometimes increasingly) having these discussions about inadequate transit service in 2011 in the face of sometimes crippling traffic jams and $4.00/gallon gas is sickening, throughly disgusting, disgraceful. It SHOULD be completely embarrassing that a major “international” city with a population of close to six million people such as Atlanta suffers from mass transit delays that can run up to two hours, still has no light-rail and commuter rail and struggles to provide even the most basic of bus service. This is MADNESS and does nothing but to prove the would-be comical virtulent incompetence of our elected leaders. For it to be 2011 and there still be no real transportation plan or even a clue as to how to deal with it is just absolutely pathetic.Report

  11. Burroughston Broch May 19, 2011 12:27 am

    The keys to reform and improvement of MARTA (and Cobb Community Transit as well) are (1) get rid of the Amalgamated Transit Worker’s Union and (2) eliminate half of the management staff – the half that doesn’t produce. It would be reminiscent of Marvin Runyon’s tenure as Postmaster General, when he eliminated three entire layers of USPS management, no one knew they were gone, and the thing ran better.

    Sadly, I don’t believe that Mr. Durrett and his team are up to the task. I hope that he proves me wrong.Report

  12. sherry Eisenstein Gaynes May 19, 2011 7:32 pm

    I do not often ride Marta though I live right in Buckhead near two stations.
    I am leery about traveling as a woman alone as there are no cameras and I’m not sure there is adequate protection.
    When i am not alone, the trains I’ve ridden were efficient.
    The decorum of the riders, however, affected the overall comfort of the ride, and this is something that would cost nothing to address.
    I would appreciate quiet riding, a trip where riders who did speak to one another did so at a level that allowed fellow riders to read or work if they wanted to. In other words, courteous behavior.
    Appropriate, acceptable behavior by Marta employees and by Marta patrons alike would nurture good will and a pleasant travel experience.
    The cost of this change would be very little.

    Quiet cars aren’t possible, but how about a quiet front of the car?


  13. Jim Durrett May 21, 2011 7:23 am

    Ms. Gaines: I appreciate your comments. MARTA will be purchasing CCTV cameras for installation on trains and buses. We already have them in the train stations. We are also launching a program to discourage uncivil, discourteous behavior. We currently ask patrons to report problems with our “If You See Something, Say Something” program, but recognize that sometimes it is difficult for you to find a MARTA employee nearby to whom you can report, or that your cell phone may not operate while the train is in the tunnel. But you can always call the train operator using the intercom at one end of the rail car. Regardless, the quality of the MARTA experience can and will be improved.

    And to the R who wants the lights turned out: How about a little less name calling and venom? It doesn’t belong here any more than it belongs on the MARTA system.

    BB: I am proud of the dedicated, talented and hard-working management staff with whom I interact at MARTA, and the ATU members I meet on the trains and in the buses (yes, I ride buses: #33, #110, #27, #87) are good people. In an organization the size of MARTA, you will find a bad apple every once in a while, but your generalization is inappropriate here. And we are soliciting an independent – I want to stress independent – study of our system’s operational performance – looking at all aspects of what we do and how we do it, to determine how well we deliver service and identify how we can best improve.


  14. Burroughston Broch May 21, 2011 11:49 am

    @ Jim Durrett

    Sir, I suggest that you ride your bicycle less and MARTA more (anonymously would be best) for a month, particularly very early in the morning and very late at night. The come back and report whether every MARTA employee you encounter is “good people.”

    A for the union, it has been a thorn in Atlanta’s transportation woes for decades. Do some research and you will find why it drove Georgia Power and the Atlanta Transit Company out of the public transportation business.Report

  15. With all due respect Mr. Durrett, maybe you and your colleagues should worry more about finding a way to improve the at times very negative perception that MARTA has with residents in the Metro Atlanta community and less about protecting the fragile egos of incompetent bureaucratic leaders. People in this town are sick and tired of the blatant incompetence and shortsightedness when it comes to managing transportation (not just MARTA, but a certain state transportation agency with the acronym GDOT seems to come-to-mind even moreso than MARTA). in case you haven’t noticed, MARTA isn’t exactly the pride of Metro Atlanta at this point in the city’s history. Can you tell me with a straight face that you or any of your colleagues would recommend frequent and heavy use of MARTA trains and buses to newcomers, visitors and future relocatees, especially if they’re coming from a city that has a much more dependable mass transit system (like DC, NY, Toronto, Chicago, Boston, etc)? You cited name-calling and venom but I noticed that you didn’t bother to refute or deny any of my comments which have an all-too-painful and sobering ring of truth to them which is very telling.Report

  16. Also, Mr. Durrett, you trying to call me out as a Republican and make this a partisan issue doesn’t help your case one bit, especially when it’s a competence issue as the Republican-Controlled and dominated state government has UNDERinvested in road transportation just as much as the City of Atlanta and the surrounding metro region has underinvested in rail and bus transit as a whole, one only need to look at our competitors Texas and Florida for proof of that theorem. By the way, for the record, I’m a political-INDEPENDENT who just happens to state the very obvious current state of Georgia affairs with my screen tag. The fact of the matter is that while politics inside 285 may be dominated by by those to the left of center in the political spectrum, in the rest of Georgia outside of 285, Democrats and liberals are becoming increasingly scarce and are on the verge of extinction in a political arena that is COMPLETELY dominated by Republicans and Conservatives. Just as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has demonstrated since he recently took office, ITPers and intowners need to keep in mind that they need the support of those OTP Repubs and Conservatives as much or more if this town is to move forward out of the transportation wilderness just like OTPers need to keep in mind that they need a strong urban core for the state to benefit as a whole, both points of which seem to have been forgotten by both groups. This town can’t move forward if it’s main mass transit agency has a extremely negative perception by most of its metro residents of being dirty, unsafe, inefficient and chronically late just as this state can’t move forward if it’s main transportation agency has a much-maligned reputation of being comically inept. You need the support of those voters with the “R’s” as a political affiliation just as much as you need the one’s with a D as theirs because their are more Rs than there are D’s in this metro area and state at this point.Report

  17. a transit fan May 27, 2011 5:33 pm

    from http://www.atlantaregionalroundtable.com/docs/focus_group_results_Mar-Apr.pdf

    By contrast, another Clayton participant, who happened to work in customer service for MARTA and whose drive takes 45-60 minutes each way, said, “I only rode the train, let’s see, two months (chuckle) and I didn’t want to ride the train no more.”Report

  18. @ a transit fan, May 27, 2011 at 5:33 pm-
    Thanks very much for the link to the Atlanta Regional Roundtable transportation focus group results. The statements about transportation infrastructure all across the board from roads to trains/rail to walking & biking routes even to the issue of trucking and logistics, were very, VERY insightful. The statements by the participants really underscored a critical and pressing need to invest in and make our regional transportation system truly MULTIMODAL instead of the barely one-dimensional transportation system that we are overly-dependent upon at present. Though looking at the statements about transportation in a 10-county region in which at least one principal metro county of Forsyth was conspicuously absent, one thought kept sticking out during the entire time that I was reading the statements of the focus group participants: the almost total and complete LACK OF LEADERSHIP on the issue of transportation at the state and regional levels. It’s almost like the state has been on auto-pilot on transportation planning since the end of the Olympics and the auto-plilot is almost worn completely off and the plane is in danger of going down.Report


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