It’s a simple question.
Why hasn’t the business, political and civic leadership rallied to support MARTA in the same way it did to save Grady Hospital?
And it’s not just MARTA. It’s C-TRAN. It’s the Xpress buses. It’s Cobb Transit. And Gwinnett. In short, the region and the State of Georgia have failed to come up with a way to financially support transit.
As a result, C-TRAN is about to go out of business. And MARTA is facing a $120 million deficit in its next fiscal year — a deficit which will force the transit system to drastically reduce its operations beginning July 1.
A few years ago, Grady Hospital was in a similar precarious position.
The hospital was plagued with deficits, and there was talk the hospital could become insolvent and could close down, leaving thousands of poor and uninsured patients without adequate healthcare. If Grady had closed, it could have overwhelmed all the other hospitals in the region — placing an unsustainable burden on all of metro Atlanta.
A handful of key business leaders — especially Tom Bell and Pete Correll — decided Grady needed their help. They worked with the Metro Atlanta Chamber, creating a special Grady task force to focus the community’s attention on the issues and work on solutions to put Grady back on solid footing.
The community responded. The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation contributed $200 million to the cause. Other foundations and philanthropists joined in. Grady’s governance was transformed, a new hospital administrator was hired. And today, Grady is enjoying its own renaissance.
On Tuesday, March 23, Grady celebrated the opening of the Marcus Stroke Center of Excellence. All the players were there celebrating Grady’s successes. Philanthropist Bernie Marcus saw how his gift of $20 million had been invested to improve Grady.
MARTA, like Grady, is a regional asset that’s been supported by just two counties — Fulton and DeKalb. MARTA, like Grady, has had to carry the financial burden for a system that benefits the entire region and the state.
And yet, MARTA has been unable to garner the kind of community support that Grady has been able to enjoy in the past several years.
The Area Coalition for Transit Now (ACT Now) held a rally on Friday, March 26 on the plaza at MARTA’s Five Point Station showing that there is grassroots support for transit.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed set the stage.
“MARTA, and what it does for the city and the state, is fundamental and essential for what we want to be,” Reed said. “We have to have a world-class transit system. We are not joining here as adversaries to any one. MARTA is about jobs and making sure that people can get to their jobs.”
Reed said that one of the first acts that needed to occur was “removing the 50/50 handcuffs” that stipulates that MARTA must spend half of its sales tax revenue that it collects in the City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties on capital improvements and the other half on operations.
Such a state-imposed restriction prevents MARTA from having the flexibility to spend its own money on its greatest needs. No other major transit system in the country is saddled with such a restriction.
“I also want to send a message to the economic development community and business people,” Reed said.
If budget cuts force MARTA to cut back service to six days a week, it will weaken metro Atlanta’s economy, especially tourism, and it will weaken the state’s attractiveness to business, he added.
“If Atlanta is going to remain dominant, if Atlanta is going to continue to be the economic engine that drives metro Atlanta and the State of Georgia, how are we going to do that with a train line that runs six days a week?” Reed asked.
Reed then expressed concern about what would happen to MARTA’s leadership if the State of Georgia and the greater Atlanta community fail to come up with solutions.
“I don’t want to lose Dr. Beverly Scott because she gets tired of fighting these folks,” Reed said of the general manager. “For the first time in a long time, MARTA has a leader of unquestioned integrity.”
Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves said, “today is judgment day” for metro Atlanta and the state. “We are a first class city. We are a first class region. And we deserve a first-class transit system,” he said.
DeKalb County Commissioner Lee May said MARTA’s financial problems can be attributed to a “lack of leadership” — particularly at the state.
“We need to tell the leaders — the Governor, the Lt.
Governor, the Speaker — we won’t stand for it one more day,” May said. “It’s unacceptable that people won’t be able to get to their jobs.”
Scott provided historical perspective. There was a time when Atlanta and MARTA were leaders in transit nationally. Three transit systems in the country received funding at the same time: Atlanta’s MARTA; San Francisco’s BART system; and Washington, D.C.’s METRO system.
“When you do a side-by-side comparison, we are at less than half of their systems,” Scott said, adding that BART and the METRO not only completed their original vision but now are expanding on it.
“What did we do? We got stuck on stupid,” Scott said. “Now is the time for us to move forward as a region and as a state working together.”
The crowd broke out into cheers several times during the rally. “MARTA Matters! MARTA Matters! MARTA Matters!”
For metro Atlanta’s economy, MARTA does matter. Atlanta never would have gotten the Olympics or the 1988 Democratic National Convention or two Super Bowls or a host of other major events were it not for MARTA.
The Metro Atlanta Chamber has made future transportation funding its top agenda item for the past several years, arguing that increasing congestion is making the region less attractive to economic development prospects and existing businesses.
And yet it has done little to address the needs of the biggest congestion fighter that metro Atlanta has — transit. MARTA alone handles nearly 500,000 transit trips a day. Imagine our highways or roads if those riders needed to find other ways to get around. Our region would come to a screeching halt, potentially paralyzing our economy.
And yet, at Friday’s ACT Now rally, not one key business leader was present.
Why haven’t business leaders rallied top community support behind MARTA the way they did Grady?
“I don’t think people really understand the degree of MARTA’s importance,” DeKalb’s May said. “You would have thought that the business community would have reason to support MARTA before Grady. It’s not a luxury that we have. It’s a necessity.”
When I asked Chairman Eaves the same “Why Grady but not MARTA” question, he said: “That’s a great question.”
Yes, everybody is talking about the need for transportation, but it hasn’t translated to support for MARTA and transit.
If MARTA is drastically reduced, “it’s businesses that are going to suffer,” Eaves acknowledged.
So why has there been a lack of support for MARTA and other transit services?
“I don’t have an answer,” Eaves said.