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MARTA Is Making A Comeback, With Or Without Funding

MARTA is the ninth largest transit agency in the country.
MARTA is the ninth largest transit agency in the country.
Credit Allison Guillory / WABE

MARTA is no longer a four-letter word in metro Atlanta.

For years, MARTA has been the battered and neglected transportation stepchild in Georgia. But today, it’s on the rebound.

The ninth largest transit agency in the country operating in the black. Its ridership is up. Its trains are running more often. It’s even improving its bus service ─ cut during the Great Recession and tight budget years.

Maria Saporta sounds off a MARTA's rebound.

In November, Clayton County became the third county to join the regional transit system ─ the first in 40 years ─ adding to MARTA’s momentum. The Atlanta Streetcar’s launch in December was the first expansion of a new rail line in years.

But what may be most striking to this native Atlantan is hearing some state leaders say positive words about transit in general and MARTA in particular.

General Manager Keith Parker acknowledges the agency’s victories with an appropriate level of appreciation for all the hard years the agency and its employees have endured. But he is the first to say that MARTA’s struggles are not over. As Parker puts it: MARTA is a crossroads. The question before us is relatively simple.

Will the Atlanta region and the State of Georgia embrace transit and MARTA once and for all?

MARTA is the largest transit system in the country to receive no annual operating revenues from the state. For more than four decades, only two counties have been paying the 1 cent MARTA sales tax ─ Fulton and DeKalb ─ even though the entire region has benefited from the investment in transit.

Think about it.

Atlanta would never have won the 1996 Summer Olympic Games bid without MARTA. Or either of the Super Bowls. Or the Final Four. Or any of the other major sporting events we get on a regular basis. What about our major conventions? And how about our direct MARTA line to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport? It’s hard to imagine how horrendous our region’s traffic would be if MARTA was not taking thousands of cars off our highways and roads every day.

Despite the regional and statewide benefits of MARTA, two counties have been shouldering the financial burden of the system for decades. Because we have not invested more in MARTA, it has not expanded into the five-county system that was originally envisioned.

At long last, state leaders are willing to say the world “transit.” Some even mention the word “MARTA” in mixed company. A joint Legislative Study Committee released a report that actually called for the state to fund transit.

These are all encouraging signs. It does feel as though we are at a turning point as leaders begin to recognize that millennials and the companies that want to hire them prefer to locate near transit.

And MARTA is welcoming development around and on top of its stations ─ changing the streetscape of our city. But until we see real state dollars on the table, we won’t know whether everyone is just playing nice or whether a true change of heart about transit and MARTA is underway.

Maria Saporta is the editor of SaportaReport.com.