Stakes are Raised in Atlanta's Struggle for Transit Justice
“We Need MARTA, Seven Days a Week!”
On Wednesday, a midday press conference addressing the funding crisis that threatens basic operation of Atlanta’s transit system, MARTA, spontaneously turned into a rally at some points. Over one hundred riders and workers gathered outside 5 Points station and chanted: “We need MARTA Seven Days a Week!”
The week before, during the wrap up of the state legislative session, MARTA issued a dire warning that the entire system could shut down on Fridays or for the whole weekend. The urgent crisis is a $24 million budget shortfall in MARTA’s operations budget. But the system is not actually broke. More than twice the needed money – $65 million gathered from a 1% sales tax in Fulton and Dekalb counties and from fares – sits out of reach in the “capital investments” budget. A state law prevents MARTA from spending more than half its budget on operations.
Responsibility for this absurd situation lies at the feet of the State of Georgia and governor Sonny Perdue who want to ensure that MARTA remains the largest transit system in the country with no state funding and little control over its own money. While contributing nothing, they think that they should get to set the rules of how our money is spent! A proposed law to strike down the 50/50 budget failed in the State House, in which – in the words of Republican Jerry Keen – legislators from South Georgia “live closer to Disney World than to Atlanta.”
The Roots of MARTA’s Woes
But long before this Spring, MARTA faced a combination of crises and political battles from the get-go – in fact, ever since the system was first proposed in the 1960s. The Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, as the name suggests, was intended to be a region-wide system expanding bus and rail service outward from Atlanta. Planners also proposed free fares. They recognized that fares actually contribute little to the operating budget of a system. Free fares would benefit not only riders but also reduce sprawl, traffic congestion and air pollution in the area (Atlanta has one of the highest child asthma rates in the country.)
But, at that time, the state of Georgia had only just grudgingly given up the apartheid Jim Crow system. Within Metro Atlanta, desegregation of neighborhoods, schools, and public space led to “white flight” retreat into the suburbs. The political era in which regional transit appeared was one of a hard political split between, on one hand, the majority Black city and on the other, the nearly all-white suburban counties and state governed by hardcore segregationist Lester Maddox.
So, from the beginning, the system had its hands tied by an insulting funding structure that simultaneously denied MARTA the state funding that all similar transit systems in the country receive while allowing the state to appoint decision-makers to its Board! Additionally, three suburban counties in the metro region – Cobb, Gwinnett, and Clayton – were able to restrict MARTA access (thereby not paying into the system) while also having seats at the table.
MARTA has always been discussed in racially coded ways. One of these is: “It would bring crime into [suburban] neighborhoods.” However, out of almost half a million people who ride MARTA each weekday, studies reveal an amazing lack of guys wearing ski masks holding flat screen TVs and bags of jewelry over their shoulder. Are we supposed to believe that burglars are going to head to a bus stop, wait fifteen minutes with the loot, and then use that as their getaway car?
Another theme is, “Nobody rides MARTA” and “MARTA doesn’t work” and “MARTA wastes money” – all of which slip out of mind when suburbanites need to use the train to get to the airport or a baseball game. In fact, the lack of state funds means that MARTA runs on the slimmest of budgets. Often these indictments of MARTA’s supposed wastefulness recalls the Reaganite political maneuver of blasting “welfare queens.” Yet a recent study by Georgia State University exposes that this is a blatant untruth. The city of Atlanta contributes twice as much to the overall state budget as it gets back in public funding. Meanwhile, funding for inefficient, polluting, and sprawl-creating highways – the publicly funded transportation for the suburbs – shows that MARTA’s budget is a drop in the bucket.
Disenfranchisement of workers and riders
The reality is a systemic denial of service and power to both transit riders and unionized workers. Both groups are overwhelmingly African-American. Hurt worst by the underfunding and disenfranchisement of MARTA, on a day to day level, are transit dependent riders – including the poor, disabled people, youth, and the elderly – and blue collar employees at the system. As a byproduct of this injustice, the entire city and region suffer from the lack proper funding for this key element to functioning regional planning.
However, aside from the issues of state funding, riders also face a lack of democracy within MARTA’s decision making processes. Rather than cut from the top or develop progressive plans to collect additional revenue from suburban counties, MARTA officials have repeatedly tried to make dependent riders pay with transit hikes and service cuts or punish workers with layoffs and benefit reductions. Continued organizing at the grassroots – on the buses, in the stations, and in places like Grady Hospital, GSU, and other areas with high MARTA ridership – is the only way to ensure the voice of riders and heard.
In their already weakened condition, MARTA riders face several stealthy attacks intended to undermine the system. Suburban counties that refused to build a unified transit system confronted the unavoidable need for transit service by… building their own systems! Now, CCT buses from Cobb County, CTran buses from Clayton, and GCT (actually operated by MARTA) from Gwinnett connect with the main system without paying into it, and effectively charge riders double fares on top of that. Additionally, union workers at MARTA are divided from other nonunion workers doing the same job, allowing CTran and CCT to drive down wage scales.
The Beltline Real Estate Scam
Inside the city, the hyped-up Beltline system would also “connect with” but not be a part of MARTA – that is, if there were even any plans to build its transit component on the table. Instead, this pipe dream (which was supposed to use a circular network of abandoned rail right-of-way linking gentrifying neighborhoods) has mainly served as a massive giveaway of public land to developers. Swaths of property along the “Beltline” have become “Tax Allocation Districts” where developers can build without paying the taxes that fund the Atlanta Public Schools system.
This real estate swindle follows a wave of urban renewal projects since the 1996 Olympics. By flattening public housing and poor neighborhoods, then building greenspace and infrastructure to encourage investment, the city has fueled gentrification. While its supporters hail a hazy mythologized future of neighborhood light rail, the only transportation the Beltline has facilitated thus far is the removal of low-income Black communities from historic intown communities to transit- and service-starved suburbs.
Instead, the expansions we need now are not decades-away dreams, but immediate action to expand bus service (which is cheap and required by transit dependent riders) and a firm standard of service to be established and adhered to: how often buses and trains will run, placement and accessibility of stops, and other low-cost but high-yield investments.
MARTA’s current funding problems reveal the unsustainable nature of funding public services through sales tax or fares. As the economy tanks, consumer spending drops – but transit is needed more than ever. And even though ridership skyrocketed last year, such a small percentage of the budget can realistically be covered by fares that it made no difference. The only long term solution to transit in Atlanta depends on state funding and only allowing representation on the board from entities that pay into the system. To put forward an agenda that serves those who have built and supported MARTA into what it is, we need an active transit riders’ movement to demand transit justice.
A Short-Term Fix
At the press conference, people shouted “Release our money, Sonny!” Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue could have implemented two short-term solutions to the crisis. The first fix would have been calling the legislature back into session (after they’d worked an exhaustive forty whole days this year.) The other would have been recognizing the emergency status of six-day-a-week transit service and issuing an executive order to cough up the money. He arrogantly refused to do either.
Instead, on Thursday the Atlanta Regional Commission – our “friends” who want to slice up MARTA – ended up turning over $25 million of federal stimulus money destined for transportation infrastructure in outlying counties to instead provide a band-aid to MARTA.
Why? Faced with this eleventh-hour crisis, regional politicians were forced to admit what they’ve steadfastly denied for decades: Atlanta is the heart of economic activity in North Georgia and MARTA is the pulse. Shutting town transportation on payday would shut down the city. And even though suburban counties refuse to fund MARTA or allow it inside their borders, they still freeload off the money spent by those who do pay into the system as thousands of riders a day complete their commute from park and ride lots in outlying train stations. Money talks: by giving up $25 million the ARC shows that they are getting far, far more benefit than that from the system.
Still, this is only a temporary solution. The supply of money just narrowly squeaks past the danger zone of funds needed for MARTA function for this year. Next year the system faces an even larger shortfall. Without state funding, MARTA will not be viable in these lean economic times even as more and more people will rely on it. Furthermore, the $25 million does not provide enough resources to prevent less drastic cuts in services and jobs that were already planned.
The “Atlanta Way”
This “rescue” also conforms to a well-scripted tradition. Throughout its history, this city has put forth a façade of cooperation and democracy so entrenched it’s even called “The Atlanta Way.” At times of crisis (crisis, that is, for business), political leaders parachute in to “save the day,” give a compassionate sounding speech to the people of the city, and then return to work out the details in negotiations behind closed doors. Established in the recovery from the 1906 Race Riot, this pattern cropped up again and again at every period. Fundamentally, it leaves the voices of Atlanta residents – and our interests – out of the equation.
Rather than the patronizing illusion of “city leaders” acting on behalf of the people, it’s more useful to look at what the different players actually want for themselves. The folks at the Atlanta Regional Commission (with less ignorance of their own interests than the good ol’ boys and girls in state government) have demonstrated a determination to keep the city – and trains – running. But beyond a minimal level of functioning, their past actions show a blatant disregard for a high standard of service.
MARTA Board: Fare-Weather Friends
The MARTA board shares the short term goal of riders in the continued existence of the system. They’ve shown a willingness to act to secure funding – but only when faced with an emergency that would send them into a spiraling nosedive. They have not, and are unlikely to, put up a real fight to get the money needed for the long term.
But long term, our interests diverge. But what kind of system will we have? They’re fine with planning fare hikes and service cuts – which mean furloughs and layoffs of union workers. Past policies show that MARTA ultimately answers to the higher-ups, because the higher-ups are better organized than the grassroots.
The money in MARTA’s budget belongs to the people of Atlanta – people who ride the bus and train and pay our penny sales tax. We shouldn’t be made to pay hire fares because the state refuses to let the money be used for running MARTA. Why don’t we tell MARTA: “No matter what the state law says, use the money from the capital investment budget – do whatever it takes to prevent higher fares and lower service!”
A fare increase will not even solve MARTA’s funding problems. Estimates show that raised fares would only add $4 million into the budget, just 10% of next year’s expected deficit. A fare increase will decrease the number of people with cars who choose to ride MARTA (sending it into a downward spiral of fewer riders, decreased revenue, fare hikes, fewer riders…) – and put a squeeze the already desperate riders who have no other option. A fare hike would not even make a dent on the system’s money issues, but would be a huge money issue for nearly 2/3 of MARTA riders from households than make less than $30,000 a year.
The other half of the divide and conquer strategy we should expect from MARTA is: “If we don’t raise fares, we’ll have to eliminate jobs and cut service.” This is also no solution! Marta’s workers provide exceptional service with the most paltry budget and one of the lowest pay scales of any major transit system in the country. They shouldn’t be punished for a problem caused by a lack of state funding, either.
We can’t rely on the state, the ARC, or the MARTA board. Riders and workers have a shared fate in establishing a high standard of service that answers to the needs of people who run and use the system instead of answering to bigoted politicians. We need to link together and ORGANIZE – starting right now, by educating our fellow workers and riders about the roots of the situation. We’ll get the funding and service standards we need only by laying the foundation for a sustained grassroots movement for transit justice in Atlanta.