House Speaker: What’s Your Problem, MARTA?

Here’s a beautiful exchange between WABE’s Dennis O’Hayer and House Speaker David Ralston, courtesy of Political Insider:

O’Hayer: Can MARTA survive another year without a transportation plan that includes some loosening of the restrictions that it faces on how it spends the tax revenue it gets?

Ralston:  I’ve been trying to understand how MARTA got in the problem they’re in. I think that we have to have a better understanding of what brought us to this point before we know how to get out of the problem.

Oh OK.  So let me get this straight.  The House Speaker of the State of Georgia, which itself is dealing with a massive $4 billion+ deficit, doesn’t understand that during what is termed a “recession” that tax revenue declines because people stop buying stuff?  Well, that certainly explains a lot.

O’Hayer:  One thing that advocates say is, MARTA has had very little, if any, support from the state for years. Most major regional transportation systems have that from their states.

Ralston: I’m not sure MARTA has ever had very much support from the state. It was never designed to be state-supported. It’s an important part of a large transportation infrastructure in Georgia. But I think before we have any kind of serious discussion about how we right the ship, we need to find out how we got into the storm.

Silly rabbit, MARTA was never designed to be state-supported!  In our infinite wisdom, we designed it to be funded purely by an ever-fluctuating 1-cent sales tax!  What I want to know is why can’t a static transportation system adjust to erratic shifts in income??

O’Hayer:  Is there time for that?

Ralston:  Probably not this session. I mean, that’s going to have to be an extended discussion looking at all the things I’ve mentioned. And I think that would be a discussion that would take a lot of time. More than 40 days.

Yes, this is very complicated stuff.  Might even take 40 years, it’s so dern complicated.

41 thoughts on “House Speaker: What’s Your Problem, MARTA?”


  1. What tax do you propose that would be recession proof? Incomes go down in a recession, just like sales. No matter how MARTA is funded, it is not going to be free of economic cylces.

    Also, “funded purely” by a sales tax is clearly untrue, isn’t it? Part of the funding is supposed to be from fares. And that’s an area where MARTA hasn’t done much.

    I would not personally favor completely shutting the doors to state funding, but MARTA has never shown why it can’t squeeze more dollars from its riders, first. And the fact that MARTA never seems to do that undermines its credibility when it sticks out the hand for more state money.

    Until MARTA explains why a worker traveling from Avondale to downtown at 8 am on Tuesday pays the same fare as an Alabama fan going from Buckhead to the Georgia Dome before the SEC Championship, I just can’t muster a lot of confidence in that management team.

    1. I’d be interested in seeing some data comparing Marta’s fare structure to cities of similar size that receive state funding. Marta has had recent fare increases, but the structure is the same.

    2. I definitely agree with you that a big part of the problem is MARTA’s failure to establish an effective, nuanced fare structure. But that’s only half the issue, and MARTA is really hamstrung by poor and downright obstructionist government oversight. Counties in which MARTA does not operate should get ZERO say in how MARTA is run. All things being equal, MARTA would be overseen by the city in which it operates (like every other metropolitan rail system in this country) and not the state, but we have to work with what we’ve got.

    3. DEM, your last payment is not entirely true. Workers who use MARTA daily tend to buy monthly passes, which are much cheaper per ride. Thus, the Alabama fan ends up paying more because they pay $4 round trip, while daily users pay $60 per month.

      1. Good point. But on a daily fare basis, we’re still not charging price insensitive customers more than those who would be sensitive.

    4. Thanks for keeping me honest. Of course, rider fares are a contributor. In my haste to show my disdain for the Speaker’s ridiculous side-stepping, I wasn’t entirely thorough.

      I know we’ve been through this before, but I never tire of it. You probably have a point about the fare-based system, and perhaps that’s where they’re going with Breeze. I don’t know, we’ve heard conflicting reports on the abilities of Breeze in the past, as I recall. Hopefully jacking the price of airport rides will contribute a bit more to the system, however there are some serious in the current business model. As macarolina notes below, one is the inflexible regulation that half of all revenue be used for capital improvements. That’s a short-sighted restriction that makes no sense at all in times of financial crisis.

      As for a recession-proof tax, obviously there isn’t one. But state-funding, while not impervious to cutbacks (ask the school system), at least provides a bit more funding stability in that it is supported by a larger base (all state taxes), instead of a 2 county sales tax.

      1. As macarolina notes below, one is the inflexible regulation that half of all revenue be used for capital improvements. That’s a short-sighted restriction that makes no sense at all in times of financial crisis.

        ___________

        You may be right. But assume we lift the restriction tomorrow. MARTA proceeds to spend much of that money to keep the trains running. 2 years hence, several stations need major repairs or improvements. Isn’t that just another funding crisis? In other words, doesn’t it just potentially delay MARTA’s funding issues, as opposed to solving them? I really don’t know. But it would be interesting to see MARTA’s plans for this sort of contingency if the funding cap were to be lifted or relaxed.

    5. “Until MARTA explains why a worker traveling from Avondale to downtown at 8 am on Tuesday pays the same fare as an Alabama fan going from Buckhead to the Georgia Dome before the SEC Championship, I just can’t muster a lot of confidence in that management team.” – DEM

      Huh? Your example is silly. Let’s assume by ‘downtown’ you mean 5 Points Station.

      Avondale -> 5pts travel distance: 8 stations, 7.1 miles (as measured by google maps traveling along the rail line as closely as I could approximate)
      Buckhead -> Dome travel distance: 9 stations, 9.6 miles.

      So yes, those two routes should be charged the same fare. If you want to argue about College Park -> Airport vs. Avondale to 5pts, then we can talk. I don’t disagree with your basic premise, however.

      I agree with someone else. Charge the tourists/business travelers $10 for travel to/from the airport. Cheaper than a cab and cheaper than a rental car. Let monthly pass buyers continue to have unlimited access/rides.

      Don’t forget there are capital and operational costs involved with going to a zoned system. Namely, you MUST charge on exit rather than entry. That will mean that you have to install exit fare machines for the people who don’t have enough money on their cards to exit the station. DC (which operates on a paper ticket and SmarTrip system similar to our current hybrid system) is a classic example of this. Moreover, you MUST have station attendants on duty at all times in the station. People tend to scream bloody murder when they get trapped in a transit station and can’t get out because they need to add money to their cards to exit and the machines aren’t working.

        1. The exit faregates are already there. What they would need to do is install ticketing machines inside the station.

          1. “The exit faregates are already there. What they would need to do is install ticketing machines inside the station.” — Steve

            I thing we’re talking at cross purposes. When I say “exit fares” I mean fares to exit the transit station. That is, I’ve already entered and traveled to my destination. I now need to badge out (which will debit my fare) and exit to be on my merry way. Machines will have to be installed inside the controlled perimeter of each station. I don’t think any stations have this setup currently, because we’re not an exit fare system.

            What we currently have are “enter fare” machines: machines which can be used before a traveller begins their trip.

            There are currently ways to exit without tapping your Breeze card. Go to any of the handicapped exits and just stand there and the gate will open for you (it’s an accessibility feature). Obviously, that would have to end for a true “exit fare” system. Additionally, all the emergency exits would have to be alarmed. Currently, AFAIK, most of them aren’t. At Avondale, people always just bust on through them.

            1. Whether they are currently properly installed or not, the Breeze gates have the capability to be exit gates with variable fares.

              1. “Whether they are currently properly installed or not, the Breeze gates have the capability to be exit gates with variable fares.”

                Yes, of course they do. However, given the current setup of MARTA, you would need to buy MORE Breeze machines and put them inside the controlled access portions of the stations. Probably a minimum of 2 more machines per station. My original point was that this would be a (significant) expense and something to be considered when going to a zoned system of payment.

      1. Huh? Your example is silly. Let’s assume by ‘downtown’ you mean 5 Points Station.

        Avondale -> 5pts travel distance: 8 stations, 7.1 miles (as measured by google maps traveling along the rail line as closely as I could approximate)
        Buckhead -> Dome travel distance: 9 stations, 9.6 miles.

        _________________________________

        You are assuming fares should be set based on miles. I disagree. They should be set according to what riders will pay. If I am going to the Georgia Dome for a Falcons game, I either take MARTA or pay, what, $15 to park? So I come out ahead even if my fare is $5 each way, regardless of the point of origination, and how many miles MARTA transported me to get there. Ditto for the airport. Even if I leave for the airport from 5 Points as opposed to Deactur, I should still be charged a fare that a traveler will pay to avoid the costs of driving to the airport. Most travelers wouldn’t care if they were charged $5 as opposed to $2. So why not go ahead and charge the $5?

        The point is that there has got to be some opportunity to have at least some riders pay more and still make the fares quite worth it for the MARTA user. And MARTA is just not doing that. Again, the idea isn’t that this fare system would displace government funding. But let’s figure out the point at which MARTA can miximize passenger revenue before we ask the state to pony up more money.

        1. “If I am going to the Georgia Dome for a Falcons game, I either take MARTA or pay, what, $15 to park? So I come out ahead even if my fare is $5 each way”

          ____________________________

          This is true if you drive to the dome alone. But how many people go to football games alone?

          Add one or more fans to your car, and the math falls apart. Two people paying $5 each way is $20. That’s more than the $15 to park. And a $5 fare becomes a less attractive option for each additional automobile passenger.

          It’s an interesting idea, but it’s easy to tip the scales to the point where driving becomes a more attractive option, due to total cost.

          1. The AAA just came out with their updated cost of owning and driving a car. For the average car, the total cost is over 50 cents per mile. Factor that in.

    1. Wow…That bill almost sounds sensible and might even address the problem.

      Which of course means it’ll never actually pass into law.

    2. Thank you for this good bit of news! Fingers crossed!

      ( And to House Speaker Ralston? AGGGGGHHHHH!!! )

        1. I am still so livid about this that I can’t think straight about it!!! Which further riles me because it means that– just like those damn politicians– I’m spinning my wheels & not doing a damn thing to try to fix it!!!

          And it’s making me SEE RED that they’re all smugly thinking that we’ve worn ourselves out with patting ourselves on the backs for sending our silly little emails & we’re not going to do anything else about it!!!

          Please! Steve! Decatur Metro! Somebody! Give us A NEW STRATEGY!!!

            1. You are So RIGHT about that!!! Haven’t missed one yet!!!

              I just wish I could fix their little red wagons right now– without managing to get myself buried behind the Gold Dome while doing it!!!

            2. Well, The Georgia Gang at least made me feel better by taking the MARTA Transportation Committee folks to task. Even if they didn’t give me a strategy, they did give me the needed kick to try again.

              And Bill Clinton on “This Week” reminded me not to just write politicians off. Once upon a time because of my disgust at his personal antics, I didn’t think I’d ever listen to another thing he had to say about anything. But no matter your political stance, you can’t say that ex Democrat Presidents aren’t out there trying to get it done for the better good of all.

              [Before it gets said: Even if you disagree with Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton on specific issues, you should always consider whether you think their actions come from a place of good or evil intentions. And you should appreciate their humanitarian efforts. I do appreciate the two Bushs for theirs.]

  2. This is an inserted suggestion to help MARTA obtain additional funding. Can someone calculate the total of carbon credits the MARTA system provides by operating a mass transit system compared to the quantity of vehicle emissions that would otherwise be polluting the air? If so, the industries or individuals that need (or want) to buy carbon credits in order to maintain their usual rate of exhaust or stack gas emissions could purchase those credits from MARTA. The funds raised could be exclusively spent on operations, so that better service could be offered and ridership could be increased accordingly. How ARE carbon credits calculated? Anyone?

  3. I was just in Denver where it costs $10 to get from the airport to downtown by public transit. That sounds like something MARTA should be doing, instead of completely cutting the Number 36 bus line (my ride to work).

    1. and the #16, my ride to work. I can find an alternative, and burn more carbon. I am afraid many can not find an alternative. But, why think about the poor

    2. it’s also around 25 miles from Denver International to downtown Denver. It’s around 15 miles going from Decatur to airport (which is obviously further than downtown).

      As for other cities:
      BART (Bay Area): based on distance, like Berkley to San Fran (16 mi), $4.
      CTA (Chicago): $2.25
      NYC: $2.25
      Portland, OR: $2.30 for longest distance (between zones)
      Boston: $1.70
      Washington DC: during rush hour $1.75-$4.60, other times $1.45-$2.45 (depending on distance)

      I’m not sure Atlanta’s $2 seems that different from most…

      1. mcmillend:

        You’re not comparing apples to apples. Nobody in NYC takes the subway to LaGuardia or Kennedy for 2.25. (it’s not even possible without changes at Port Authority, I don’t think). I’m just saying my cheapest option in Denver was $10 public transit as opposed to $21 shuttle or $60 cab ride. A cab ride to Decatur is $35-$40 last time I checked. I just think we should raise the MARTA fare a little to help subsidize the system. A $10 single-ticket fare from the airport to downtown seems reasonable to me and perhaps Atlantans could still get the regular rate through using a weekly/monthly fare card.

        1. Mike: perhaps they don’t in NYC, but I have in Chicago for just one fare, in San Fran, etc.

          I think it would be very difficult to determine exactly if a person is going to the airport or another location, unless there are exit fare booths, as mentioned above. If MARTA wanted to change to an exit system from an entrance paying system, that would be fine and you could change $10 for going to the airport, or more for Phillips Arena like mentioned above. I’ve been on other systems that are more expensive substantially to go to the airport than other exits, but MARTA really couldn’t as it is set up right now (again, not saying they couldn’t do that expensive change).

          Picking and choosing stops to make more expensive based on how popular they are or other other uses seems like a very tricky endeavor to me. Would you make Decatur more expensive than Kensington since more things are there to visit? or less expensive because it isn’t as far away from downtown (strict distance, in which case the Phillips example doesn’t work)? Who decides that?

  4. Fare based on distance makes sense. The smart card could be easily adapted to accommodate this.

    Another thing: what happened to all the development that was supposed to happen around each MARTA station? There are parking lots around Chamblee, Brookhaven, and Kensington that are so underused, there are weeds growing in them.

    Marta could lease the land at these lots at a discount with the caveat that any development include parking for marta patrons. Then marta would have had ready-made ridership. People could walk out of their building onto marta. Like what is supposed to be happening at Lindbergh station. The developer would swap the cost of providing parking for marta patrons for the low lease rate. Even if marta charged nothing, it would benefit from the increased ridership.

    1. Yes, I believe the smart card system was adapted in part to help MARTA transition to a distance based fare system (yes, MARTA plans ahead).

      During this recession, my business has greatly reduced its capital investments where able, putting off for a year or more what we can, in order to maximize revenues for operations. This is what MARTA also seeks to do, and the state legislators should understand that this is a normal business practice, not some scheme by an incompetent (and Atlanta) organization.

    2. There have been development credits for residendial construction within walking distance of MARTA stations. It’s been done at Brookhaven.

      Most (all?) of the stations were designed to sell air rights in order to redevelop near and above the stations, as has been done at Lindbergh.

      There have been many studies but the real estate market doesn’t support such development at this time.

    3. As someone who lives 3 blocks from and not infrequently walks to the East Lake station, I think there is a lot of potential to sell some on the empty parking lot space for development. I am astounded this has not happened. I am also all for raising the one-way fare to and from the airport.

  5. That was tried already. Research the Avondale-Decatur LCI, and find out why that did not work out.

  6. I’d be in favor of a fee for being on the train for an unusually long time. If your one-way trip lasted several hours, or the whole day, you should have to pay more than standard fare. This might cut down on the loiterers and vagrants who seem to live in the stations and on the trains.

    1. “I’d be in favor of a fee for being on the train for an unusually long time. If your one-way trip lasted several hours, or the whole day, you should have to pay more than standard fare. This might cut down on the loiterers and vagrants who seem to live in the stations and on the trains.” — Jeff

      What’s your cutoff point? It would have to be 3 hours or more, I think. Transfers are good for 2 hours (? I think; too lazy to look it up to verify) right now. So a train ride plus a “layover” plus a long-ish bus ride could easily top out at 3 hours. So for someone to ride the trains and pan-handle for 12 hours would cost them maybe $8. Most panhandlers I’ve seen make a lot more than $8 a day.

      It’s interesting to note that in DC there has been the opposite movement. People want a refund on their fare (or, more precisely, not to be changed when they exit) if the trip takes too long because of train breakdowns, derailments, general screwups, etc.

      1. I was thinking more along the lines of JUST train time. If you are on a train or inside the fare gates all day, you should pay extra. I don’t see any reason the card readers wouldn’t be able to know what time you swiped your card and what time it is when you leave.

        You have to exit the fare gate to get to the bus at most stations (at least, that’s how it is at stations I’ve taken the bus to/from), and busses have drivers that will kick you off if you try to ride aroud all day.

  7. A fare increase wouldn’t solve the problem. Fares contribute less than 30% of the system’s revenue, and that’s a very favorable rate for the transit industry. Additional funding is needed to maintain just the services that exist, no matter how efficiently they’re run – let alone to expand bus service and work towards future rail/light rail expansions. Stability in funding would be a plus, attained by a more balanced mix of dedicated revenue sources instead of the current, volatile sales tax. Keep in mind that fare revenues are just as volatile as a sales tax, and tend to suffer in the same circumstances as the economy (high unemployment, etc).

    Just saying. This discussion should be about more than just how much MARTA should charge its riders; it should be about how much we’re all willing to pay to keep our transit system running in a usable manner, and how we can get the money it needs from us to MARTA – despite the presence of the legislature in the way.

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