MARTA rejects $2 million offer

State money could have put off fare hike

The state Department of Transportation has offered to pony up $2 million so that MARTA won't have to hike its base fare by 25 cents.
But MARTA has shown no sign that it will take the DOT up on its offer. Fares are still scheduled to go up to $1.75 on Jan. 1.
What's odder still is that, at a June board meeting, the MARTA board passed a resolution stating that if enough municipalities or government agencies came up with $2 million, the fare increase wouldn't be necessary. In the same resolution, the board also said it would "undertake all efforts possible to secure additional funding commitments ... "
Which is why DOT board member Emory McClinton was puzzled when, at a Nov. 20 meeting, he told MARTA members exactly what he thought they wanted to hear: "We've got the money you are looking for."
Yet none of the MARTA board members discussed McClinton's proposal, much less postponed the fare increase.
Part of the reason, according to MARTA spokeswoman Dee Baker, is that DOT Commissioner Tom Coleman Jr. sent a letter to MARTA in October that said the DOT had no funds to give MARTA. Besides, Baker says, McClinton's offer was too little, too late.
"A DOT committee comes to us and says we have potential money. Where were you back in June, July, September and why does it contradict what the [DOT] commissioner says?" Baker says. "On Oct. 5, Coleman replied to our requests [for funding] and said that the DOT did not have any money for MARTA. That was the official response from the DOT."
But McClinton says he could find the money — probably from the DOT board Intermodal Committee, which he chairs. Still, the MARTA board didn't make any attempt to discuss the proposal with him.
"The problem we see at DOT is that in the midst of trying to resolve our air-quality situation, MARTA is working against what we need to do — try to get as many people onto transit and alternate modes of transportation," McClinton says.
"We also know that when you raise the fare, there's a decrease in ridership. We're trying to get folks off the streets and out of their cars. This just slaps at that. One agency is going in one direction and the other seems to be reluctant because of budget considerations."
MARTA wants to raise the fare to make up for a $6 million shortfall in its operating expenses.
"While the decision to increase the fare is never an easy one — it is in the best financial interest of MARTA," Baker says. "With this fare increase, MARTA is able to maintain the current levels of service without any reductions."
But McClinton says that reason alone doesn't justify the fare increase.
"It's a mystery to those of us sitting on the outside as to what would precipitate this large increase," he says. "I don't think the money involved would warrant that."
McClinton, the DOT board representative for the district that includes Fulton County and the City of Atlanta, is by no means the only one to criticize MARTA for raising fares. The Fulton County Board of Commissioners and the Atlanta City Council passed resolutions opposing the fare increase and encouraging the MARTA board to consider alternatives to the 25-cent hike.
The most outspoken opponent of the fare increase is the Metropolitan Atlanta Transportation Equity Coalition which represents lower-income, inner-city residents who depend on MARTA. Like the DOT, Fulton County and the city of Atlanta, the coalition has been pleading with MARTA to look at other means of funding besides a fare increase.
Sherrill Marcus, director of the coalition, says MARTA hasn't made an earnest effort to solicit help from local, state and federal governments. Marcus says MARTA Interim General Manager Jack Stephens didn't send out letters asking for funding assistance until he reminded Stephens to do so. The letters Stephens sent were dated Sept. 22, almost four months after the MARTA board said it would do everything it could to secure additional funding.
Baker says MARTA was actively looking for funding through meetings and personal conversations all along. The letters were sent out "more from an official standpoint," Baker says.
Marcus also says there's still hope of keeping the fares at $1.50, because MARTA board Chairman William Moseley Jr. promised the coalition that the MARTA board would meet before the end of the year to explore alternative funding options.
But Baker says there will be no more meetings, and the fare increase is a done deal.