Let them eat fare tokens

Barnes plan gives Cobb $2.8 billion for light rail and MARTA nothing

Seven months ago, the state Department of Transportation rejected a plea from Atlanta, DeKalb and Fulton leaders for $2 million to help operate MARTA. As a result, riders now pay an extra 25 cents every time they roll the turnstiles.

On June 28, Gov. Roy Barnes finally announced plans to spend billions of dollars on mass transit, but MARTA won't see a dime of it. The governor's much-heralded, $8.3 billion transportation package gives plenty of subsidies to well-to-do suburbanites — and the cold shoulder to folks inside I-285.

It also may have the perverse effect of undermining the mass-transit spine upon which the rest of Barnes' rail and bus projects will depend.

Barnes is proposing to finance his project by using federal funds to pay off state bonds. Those bonds, together with money already budgeted, will provide $2 billion to add 938 miles of roads in rural areas, $2 billion for the controversial Northern Arc highway in the distant suburbs, $2.2 billion for new car pool lanes and express buses serving suburban counties, and $2.8 billion for a light-rail line connecting Cobb County to MARTA's Arts Center station.

But Atlanta, DeKalb County and Fulton County officials are dismayed because none of the projects in the plan would help people get around in the inner city.

"There's nothing in [the transportation plan] for the downtown Atlanta area," says Sherrill Marcus, director of the Metropoli-tan Atlanta Transportation Equity Coalition. "I'm disappointed, frankly. Some people want to give him praise, and I'm saying, 'Where's the beef?' "

Even north Fulton County Commis-sioner Bob Fulton — conscious of the impact a lack of state funds could have on the county's budget — complains that urban areas were ignored. "The attitude is that we should be grateful for the bones we get, but this is not enough at this time. There's not enough attention being given to a place that ought to be the crown jewel [of the region] instead of a neglected stepchild."

One fear is that spending money on roads that encourage sprawl — without solving transportation problems inside the city — could reverse the positive trends of drawing more growth into the city.

"What Atlanta needs is connectivity, sidewalks, streetscapes ... mixed-used, high-density developments. So we're not exactly on the same page [with the governor]," says Atlanta Planning Commissioner Michael Dobbins.

But for the most blatant example of inequity, take a look at MARTA, one of the only public transit systems in the nation that doesn't get operating funds from its home state.

Part of MARTA's problem is that the $1.75 fare paid by each rider covers less than half the cost of the average ride. DeKalb and Fulton counties subsidize MARTA's operational expenses with a 1 percent sales tax, even though commuters from all over the metro region ride the system's trains and buses.

The $2.8 billion Barnes is spending on the line to Cobb will go to such capital costs as track construction, land purchases, stations and trains. Barnes has yet to specify who will pay for the Cobb line's day-to-day operations.

When those Cobb riders spill into the Arts Center station, however, they will increase the ever-heavier stress on MARTA's budget, because their fares won't cover the cost of the rides. MARTA, already financially stretched to its limits, will have to struggle even more to subsidize new riders. That would further undermine a system plagued with performance problems and erratic schedules.

DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones notes that Cobb, Gwinnett and other outlying counties had a chance to join MARTA, "but they said they didn't want to be a part of it." Yet, those counties now will get billions in transportation improvements, while "DeKalb didn't get its share."

Catherine Ross, executive director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, says residents inside the Perimeter aren't being ignored. In a prepared statement to CL, she said intown residents will benefit from the light rail, buses and vanpools by gaining access to jobs outside I-285 that are now only available by car. She also says the multimodal rail-and-bus station planned for downtown Atlanta "will offer an economic development bonanza ... and, finally, a plan that reduces traffic and air pollution on the downtown interstates and surface streets obviously benefits everyone." It already is slated to receive state funding.

But all that still won't do much to help people get around metro area's urban core, whether by car, train, bus, bike or foot. Not only that, the Cobb light rail-line will compete with MARTA for federal operating and capital improvement funds.

It may sound surprising, then, to hear MARTA Board Chairman William Moseley Jr., express support for Barnes' plan. That's partly because he sees an opportunity in it: He's hoping MARTA will be contracted to build and run the Cobb line, just as MARTA was hired recently to run the new bus service for Clayton County.

"Who in the region besides MARTA is competent to do those things?" Moseley says. "Yes, we're getting in there somewhat through the backdoor, but I laud GRTA for calling on us for our expertise, so I don't feel that we've been left out — certainly, not yet."

While Moseley has high hopes, DeKalb's Jones isn't content with the hand Barnes has dealt the transit system. He's sending a letter to Barnes this week that asks the governor to spend more of the money on expansions to the MARTA system.

Jones wants to expedite, for example, a $1.2 million MARTA study — paid for by federal funds — that's looking into a light-rail system that would arc from Georgia Tech to Emory to South DeKalb Mall. Jones says he wants to see that line built because it would ease traffic in DeKalb for 19,000 people.

Whether Jones will be heard is an open question. He wasn't consulted when Barnes — a longtime Cobb legislator — was working on his plan. Nor were Dobbins, the city's planning chief, or Cathy Woolard, who chairs the city council's Transporta-tion Committee.

Last year, Woolard learned firsthand that it's tough to get state officials to listen. She was one of the city's leaders in the unsuccessful campaign for state funds to bail MARTA out of financial trouble and avoid the 25-cent fare hike.

"Despite my efforts to talk to people about that — with people from local, regional, state and federal transportation agencies — we really had no official communications with anybody," Woolard says. "I am mystified frankly why no discussions have taken place. We can't seem to engage people with us before these plans take shape."??