Proposed MARTA budget adds service, tech upgrades

After years of cuts, transit agency shortens wait times for trains

A few years back, MARTA CEO Keith Parker says metro Atlanta's largest bus and rail agency was in rough shape. Employees were being furloughed, bus routes were slashed, fares were getting hiked. MARTA was bleeding around $30 million per year and on the road to insolvency.

Times have changed. Though far from perfect, MARTA is now actually preparing to shorten wait times between trains in the mornings and afternoons. Officials say developers are clamoring to transform rail station parking lots into mixed-use developments. A county is considering joining the system. The agency is on track to report more than $150 million in its reserves fund.

"We are fiscally sustainable," Parker says.

And starting next week, trains will begin running every five to 10 minutes, depending on the station. Bus service should increase as well. Parker and MARTA officials hope they can add more customer service improvements with the approval of the transit agency's proposed $886 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year. No fare hikes are included in the deal. In addition, passengers should be on the lookout for needed system fixes in addition to a multiyear program to replace out- dated signage systems, a new website, and possibly bringing Wi-Fi to buses and trains.

Parker and his team also want to see the system sign more lease deals with private developers to turn MARTA's moribund parking lots into developments. Deals regarding the King Memorial and Avondale Estates stops have either been inked or are under negotiation. If successful, the projects could generate revenue and boost ridership. Officials are also seeking ideas for the Edgewood-Candler Park stop. In the future, Parker says buildings could even be built above the Midtown, Arts Center, and North Avenue stops, stations that are located in some of the metro region's densest areas.

Discussions are also taking place to expand MARTA south of Fulton County. As recently reported by CL, Clayton County officials are thinking about contracting with the transit agency to deliver bus service or even joining the system. MARTA officials, Parker says, are preparing mul- tiple options and funding scenarios for Clayton to consider. Some of the cash could be earmarked to help save for future rail service.

The freed-up cash for improved services became available thanks to funding help from the Atlanta Regional Commission and transit officials acting on cost saving recommendations from an external audit. ("We cut and cut and cut," Parker says.) Those savings will only go so far. One way MARTA officials might be able to find some more cash is by cracking down on fare evaders, which they estimate sap $3 million in revenue each year. Bus drivers will soon start shutting the door while on their breaks, preventing people from sneaking on the vehicles. It won't save millions of dollars, but absent new funding, it's something.