Cover Story: Waiting for a ride

The racial reality behind MARTA's downward spiral

On a Sunday night in late March, 23-year-old Alexia Howard shivered in the cold air that swept through MARTA's Hamilton Holmes Station. The temperature was in the low 40s, and Howard had just finished her shift as a cashier at the first Wal-Mart inside the Perimeter.

Howard's apartment is less than a mile-and-a-half from the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Gresham Road. In most cities, that would hardly be a problem. But on Sundays, Howard's trip home takes two buses, one train — and more than an hour.</
"You just have to get used to spending a lot of time waiting," she says.</
Don't ask her why she doesn't just walk it. If you do, she'll give you a grin that instantly lets you know that is the dumbest question she's ever heard.</
Maybe it wouldn't be too difficult for Howard to make the trek. Maybe it's not too much to ask a woman to walk twice a day in the hot sun or cold rain, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes late at night, along a route that doesn't have sidewalks and can get sketchy at times.</
But the fact is that thousands of low-income Atlantans have commutes like Howard's ­-- and many of them live much further from work. Though every commute is different, few are easy. And the majority of MARTA riders share a similar frustration: They depend on an underfunded and faltering transit system to get around town.</
A soft-spoken single mom with a 3-year-old daughter, Howard often can be found standing at the bus stop, her arms folded across her chest, eyes mostly down, studying her fingernails. But she warms a bit, smiles even, when asked how she'd prefer to get around town: a new Chevy Monte Carlo.</
Unfortunately, that'll have to wait. Howard recently moved in with her grandmother at a gated apartment complex off Second Avenue in south Decatur so she could be closer to her new job at Wal-Mart. Managers there tell her that she'll eventually get a full-time position — and the health benefits that she and her daughter need — if the store does enough business to go 24 hours. The Monte Carlo, or any car at all, will have to be put on hold.</
Until then, Howard is resigned to putting up with long delays and a dysfunctional system. Asked about how much time she spends each day standing on the side of the road at a bus stop, Howard just shrugs her shoulders and says, "A lot. But that's just MARTA."</
There are thousands of Atlantans who don't own cars and depend on the city's beleaguered transit system to get to their jobs, to drop off their children at day care, to buy their groceries — basically, to accomplish any of the daily tasks that car owners cruise through.</
Some researchers who study MARTA believe the transit system got as bad as it did deliberately. But most of those people don't fault MARTA. They blame contemptuous attitudes in suburban counties and a disregard among lawmakers for MARTA's woes. The combination of those two things have created a funding shortfall that has been the transit agency's ball and chain for decades.</
The result is that, while the state spends billions of dollars to ease the commutes of mostly white suburbanites, service cuts at MARTA have forced Atlantans like Howard to spend more money on taxis, spend less time with their families, and wait longer and more often for a bus or a train that always seems just around the corner.</
Clark Atlanta University professor Robert Bullard has a name for this phenomenon: transportation apartheid. He says that, by design, Georgia's transportation policies aid whites and hurt African-Americans.</
"In Atlanta we have a two-tiered system, people with cars and without," Bullard says. "MARTA has historically meant transportation for poor people, disabled, the transit-dependent and losers."</
In addition to MARTA being under-funded, African-Americans have been squeezed out of the city — and pushed farther and farther from MARTA's core service area. There are two reasons why that happened, Bullard says.</
Over the past decade, the razing of public housing projects to make way for mixed-income developments severely slashed the stock of affordable housing in the city. Then, rising property taxes that resulted from suburbanites "discovering" intown living forced longtime and low-income residents out of their homes — and into far-flung, often disenfranchised neighborhoods. What that boils down to, Bullard claims, is segregation. (On the other hand, former residents of public housing neighborhoods are no longer concentrated in dilapidated and impoverished complexes, local housing advocate Mtamanika Youngblood points out.)

Bullard, the Ware Professor of Sociology at Clark Atlanta University and director of the school's Environmental Justice Resource Center, is one of only a handful of scholars devoted to researching what he considers to be Atlanta's most egregious inequity. He holds the contentious opinion that race is at the root of Atlanta's faltering transit system.</
In lectures, papers and nine different books — with titles such as Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism, New Routes to Equity — Bullard has documented inner-city "injustices" that low-income and predominantly minority Americans suffer through each day. In other words, he's devoted much of his scholarly career to studying the decisions that keep people like Howard waiting at bus stops for hours at a time.</
Alexia Howard began navigating MARTA's serpentine system on her own when she was 13. Back then, she needed MARTA to get home from school on the days when sports and extracurricular club meetings kept her there after the buses left.</
Basically, she has relied on MARTA her entire life. She doesn't know much about the politics and funding problems that keep MARTA handicapped. But she does notice the cutback in service over the past two years.</
"It's gotten worse," she says. "And it's a real inconvenience, with all the route changes."</
Usually, the bus that serves Route No. 22, Howard's most direct way home from work, can get her there in 15 minutes. But the 22 bus doesn't run after 8:30 p.m., and it doesn't run at all on Sundays.</
The 22 was one of more than 100 bus routes that MARTA has scaled back since 2004. Some routes were cut completely. And over the past two years, MARTA has reduced its service by 15 percent, affecting more than 2,000 riders who depend on public transit to get everywhere they need to go. In all, about 100 MARTA vehicles were removed from service during peak commute times.</
The agency had to do it, or face the possibility of going bankrupt.</
Today, MARTA is a shadow of what it was intended to be. When the transit system was originally conceived in the 1960s, it was envisioned as an efficient and expansive web of bus and rail lines that would put MARTA on par with transit agencies in the nation's major cities, such as Boston, San Francisco and Seattle. One of the ways MARTA aimed to do that was to serve five counties.</
But residents of three of those counties — Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton — voted against the 1-cent sales tax that would have funded MARTA's rail and bus service there. According to Bullard, the suburbanites who rejected MARTA "didn't want any part of it, because for the mostly white, suburban counties, MARTA stood for 'Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.' And anybody who says that's not true is not really living in reality."</
That's a growing sentiment among African-American activists groups, such as the Concerned Black Clergy, Atlanta Transit Riders Union and Atlanta Jobs with Justice.</
"What is going on currently with the state and any potential funding of MARTA is rooted in 35 years of racism and classism," says Terence Courtney, coordinator with Atlanta Jobs with Justice, a group of low-income, elderly and disabled riders who depend on MARTA. "Those lawmakers did not contribute operation funds from the beginning, which limited MARTA's ability to expand and serve the community."</
It's true that state lawmakers don't give MARTA a dime for fuel, salaries or maintenance of its stations, buses and trains. Nor do they provide money for any of MARTA's day-to-day needs. Unlike lawmakers in every other state with a major transit system, they never have.</
MARTA riders' fares only cover about a third of the cost of a ride. The rest of the trip is paid for by federal grants and the 1-cent sales tax levied by Fulton and DeKalb counties and the city of Atlanta. The tax and the $1.75 fare are the sole sources of operation funds for the transit agency. And those sources do not generate enough revenue to operate and maintain the region's oldest and most heavily used transit system.</
The difficult decision to begin reducing MARTA's routes and frequency was made almost two years ago in light of a $54 million budget shortfall. To save $11 million, MARTA's board of directors considered eliminating four bus routes completely and shortening 107 others.

The result was that in June 2004, MARTA reduced its bus and rail service by 15 percent. It was the agency's largest cutback in its history, and it happened in the midst of the city adding 25,626 residents over a five-year period.</
According to Gov. Sonny Perdue's office and the Republican leadership of the General Assembly, the state is unwilling to provide funding for MARTA because the agency first needs to show it can improve the system's substandard service.</
When pressed last year by activists and intown lawmakers to come up with money to prevent MARTA's further collapse, Perdue said he wouldn't consider it until MARTA's board established budgetary accountability and was able to operate in the black.</
The problem, according to MARTA officials, is that improving the system is nearly impossible without state funding.</
Last week, the governor's press secretary, Heather Hedrick, clarified Perdue's past statement for CL. "We were not saying that the state will provide MARTA with operational funds if they meet those criteria," Hedrick said, cementing an even more grim future for MARTA's bottom line.</
When asked what could secure state funding for MARTA, Hedrick said, "In the history of MARTA, there has never been state funding for operational costs. I don't know what the answer is.</
"Gov. Perdue is a data-driven decision maker," she continued. "He'd want full knowledge of every bit of collective data and viability, and that goes for high-speed rail and expanding MARTA or any of these other transit systems."</
When it comes to spending money on transportation, most lawmakers and state employees heavily favor road construction instead. One possible reason for that can be linked to the influence of pro-road and pro-development groups like Georgians for Better Transportation. GBT President Mike Kenn and his organization enjoy exceptional access to members of the General Assembly, and to transportation planning agencies.</
For instance, on Jan. 18, GBT hosted a Travis Tritt concert at the Fox Theatre. It was free for politicians and state employees; everyone else paid $10,000 a table. The concert was held at the same time that GBT lobbied behind-the-scenes to change the state's grading scale that determines which transportation projects get funded. GBT pushed for more consideration — a jump from 10 percent to 70 percent — to be given to "congestion mitigation," which most commonly calls for road-building.</
What's more, three-quarters of the money that has gone into GBT's political action committee fund since 2003 ($30,000 out of $40,000) came from Yancey Bros. Co., the largest company in Georgia that sells and rents equipment used in road construction projects, according to campaign disclosure reports.</
Georgia's obsession with road building permeates state government. This year, the state Department of Transportation agreed to spend as much as $147 million to remake the Ga. 316 and I-85 interchange. DOT is also pursuing a $1.8 billion project that could grow I-75 to 23 lanes. Both of these projects are taking place in congested areas along the routes of mostly white commuters.</
Yet transportation experts from groups such as the Sierra Club and Smart Growth America say that laying asphalt doesn't ease congestion. Within years of adding more lanes — or sometimes just months — sprawl catches up and jams the new capacity.</
"It's less about mobility," Bullard says, "than it is about getting monies and contracts into the hands of the same ol' people who lay asphalt and concrete on roads."

Even if the Legislature did decide to adequately fund MARTA, that might not solve all of Atlanta's transportation woes.</
After all, it's not just transportation policies that isolate the poor from the rest of society. Middle-class neighborhoods are replacing low-income housing at an alarming rate — a rate that MARTA can't keep up with.</
In 1996, when the Atlanta Housing Authority began to transform Techwood/Clark Howell Homes into Centennial Place, the number of public housing units there dropped from 1,081 to 300.</
Bullard claims the housing authority came up with the proposal to renovate Techwood Homes to put on a show for the visitors in town for the Summer Olympics, which took place in multiple venues within view of the housing project.</
"You can't have [television] cameras beaming the Olympics all over the world showing a public housing project in the background with a bunch of poor black folks," Bullard says.</
But Techwood was only the beginning. When Carver Homes was rebuilt as the Villages at Carver, 700 units for public housing residents disappeared. East Lake Meadows, once comprised of 650 public housing units, is now home to 270.</
And documents that the Atlanta Housing Authority sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in December show that Grady Homes, whose 495 public housing units recently were torn down, will be replaced with 615 apartments — only 222 of which will be reserved for public housing residents.</
To Bullard, the Atlanta Housing Authority's revitalization blitzkrieg has resulted in nothing short of systemized displacement of the inner-city's poor, who were booted out of their homes to make way for posh developments built to attract the middle class.</
What's more, all of those complexes — including Techwood Homes, East Lake Villages, Grady Homes, and Capitol Homes — were well-served by MARTA, easily connecting residents to jobs, schools and Grady Memorial Hospital, the region's indigent health care provider. And with the revitalization tidal waves that followed each of the new-and-improved complexes, it has become no easy feat to find affordable housing that comes close to competing with those locations.</
What it boils down to is this: Ten years ago, if you were to study a map of the Atlanta neighborhoods with the highest concentration of transit-dependent people, you'd find that they were concentrated along MARTA routes. But a look at that same map today would show that those people are now scattered across the region.</
That is, if you can find them.</
"Where are those people? Did they get better housing? Did they get housing that's accessible to public transportation or a transit line?" Bullard says. "The point is, how are we measuring success? If measured success is emptying out poor people and replacing them with market rate units, then that's success. I'd call it a failure."</
Alexia Howard never lived in public housing, but she does feel the pinch of relying on a dysfunctional transit system.</
In addition to the cuts to Route No. 22, another of the service changes was to cut back bus Route No. 28 from running every 30 minutes to running every hour. The 28 is the bus that Howard takes to drop off and pick up her 3-year-old daughter, Essence, at the Sheltering Arms Child Development Center on East Lake Boulevard.</
Like the Wal-Mart where she works, Sheltering Arms day care is less than two miles from Howard's grandmother's apartment on Anwar Trail.</
A lot of Howard and her daughter's quality time takes place on the bus, either on the way to Sheltering Arms or on the way home. "On the bus," she says, "me and my baby, we just play with each other."</
Yet traveling to Sheltering Arms is particularly frustrating. When Howard drops off her daughter, she has mere moments to get her inside the day care before she has to rush back out to catch the bus — whose driver, hopefully, was willing to idle curbside. If she's delayed at all, the bus will have already pulled away, and she has to wait an hour for the next one. It's the same thing when she picks Essence up. Howard says the bus driver attempts to wait for her, but there's a schedule to keep, and her window of time is short.</
Bullard fears that it's only going to get worse for low-income people living in intown Atlanta. Ironically, he blames the continuation of transportation apartheid and the displacement of the poor on a project that's supposed to improve mobility in Atlanta's inner core: the Beltline.</
Bullard says the plan to build a 22-mile loop of transit, parks and trails will only accelerate the gentrification that is already in full swing in neighborhoods across the city. Bullard views the Beltline as a typical urban-renewal project — one that will attract more suburbanites into the city. To him, that has as many downsides as upsides.</
"There is an unintended consequence here that the Beltline will accelerate," he says.</
That viewpoint is shared by the Rev. Richard Cobble of the Concerned Black Clergy, and Terence Courtney of Atlanta Jobs with Justice.</
"It's the racist, greedy developers who are trying to dismantle MARTA here and replace it with a project [the Beltline] that will attract more white suburbanites and push more blacks out of the city," Courtney told a crowd of about 15 protesters before a MARTA board meeting on April 10. It was a meeting that Courtney would be escorted out of but would prompt action that could benefit Howard.

One of the biggest obstacles to fixing MARTA, Bullard and other transit advocates say, is the anti-inner-city sentiment saturating the General Assembly. Under the Gold Dome, any rural legislator seen as pro-MARTA historically has been attacked during a campaign as being anti-rural.</
"If you're a representative or senator from South Georgia, you get re-elected by going back home and saying, 'Hey, I kicked Atlanta's butt while I was in the Legislature,'" Rep. Jill Chambers, R-Atlanta, told CL last year. "So we have to find some way to ... bring in the support of people from outside of metro Atlanta."</
Cobble, a vice president of the Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta, says the day may soon come when local African-American preachers call for a citywide strike to get the attention of the governor and General Assembly.</
"A lot of folks say let's negotiate, let's talk, but that ain't working," Cobble says. "We'll make them look up and say, 'The problem is transportation.' And I'm sure it can be done through the clergy. Georgia is gearing up for a gubernatorial campaign and what we want to do at the Concerned Black Clergy is to push this to make it a major issue."</
Bullard believes the path to equality will be led by African-American grassroots groups and churches whose members think of access to transportation as a civil rights issue.</
"The state will benefit if there is a healthy public transit service in the region so people can have alternatives and get out of their cars," Bullard says. "At some point and time, there needs to be a public uprising to say, 'It's time for this madness to stop.'"</
He says local grassroots groups in Los Angeles, Boston and Detroit successfully pressured lawmakers and transit officials to expand and improve service in their towns. Those groups brought thousands of protesters to city council and transit board meetings to fight proposed fare increases and to keep bus routes running and on time.</
Atlanta is just starting to see the beginning of such a movement. The city now has a burgeoning Transit Riders Union, which speaks out against service cuts and advocates for increased transit service. And the groups Citizens for Progressive Transit and Atlanta Jobs with Justice regularly pressure the Atlanta Regional Commission and MARTA board to improve transit service.</
"We'd like to see more frequent [MARTA] service, we'd like to see fares to either be capped or reduced if possible, and we'd like to see more communication with riders on the routes and scheduling," says Lee Biola, with Citizens for Progressive Transit.</
At an April 10 rally outside of MARTA headquarters, Courtney, the Atlanta Jobs with Justice coordinator, was all fired up.</
He derided the current practice of allowing representatives from state agencies and Clayton and Gwinnett counties — governments that don't spend a single dime on MARTA's operational expenses — to vote on MARTA's budget and decide which routes get cut.</
"Remove the transportation aliens from Clayton and Gwinnett from the MARTA board," Courtney told the small crowd. "And do not balance the books on the back of those riders who can't afford it."</
Then he made a promise.</
"If we don't see what we want to see from the board," he said, "then we will come back, and come back, and come back again and again."</
Inside, at MARTA's monthly board meeting, Courtney called on board members to restore bus service on key routes and to allow actual MARTA riders to sit on the board. A few minutes later, Courtney was removed mid-sentence from the meeting after arguing with board Chairman Ed Wall about whether his two-minute allotment of speaking time was up.</
But the day was far from a waste. One of the demonstrators, an elderly woman named Bernice Smith who lives near Alexia Howard, asked the board to rethink the cuts to Route No. 22, the one that stops running at 8:30 p.m. and doesn't run at all on Sundays or holidays.</
"They took our Sunday service and our holiday service from us," Smith said. "How do we get to church? How do we do the holiday shopping that everyone else can do? We would be most grateful for our route to be restored."</
After the meeting, MARTA representatives promised Smith, Courtney and the others that they would pay a visit to the Second Avenue and Gresham Road area and re-examine Route No. 22's schedule.</
If MARTA does fully restore service on the 22 route, Howard's Sunday commute would get a whole lot easier. It also might mark the first step in a grassroots movement that could make MARTA what it was originally intended to be: world-class public transit.</
Get involved: On Thurs., April 20, at 7 p.m., MARTA will host public hearings at Atlanta City Hall, 55 Trinity Ave., and South Fulton Service Center, 5600 Stonewall Tell Road, College Park, about the agency's proposed budget, which includes service and route changes. To join the fight to improve MARTA, check out Citizens for Progressive Transit at www.cfpt.org, Atlanta Jobs with Justice at www.jwj.org/LocalCoal/GA.htm, and Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta at www.concernedblackclergy.com.

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