A Brighter Future Ahead for MARTA?

Atlanta’s transit agency has had its ups and downs over the years. Originally envisioned to serve the five core Atlanta metro counties, only Fulton and DeKalb voters agreed to pay the penny sales tax that funds its operation. A heavy rail system built in the 1970s and 1980s feels underutilized, especially compared to the continued expansion of Washington D.C.’s Metro system, which was started at about the same time.

Voters refused to support a penny sales tax in a 2012 referendum that would have provided funding for an expansion of MARTA services, including rail to the Emory University / CDC area in DeKalb County. And how many times have you heard the mantra that MARTA is the only major transit system in the country that receives no state funding?

Yet, the tide may be changing. Part of the reason for that, according to a story in Governing Magazine, is the leadership of General Manager Keith Parker.

After taking the helm of the transit agency in December 2012, Parker worked to improve MARTA’s image and implemented cost reductions identified in an audit commissioned by his predecessor, Beverly Scott. Perhaps most importantly, Parker realized that MARTA would need to do some work to improve on its own before going to the Georgia General Assembly and asking for help.

All of these efforts have led some state officials to see the transit agency in a different light. In the early months, despite MARTA’s mounting deficits, Parker asked for very little from state officials. He did not seek a financial bailout. He only asked that state officials not pass any onerous new laws that could tie the agency’s hands as it tried to prove its merit.

This was all a refreshing change for Jacobs, the Republican chairman of the state oversight panel. Historically, MARTA’s relationship with the state legislature had been a rocky one. Jacobs recalls MARTA and its union, under Parker’s predecessor, painting a third of its buses and trains with red X’s to signify the cuts MARTA would have to make if the state refused to help. The public shaming, Jacobs says, was “exactly the wrong approach to take with the legislature.” Parker has avoided those kinds of tactics. “Those two approaches are very different,” Jacobs says. “One was a bomb-throwing approach that was accompanied by no substantive changes in MARTA’s operations. The other is a very personal type that is accompanied by substantive changes. What’s not to like?”

From the beginning, though, transit advocates wanted Parker to put pressure on state legislators to support the agency, but the transit chief thought that was poor strategy. “It’s like we’d be begging,” he says. He urged them to wait until the agency got its own house in order first. “Then, when we go and talk to [legislators], it’s not asking for money, it’s asking for investment, because we are a strong group, worthy of investment. It’s a whole different conversation than going in with a position of total weakness.”

Things seem to be improving for MARTA. In November, Clayton County voters will decide if they want to join the transit system. Passage of the referendum, which looks increasingly likely, will bring bus service to the county for the first time since 2010, when Clayton Transit went defunct due to lack of funding. The agency recently sought companies that could build a transit oriented development project at the Brookhaven station, and MARTA has plans to revamp its Five Points and Garnett stations.

And, a plan to extend the North Line up to the employment centers around Windward in Alpharetta is finally moving forward.

The slowly improving economy and a growing population in the metro area are possible reasons that some of these long stalled projects are finally starting to move forward. But another reason has to be a leader who decided to do the best he could with what he had, rather than complain he didn’t have the resources to make any improvements without outside help.

Can Georgia Cities Learn Something About Public Transportation?

Is it possible for a public transportation system to improve service, increase customer satisfaction, decrease fares and decrease monetary losses? Yeah, but at the same time? The Atlantic Cities says it has been done – and more than once.

Mark Aesch doesn’t appear to use slight of hand to accomplish something that MARTA riders and taxpayers would love to see, but it sounds as if Penn and Teller should be involved. Aesch accomplished this in Rochester and then in Detroit. Yes, Detroit. That Detroit.

“I think the model works in almost any location,” says Aesch. “Improving the quality of the customer experience, creating that atmosphere where the individual employee is rewarded for organizational success — that’s critical. You can do that anywhere.”

Aesch stresses improving the riding experience and weighing route usage along with the impact of a bus route to its potential riders. Based on commentary, the focus seems to be on downtown-to-suburb routes and away from suburb-to-suburb routes.

If you actually read the story, take a look at the comments, too. Not everyone was thrilled with the results.

Your homework assignment is to make recommendations on whether Georgia cities would benefit from a similar approach. For extra credit you may complain about MARTA expense or MARTA service and safety. No extra credit will be given for anecdotes.

An Offer MARTA Can Refuse – or Not

My father always says, “It’s not a bargain if you can’t afford it.” I believe that is the advice he might pass along to MARTA supporters.

MARTA has long desired more flexibility in its ability to determine how it will spend its funds. Currently, 50% of MARTA funds must be spent on capital improvements and 50% on operations. This is a fairly tight financial straitjacket, though it is a way to prevent subsidization of riders at the expense of abandoning necessary upkeep of the system.

There is a possibility that the ties on spending might be loosened in the draft legislation suggested by the Transit Governance Task Force. There are; however, strings as Maria Saporta writes in The Saporta Report:

To free MARTA from the state-imposed restriction that 50 percent of its revenues be spent on capital and 50 percent be spent on operations, MARTA basically would have to turn over most of its authorities to the newly-created Transit Governance Council. For the record, no other transit agency in the nation is saddled with such an unworkable rule.
MARTA represents a $6 billion investment in our region. Why should MARTA turn over its Constitutional powers to a state-controlled entity and give up its designation as the transit authority that can receive federal funding in the region.
According to folks close to MARTA, relaxing the 50/50 rule would give MARTA flexibility over how it spends its sales tax revenue (and it is expected that currently would be worth about $20 million a year for the transit agency.
It is inconceivable that MARTA could or should give up most of its powers and its $6 billion investment in return for getting flexibility in how it can spend the MARTA sales tax collected in the City of Atlanta, and Fulton and DeKalb counties.

And then there is the issue of the make-up of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) which would be the body with the ultimate control of MARTA. The 15 members would all be appointed: 9 by the governor, 3 by the lieutenant governor and 3 by the state house speaker. It’s not as though petty, personal politics ever happens in Georgia, so what could possibly go wrong?

From the state’s perspective, things are different. One of the complaints about the state is that it has not contributed as much money to MARTA as is needed. It is a fact that state governments are reluctant to give up control of funds, but let’s take this a step farther.

If the state increases its control of the funds, then it has greatly increased its responsibility for MARTA. It can no longer stand at a distance and point fingers. It will be forced to have a hands-on, problem-solving approach and let’s face it, the state has many more resources at its disposal that it could employ to improve MARTA – if the price is right.

In this case, the price for the state of Georgia taking so much control of MARTA is inescapable political responsibility.

If one wants the state to “man up” and do the right thing by MARTA, then allowing the state to be responsible might be the right way to go. The next logical step would be for the state to increase its funding of MARTA to acceptable levels for a state that still lays claim to the title Empire State of the South.

Is this a bargain that MARTA can’t afford? Perhaps, after all, it is not. My father, actually a man of few words, might offer another bit of sage advice to MARTA supporters, “If you want a man’s help, then make your interests his interests.” Yeah, that bit of wisdom would certainly fit.

There is much more at The Saporta Report, so check it out to get additional information. This is not the only issue with the draft legislation that is discussed. You’re big boys and girls so you can wander over there and find your way back again. For the weary, here’s the link.

MARTA Gets Smarta With Service Cuts

It’s a universally accepted truth around here that if you are a government entity, and you want to protect your budget in an era of cuts, you make the most painful public cut of services possible to ensure that the public demands your funding is restored.

Don’t believe me? Ask the Board Of Regents about their great plan to cut 4-H.

Marta now takes up the mantle by saying “No More Braves Shuttle“.

While I don’t have statistics to prove my point (like I ever do?), I think it’s a safe assumption that MARTA sees it’s greatest spikes in ridership, and thus additional revenue, around sporting events.

But, these riders are mixed in with a heavy group of suburbanites who, according to common knowledge, don’t pay taxes to support Marta (because, you know, these folks never shop in Fulton or DeKalb counties).

It is true that Marta receives no state funding. I’m pretty sure some of our local experts on the subject will be quick to point out they are the only large metro transit agency in such a position.

So, Peach Pundit community, I posit this questsion: Is Marta right to take away the services not relied on as much by their core county residents relative to use by non-supportive suburbanites? Or is this a ploy to make folks in Cherokee County demand the state to fund their Braves shuttle? Neither? Both?


Marta Gets The Grady Treatment

A couple of years ago, when Grady Hospital’s financial troubles could no longer be ignored even by suburban Republicans, a series of compromises was made on all sides to place Grady on tenable financial footing. The major concession by Grady was a complete reconstitution of its board of directors.

Marta stands next in line for the Grady treatment, according to the AJC, with an amendment to SB 22 poised to remake the Marta board. Again.

House Speaker pro Tempore Jan Jones said that the legislation (an amendment to SB 22) would reduce the current MARTA board from 18 to 13 voting members, with three appointed by the state. The governor, lieutenant governor and speaker would each appoint one voting member to make up that three. In addition, the Department of Transportation commissioner and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority director would have non-voting seats.

Jones said it was to ensure balance on the board and make sure Fulton and DeKalb taxpayers were protected.

According to a copy of the amendment, this is how the 13 voting seats would break down:

State – 3

City of Atlanta – 3

DeKalb County – 4 (at least 1 from north DeKalb, at least 1 from south DeKalb)

Fulton County – 3 (1 from south Fulton, 2 from north Fulton)

Jones pointed out that nearly all of Fulton County’s population lives in municipalities, so it only made sense for mayors to make the appointments. She also said it was about protecting taxpayers.

I recommend clicking the link and reading Ariel Hart’s entire article, to get the true flavor of the points of contention, and the motivation for the change. Read more

Update on MARTA’s Soulja Gal

According to WSB-TV’s 5pm show (Monica Kaufman Pearson is hot for this story, now that the weekend is over) MARTA’s Soulja Gal’s (Nafiza Ziyad) victim will not be pressing charges. Seems she knew the girl’s family, and knew that the girl was “troubled.” That could explain why she remained so calm during Nafiza’s outburst. And could be that she’s just plain old-school and wishes no further embarrassment on this family.

The elderly victim also turns out to be the mother of the Morehouse football coach. Pearson had an exclusive interview with the mother of Nafiza, the very troubled young lady staring in the viral video.

Since WSB-TV updates their website about once a year it seems, I won’t bother to link you there. Not yet at least. The best place to keep up with this story remains the blogosphere.

Was MARTA Soulja Girl Really Arrested?

UPDATE: Nifiza Ziyad (aka MARTA’s Soulja Girl) was booked into the DeKalb County jail, but on May 8th. Apparently, she’s still there. You can search this awful data base here in your own for more info and the mug shot and all that other stuff.

So, I must now assume that the YouTube video was the real deal after all! Given the utter black hole of MSM reporting on this, the whole saga just needed some good ‘ole fashioned fact checking.

H/T to our pals, again, at CL. And for help on the data base from Joe at Joeventures. He was able to find Soulja Gal in the DeKalb County jail data base on a first name alone.

MARTA To SpaceyG: “Have a good weekend.”

I’m trying hard, moreorless, here at the laptop to get to the bottom of this MARTA Media Mess. I got a lady from MARTA on the phone, who asked if I was a “TV station.” (Well, I can be!) When I told her I was a blogger, gave her my real name and my company name, the MARTA employee then said I’d have to call back Monday and talk to Media Relations.

I repeatedly, and politely, asked her if she could make someone available to talk about this little media situation going on, like, right now, and whether someone at MARTA knew if the video on YouTube was real or fake. The unidentified MARTA spokesperson told me, repeatedly, “Have a good weekend.” She then hung up on me.

Maybe you can call and get something out of MARTA on a weekend. The number is: 404-848-4900. Tell ’em you’re Rupert Murdoch.

MARTA Girl Looks A Little Different In Her Mug Shot

Sandrarose.com is THE source for breaking news on the MARTA Soulja Girl saga. She has the mug shot now too.

Funny, this blogger I’ve never heard of up until now, one who typically has mostly rap music celebrity fluff posts, is suddenly News Source Central in this whole deal. Whaz up with that? Heck, for all we know, Sandra Rose could be MARTA Girl! Or the old lady in the video. Or operating the cam. Many possibilities. It’s a crazy, crazy world out there… that’s all we really know for sure at this point. Other than the fact that I can assure you all Pauline Ashley-Wilkes is not, nor has ever been, MARTA’s Soulja Girl.

UPDATE: MARTA Girl Arrested

MARTA’s own Soulja Gal has been turned-in to authorities. By her family. From the SandraRose blog:

The 25-year-old woman who was videotaped verbally abusing a senior citizen on a Marta train is in custody in the DeKalb County jail charged with disorderly conduct.

Soulja Girl’s sister and baby daddy called into the Ryan Cameron Showon V-103 today. Soulja Girl’s sister told Ryan that her sister was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder 5 years ago and the incident on the train was the result of her sister not taking her meds.

She said Soulja Girl was turned into police by their mother yesterday and she is being held on $300 bail.

Yes, MARTA Gal was off her meds. Way off. Her behavior in the video was a classic manic depressive meltdown episode. Albeit with a unique, urban-tinged sheen to it. Shame so many wanted to shoot her down like a rabid dog and ask questions later. She needed help. Right then and there.

Lord knows what her condition is now, since it’s over 30 days after that manic display. I just hope she’s getting help. Her family loves her very much and wants her to get well. They make that quite clear in this interview they gave yesterday to V-103’s Ryan Cameron.

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