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Can MARTA Get Smarter?

By D. Aileen Dodd Contributing Writer | 6/14/2013, 6 a.m.
The open seats on local trains and buses go against the national trend.

Gridlock on metro Atlanta interstate highways is driving some commuters to the edge. They’re pushed to the brink of road rage due to lane closures, tedius traffic jams around festivals and sporting events, and frustrating trips across counties to get to and from work.

It is the job of MARTA’s new general manager, Keith Parker, to make mass transit more appealing for drivers looking to reduce their daily stress levels and save time and money on their car trips.

Metro Atlanta was ranked as a region with the 7th worst traffic commute in the nation with an annual commuter delay of 51 hours; a ranking it shares with Chicago. The nightmarish commutes for those who live both ITP (Inside-the-Perimeter) and OTP (Outside-the-Perimeter) hasn’t translated into increased patronage of public transit, however.

Ridership has dropped by about 15 percent on MARTA trains since 2001, and it has fallen by about 31 percent on buses during that time. The mass transit system’s overall numbers were down 8 percent last year.

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Keith Parker, MARTA's new general manager

The open seats on local trains and buses go against the national trend.

The American Public Transit Association reports that ridership is increasing in other major cities as more commuters board buses and trains to save on gas and parking, to protect the environment and to get around if they don’t own a car or have reliable transportation.

MARTA has plans to boost ridership and improve the experience of its customers. This week its Board of Directors adopted a $426.9 million fiscal 2014 operating budget that avoided a 25-cent fare increase that had been proposed earlier this year.

The budget includes plans to re-open rail station restrooms, to monitor and improve customer service, to restore some routes that were dropped to save money, and to crack down on “knucklehead behavior” that creates a safety risk and deters some commuters from using public transit.

Tramaine Wilkes, a professional violinist and teacher who lives in Austell, Ga., said MARTA’s focus should be on commuting convenience. Wilkes went to school in Chicago and found mass transit there to be “more convenient” than it has been in metro Atlanta.

“The bus and train system (in Chicago) had a really convenient schedule,” said Wilkes. “It was easy to understand. You didn’t have to wait really long times. You almost didn’t need a car to live there. Here you have to have a car because it’s not very convenient to get anywhere. Even getting to MARTA can be a hassle.”

MARTA’s board also approved a capital budget of $430.5 million for 2014 that will bring improvements to the system.

Parker, MARTA’s CEO, shared some of his plans for MARTA with The Atlanta Voice this week:

AV: What is your five-year vision for MARTA?

KP: “We must fundamentally transform the way MARTA operates and the way we do business so that we can position our transit system for financial sustainability and future growth.

 “We are already in the process of changing our overall culture and the fiscal year 2014 budget we adopted this week is evidence of that. One of my top priorities is to demonstrate to employees that we genuinely care about them and the important work they do every day on behalf of our customers. Many of our employees have not gotten a pay increase in about eight years and don’t feel like they’re valued.  That’s why I’ve been visiting every MARTA facility and speaking with employees in groups and one-on-one so they can share their concerns and their ideas with me. In December, we have also budgeted to give all MARTA employees a one-time, 3-percent incentive payment to reward them for their hard work and dedicated service.