Dave Emanuel | Cut To The Chase

New York City’s subway system opened in 1904 and underwent a major expansion in 1908. At the time, heavy rail was the only affordable form of transportation, other than walking.

Also at that time, the city’s population and economic activity was heavily concentrated in lower Manhattan. The subway system brought revolutionary change to the city because it made travel from upper Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx quick, easy and, with a fare of 5 cents, affordable.

Although fares have increased dramatically over the years, the subway system still provides quick and easy transportation, providing over 8 million rides per day. That’s largely because population and business centers were built within easy walking distance of the system’s 472 stations.

Atlanta’s MARTA system pales by comparison, both in the number of stations, (38) and ridership. That, in combination with the extreme cost of building heavy rail (approximately $250 million per mile) are significant reasons that the recent referendum failed. A survey of comments on social media demonstrates that the resistance at the voting booth wasn’t to transit, but to MARTA.

Proposals to expand public transit survive if they are perceived to adequately handle an area’s specific transportation needs at a reasonable cost. Concerns over current and future cost played out against a back-drop of MARTA’s track record of poor service, corruption, inefficiency, and financial mismanagement. Although the agency seems to have gotten it financial affairs back on track, stigma of past issues persists. Giving MARTA access to Gwinnett taxpayer funds, although controlled by the county, was perceived much too risky, given the system’s history.

Yet even if MARTA was a model of financial integrity, it would remain a money pit. For MARTA’s 2018 fiscal year, revenues decreased $11 million while operating expenses increased $47.1 million compared to the previous year. That resulted in total fare revenues of $138.2 million, and total operating expenses of $715.68 million. Additionally, MARTA incurred $104 million in non-operating expenses. The $681.48 million fare-to-operating expense shortfall of was made up by sales and use taxes and federal revenues.

Even though the county’s transit plan included a host of bus routes, (including BRT, express bus and micro transit) many of which would be implemented within a year, they were overshadowed by the $1 billion+ cost and 20-year time frame of a four-mile extension of MARTA heavy rail. Heavy rail is widely viewed as a relic of the past, and the referendum was widely perceived as a MARTA money grab to be used to finance obsolete technology.

The money grab perception was fueled by a one percent sales tax that would serve as the expansion plan’s financial vehicle. That tax was to apply to sales of ALL purchases including those for food and prescription drugs. In so doing, the tax would have hit lower-income families- ironically, those most in need of public transit options- the hardest.

Another objection to MARTA is that with a mere 38 stations, other modes of transportation are frequently required at one, or both ends of a trip. That adds both time and expense, making other forms of transportation more appealing.

There’s no doubt that some form of public transit is coming to Gwinnett County. Hopefully, the next proposal will deliver more and cost less.