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Fight over Atlanta mass transit raises race issues

ATLANTA — A proposal to change the power structure of metro Atlanta's mass transit system raises the complicated politics of race in Georgia.

The tension is evident when comparing the demographics of mass transit riders against those seeking change. Roughly three-quarters of transit riders are black, according to government surveys. The lawmakers seeking a larger political role in transit decisions for northern Atlanta and its predominantly white suburbs are white.

Transportation policy involves a complex mix of public issues — taxation, financing, economic development. For some residents in and around Atlanta, one unspoken issue often is race.

"It's the fear of white people and black people," said Terry Parker, a store owner from Roswell who acknowledged that race shapes his views in the transit debate. Parker is white, as is three-quarters of his community in northern Fulton County. He pays a sales tax to support the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority but said he dislikes riding a subway and bus system that he perceives as dangerous. "What are you going to do? It's human nature."

Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, denies that race is an issue in his proposed overhaul, which he said would benefit all riders. He said his plan would stabilize MARTA finances, put limits on its debt and position the agency for future growth.

"Unfortunately there are people in our community who play that card," he said, speaking of race issues. "But it really does a disservice to the fact that people who ride MARTA as a matter of necessity and people who would like to ride MARTA as a matter of choice universally look to systems like Washington, D.C., and New York and Boston and Chicago and say, 'Wow, we'd like to have something more like that.'"

The MARTA board declined through agency spokesman Lyle Harris to comment on the legislation.

His bill, even if unintentionally, has political consequences that unfold along race lines. It would keep MARTA's board at 11 voting members but change who appoints some of them. For example, the Fulton County Commission, dominated by black Democrats, now selects its own appointees to the MARTA board, though they must by law come from certain regions.

By contrast, Jacobs' bill would allow a caucus of municipal mayors to pick two of the three MARTA board members from northern Fulton County. The mayors would come from communities including Johns Creek, which is 64 percent white; Roswell, 75 percent white; Milton, 77 percent white; and Sandy Springs, 65 percent white.

Commission members and mayors from southern Fulton County would pick the third Fulton representative to the board. That board member would be picked by politicians who mostly represent majority-black communities.

The DeKalb County Commission, dominated by black Democrats, would cede one of its four board appointees to a similar caucus of local mayors. The governor would name another voting member.

Others aspects of Jacobs' plan would privatize back-office support functions to save money, put limits on MARTA's debt and eliminate a defined-benefit pension system for new unionized workers. In return, Jacobs' plan would extend a temporary suspension of a rule forcing MARTA to spend half of its revenues on its capital budget — a restriction that is unique in state government.

MARTA is an easy political foil for Republicans in Georgia's Statehouse, who typically come from suburban or rural stretches of Georgia. They oppose organized labor. MARTA serves urban Atlanta and has a unionized workforce.

Jacobs said his constituents also complain about what he called "knucklehead" behavior on the system, even though he said MARTA's low crime rate compares favorably with other transit agencies. In the agency's last survey, less than half of a percent of riders said they were the victims of a crime on a bus or subway during the preceding month.

Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain, a black lawmaker who sits on the transit oversight committee, said the region made a mistake when neighboring Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton counties declined to join MARTA. It resulted in a less diverse mix of riders. Cobb and Gwinnett are majority white counties. Clayton was majority white when MARTA was first proposed, but it's now majority black.

"Believe it or not, there were communities in the metro area that did not want it simply because they felt that there would be an undesirable element, citizens, who would evidently ride MARTA to their communities, steal their TVs, electronics and get back on MARTA to go home, apparently, because they did not wish for MARTA to be in their communities," Mitchell said.

Mitchell said he believes attitudes are improving. He said some lawmakers backing the GOP-led overhaul might be seeking political buy-in for MARTA from a larger constituency.

Still, there is tension.

Nick Holman, 34, who works in Roswell, said he drove to the nearest MARTA station and rode the subway downtown to Georgia State University while he was a student. He said taking public transit was easier than driving on crowded highways and cost less than city parking.

Still, Holman said some suburban — and largely white — communities view the system as primarily serving minorities.

"A lot of the northern suburbs don't want MARTA because they think it could bring an undesirable element," Holman said. "But that's stupid."

Comments

kevin 1 year, 10 months ago

There should be an overhaul as the present folks running it are not competent nor do they work a full day at doing their job they were hired to do. It doesn't matter what color they are as long as they start improving the system. It is always easy to cry the race card when the cry babies do not get what they want.

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ACC12_SEC13Booster 1 year, 10 months ago

Kevin, you could not be more correct that MARTA needs to be overhauled into something that is much more effective for the urban core of the Atlanta region as the status quo there just is not cutting it.

That increasingly-troubled transit agency needs to somehow find its way out of the current financial death spiral that it finds itself in.

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ACC12_SEC13Booster 1 year, 10 months ago

{{"Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain, a black lawmaker who sits on the transit oversight committee, said the region made a mistake when neighboring Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton counties declined to join MARTA. It resulted in a less diverse mix of riders. Cobb and Gwinnett are majority white counties. Clayton was majority white when MARTA was first proposed, but it's now majority black."}}

That statement by State Rep. Mitchell is not entirely true as Gwinnett is now a county in which whites are now firmly in the minority of the population.

According to the latest census numbers, Gwinnett County has a population that is only 43% white and 57% non-white.

Also, when MARTA was first proposed back in 1965, Metro Atlanta was a much different place than it is now as the metro region had only about 1/4th the amount of people that it has today.

At that time, DeKalb was a fast-growing suburban county that was considered to be the edge of the city and Cobb and Clayton counties were still largely-undeveloped exurban counties while Gwinnett was overwhelmingly rural and almost totally-undeveloped.

At the time that MARTA was first proposed, Gwinnett County had only about 50,000 people or about 1/14th the amount of the 825,000 residents that it has today and was considered almost too far away from Atlanta to attract any meaningful residential, commercial or industrial development.

Nobody could have ever imagined, except in their wildest dreams, that Gwinnett County, which was similar in nature to what exurban and predominantly-rural Jackson County up the I-85 in Northeast Georgia is today, would grow this fast with this many people and become a key part of the highly-populated urban core of Metro Atlanta.

Also, at the time that MARTA was first proposed back in the mid-1960's, Metro Atlanta was a highly, if not almost totally, segregated place with whites fleeing an increasingly crime-ridden City of Atlanta for surrounding then newly-rising suburbs in North Fulton, South Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb and Clayton counties.

The City of Atlanta and the urban core of the metro area has its problems with crime today, but crime was much more of an issue and a legitimate concern in the metro area at the time as the City of Atlanta was home to some of the most-notorious housing projects in the nation south of Washington, D.C., most of which have since closed and been leveled and redeveloped.

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ACC12_SEC13Booster 1 year, 10 months ago

Also, the argument that Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton counties should have joined MARTA when it was first proposed in the mid-1960's is a red-herring.

That argument is a red-herring because just as those then-predominantly white and outer-suburban counties did not want to join MARTA out of fear that it would help to bring crime to their predominantly-white and then-largely crime-free suburban counties, the Atlanta black political establishment, which was on the rise at the time in Fulton and DeKalb counties as whites continued to flee the City of Atlanta for the suburbs in increasingly larger numbers, did not really want those then-predominantly white counties to join MARTA so that they would not have to share political power with them.

The decision and/or desire of those then sparcely-populated suburban counties to not join MARTA was much more of a mutual thing than so-called MARTA advocates like to portray to the media, often because after decades of fiscal mismanagement, so-called MARTA advocates are just looking to make residents in Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton counties pay the 1% sales tax levy into a nearly-bankrupt MARTA with no real intent to extend service out to those counties anytime soon so that a declining post-Civil Rights-era political power structure in the City of Atlanta can attempt to hold onto power in a changing city, metro and state.

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ACC12_SEC13Booster 1 year, 10 months ago

{{"In return, Jacobs' plan would extend a temporary suspension of a rule forcing MARTA to spend half of its revenues on its capital budget — a restriction that is unique in state government."}}

MARTA's problem is not the 50-50 restriction in which the state requires that 50% of only its sales tax revenues must be put aside for spending on its capital budget.

MARTA's problem is structural in that it has never collected enough revenue from the FAREBOX, which are NOT subject to the 50-50 revenue restrictions by the state.

MARTA has always elected to collect its farebox revenues through a flat fare structure that has only been increased when operating deficits have threaten to become too large as MARTA has always pursued an operating strategy of keeping fares as low as possible despite inflationary operating costs.

MARTA should have instead been collecting its farebox revenues through a combination distance-based/zone-based fare structure that was based on collecting enough from its customers to pay the majority of its operating costs (like BART-Bay Area Rapid Transit in Northern California which collects 78% of its operating costs at the farebox as opposed to MARTA which only collects roughly 30% of its operating costs at the farebox). http://www.bart.gov/news/articles/2012/news20120614a.aspx

{{"Fare-paying customers account for 78% of the operating funds in the FY13 budget. The second largest source of operating revenue, dedicated money from sales taxes"}}

Like its Northern California counterpart, MARTA should have also had its fares pegged to rise with inflation so that at least 75-80% of its operating costs are always covered with its farebox revenues.

If MARTA could have and would have been covering at least 75-80% of its operating costs with its farebox revenues, money which it collects from every passenger everyday, the remaining 20-25 of its operating costs could have easily been collected from the 1% sales tax in Fulton & DeKalb counties, fiscal outlook which would have put it in a much better and much more realistic position to expand into Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton counties had all parties chosen to exercise that option.

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