MARTA fare hike takes riders, businesses for a costly ride

By the time MARTA’s double-digit fare hike kicks in Sunday, longtime rider Wanda Kendricks expects to be tooling around in her own car. The Kirkwood resident would rather have a car note than pay MARTA’s higher ticket prices.

A one-way ticket on trains or buses will cost $2.50 — up 25 percent. Riders with monthly passes will have to pay 40 percent more: $95, up from $68.

The latest fare hikes are raising the ire of some businesses that employ transit-dependent workers. Some 134,600 people ride MARTA each weekday.

MARTA spokesman Lyle Harris said it had no choice but to raise fares for the second time in two years.

The transi t system, which receives no state operating funding, went eight years without raising fares before its 2009 increase.

With Sunday’s increases, fares have risen 43 percent and 81 percent since then. That puts MARTA on par with transit systems in New York and Chicago, both of which have round-the-clock operations, unlike MARTA.

The big jump in fares is expected to cut ridership by 9 percent, MARTA says.

Chioke Perry will be among those who will use the system less.

He plans to do “a lot of walking and possibly riding a bike” — both of which will severely limit his choice of job assignments.

“It’s going to create a hardship,” said Perry, a 48-year-old southwest Atlanta resident who earns about $10,000 to $12,000 a year working in health care. “I’m completely transit-dependent.”

As the economic recovery sputters — the recession drove some riders away — there’s also talk of possible future cuts in federal transit money.

So the transit system’s operations are in jeopardy.

MARTA records show it has had to dip into its reserves for years to help keep the system going. Without the fare increase, MARTA would likely be running with a deficit in its reserves by 2014.

“At this point, we’re running a barebones operations, especially on the bus side,” Harris said.

MARTA gets little sympathy from Rick Holliday.

“They’ve reduced services to get their cost structure in line and they’re also giving a 40-percent increase. Help me understand that,” said Holliday, chief executive of Atlanta-based Hospitality Staffing Solutions. He estimates 85 percent of the company’s 300 hourly-wage workers use MARTA.

“How can you warrant a 40-percent increase in anyone’s services? In a down economy, that’s going to have the biggest affect on the working class.”

MARTA riders with options are now weighing them.

Shweta Mehrotra said she’ll consider getting back in her car for her commute from Tucker to downtown Atlanta. Mehrotra, a computer specialist for the state, plans to ask her office to chip in some money for parking.

“If I can get $20 or $25 a month for parking, I’ll go for that,” Mehrotra said.

Meanwhile, some Georgia State University students have protested the jump for their discounted pass, from $49 to $68.50. Sophomore Britany Mays says the increase pushed her to get her car repaired.

“I can pay $45 for student parking, so this is too much,” Mays said.

Falling gas prices — down to about $3.35 a gallon this week and dropping — also make driving a more attractive option.

Economy Auto Sales, just steps from the Avondale Estates MARTA station, reports people are saying they need, not want, a car.

“It’s hard to say what’s behind it, but we are selling,” said co-owner John Economy.

State Rep. Mike Jacobs, the Brookhaven Republican who chairs the MARTA oversight committee in the state House, says he hasn’t heard complaints about the fee increase.

Jacobs thinks that’s because few people have a problem with MARTA trying to recover more of its costs. The increase is expected to generate about $21.5 million, or slightly more than 5 percent of the agency’s budget.

But to keep rate hikes from chasing away more customers, Jacobs said lawmakers are pushing for a shift to fares that charge riders more money to travel farther distances.

Washington, D.C.’s system has had success with that rate structure,

“It’s clear that MARTA is going to have to do something about fare-box recovery,” Jacobs said. “Now it’s a fare increase. In the future, we hope it will come in the form of (distance-based) fares.”

What the future holds for fare prices is unclear. Jacobs’ committee is working on possible changes to MARTA even as a governor’s task force is working on a regional transit plan that is likely to reshape MARTA as well.

While some riders such as Kendricks — a substitute teacher who was taking two buses and a train to get to work — and Mays have options, MARTA’s rate hike will force a majority of riders without options to cutback elsewhere.

“In some cases, the $95 monthly pass will put people in the awful dilemma of having to decide whether they pay for transportation or pay other essential monthly costs like rent, food, utilities,” said Terence Courtney, organizer of the Atlanta Sector Alliance, which has a unit called the Atlanta Transit Riders’ Union. The unit has canvassed neighborhoods about the impending fare increase.

“Some of the riders say ‘I simply won’t be able to go much of anywhere after this fare is raised.’”


Where MARTA gets its riders

MARTA recently collected license plate data from 14,515 cars at its 28 rail stations and eight park-and-ride bus lots. Data from May 5 found park-and-ride users come from:

Fulton, DeKalb: 58 percent

Gwinnett: 9.7 percent

Clayton: 5.5 percent

Out-of-state: 4.1 percent

Other: 9.5 percent



Q. Is this the last MARTA fare increase for the foreseeable future?

A. MARTA's Board of Directors makes budget and fare policy decisions on an annual basis. MARTA says it's premature to speculate about the future because those policies are driven by economic conditions that exist at the time.

Q. Will I still be able to get a transfer?

A. If you buy a MARTA Breeze card you still get a free transfer from bus-to-rail.

Q. Will I get a transfer if I use another transit system to connect to MARTA?

A. No. MARTA will stop issuing a.m./p.m. transfers after Oct. 2. If you are using buses from Gwinnett or Cobb to connect to MARTA, you'll have to load that system's fare onto your Breeze card to transfer.


MARTA’s money

The transit system is expected to collect $392 million this fiscal year. It will come from these six sources:

1-cent sales tax: $201.2 million

Passenger fares: $110 million

Federal government: $37.8 million

Fare Increase: $21.55 million

Parking, vending, ads: $12.4 million

Leases: $9.5 million

MARTA fares:

As of Oct. 2, MARTA riders will pay fares comparable to those of transit riders in New York and Chicago. Here’s a breakdown of the current and new fares.

Fare                        Current                               New

Source: MARTA