MARTA fares to jump to $2.50, among highest in nation

When the fare hike goes into effect on Oct. 2, a MARTA trip will cost more than a ride on the buses and subways of New York City, the nation’s largest transit system. MARTA serves 135,000 riders on an average weekday.

Just two years ago, at the time of the last fare increase, the basic MARTA fare was only $1.75. The price of a monthly pass, then $52.50, will now rise to $95, an 81 percent increase.

"You're killing us," said Brenda Sanders, 52, as she waited for a bus Wednesday morning outside Five Points Station. "Jobs are going down, food is going up in the store and now you're raising the fares? Who is going to give us a break?" Sanders said she doesn't drive and has no car, so MARTA is the lifeline to her job as a hotel maid in Sandy Springs.

"It's a big old difference when the economy is so bad right now," she said. "Why would you go up at this particular time?"

Some board members said they had little choice, in the face of their own inaction over several years and a lack of operating assistance from the state. Before 2009 the board went eight years without raising fares, in spite of inflation. And unlike New York's transit agency, which charges $2.25 for a standard ride, as well as many other major systems, MARTA currently receives no financial operating assistance from the state, MARTA officials said.

“If we were not to act to raise our fares and to have our customers pay for more of the service that we provide, we would be extremely shortsightsed,” said Jim Durrett, the board’s chairman. “We would be putting this transit system completely at risk in the near term. We cannot afford to let our reserves dwindle at the rate they’ve been declining.”

Ever since the financial crisis hit, MARTA has been filling budget gaps by dipping into its reserves, which were expected to go dry in 2013. With improvement in the economy and the fare increase, they can now last at least through 2016, according to MARTA.

Other metro transit systems are feeling the financial pain too. Cobb Community Transit has held hearings on raising fares from $2 to $2.50, but no decision is scheduled yet, said transit manager Rebecca Gutowsky. Gwinnett County Transit's $2 fare has been under discussion, like other services in the county, said transit director Phil Boyd. Last year, Clayton County simply shut down its bus service altogether.

MARTA passengers packed the board room on Wednesday, begging the board not to take its vote and condemning it afterward. As the board passed the increase on an 8-1 vote, scattered members of the audience blurted out "No," and were then joined by others in the audience who took up a chant for half a minute.

Terence Courtney, a local advocate for transit passengers, was among them. In comments to the board he noted that MARTA may come back with another increase in a couple of years.

"What’s it going to be then?" he asked, referring to the monthly pass. "$100? $200? Why don’t you just make it $500?"

Barbara Babbit Kaufman, the board’s vice chair, voted for the fare hike Wednesday, but was the lone vote against it in committee last month. She called the decision agonizing for the entire board.

“Had we done it a little bit every year, we wouldn’t be having this problem right now,” Kaufman said. “I was hoping we could come up with a solution that could solve both sides of the equation, taking care of our customer and taking care of our long term sustainability. There just wasn’t another good option.”

Durrett said he’d be willing to support another increase in two years, if circumstances show it is necessary, but not next year.

At some point, MARTA hopes to integrate with transit systems in Cobb and Gwinnett counties and charge fares based on the distance a passenger travels.

The new fare increase is expected to generate an additional $20.5 million in revenue over the next fiscal year, according to MARTA. But the more expensive fare will deter many passengers – 8.7 percent of them, according to the agency. MARTA expects passengers to take 11.5 million fewer rides next year as a result of the fare increase.

Brittany Billgslea wishes she had that option.

"I mean, they know it's hard times right now," said Billingslea, 24, who takes MARTA every day to work and technical school. "I'm buying it every week. It adds up. But I have no transportation so I have no choice but to pay it."

Although board members say financial distress caused the fare increase, they are also restoring a small amount of bus service it cut last year, including the shuttle to Braves games. Durrett said MARTA had reserved a cushion to pay for select service restorations. While sales tax revenues have improved since it made those cuts, he said, they still were not enough to maintain the fare at $2.

MARTA's operations are funded largely through fares and sales tax revenues collected in Fulton and DeKalb counties.

The votes Wednesday were part of the agency’s overall budget approval for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The board approved an operating budget of $413.8 million and a capital budget totaling $185.5 million, plus $143.7 million in debt service. MARTA noted it is giving no annual merit raises to employees.

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