Time for Georgia to fund transit

Metro area residents woke up to a pleasant surprise last month. An Atlanta Regional Commission poll told us that the economy and traffic congestion were the top issues facing the region, and 71 percent said that improving mass transit was important for the metro area’s future.

The findings make sense to us and are interrelated. The poll confirmed what most planners already know: There is no way out of the traffic issue — and its billion-dollars-a-year health costs due to air pollution and related sicknesses — other than for Gov. Nathan Deal and Mayor Kasim Reed to declare a health emergency and start giving MARTA the funding its deserves to run a first-rate system.

It’s time for the mayor and governor to sit down with legislative leaders and come up with a plan, short-term and long-term, to fund MARTA and increase ridership.

As National Public Radio reported in April: Transit ridership is on the rise in most major American cities, but the opposite is the case in Atlanta, according to the American Public Transit Association. Since 2001, MARTA train use has fallen 15 percent, and bus ridership has dropped 31 percent.

This is an abomination for the country’s ninth-largest transit system.

It’s time for elected officials to stop thinking of transit funding as a benefit only to Atlanta. In fact, at the next legislative session, we will propose a bill that will give funding to every transit system in Georgia.

On the table should be yearly fare reductions until they get to zero. Our belief is that if you build it — a free fare system — they will come. Increased service will also attract new riders. Every time MARTA raises fares, it loses riders. The reverse is also true.

The answers from the poll respondents track what a study released in July told us: Atlanta is one of the worst cities in America if you want to improve your economic status and move up the ladder from one class to the next.

The immediate problem with respect to MARTA is that the board has shortsighted plans. For example, the MARTA board is planning to wait until year five of its new plan to ask for state funding when Gov. Deal (if re-elected) will be out of office due to term limits.

The entire state Legislature is up for re-election next year. Let the members tell voters why they won’t fund their system, which would be a win-win for everyone.

Everyone in our state will benefit: riders, workers, employers and those who like to breathe clean air. Our children will benefit from the realization that we worked together, in a non-partisan fashion, to leave a legacy for all residents of Georgia.

Anything less will be viewed as an abdication of our responsibility as leaders to fix something that has no downside for anyone.

Curtis Howard is president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 732.

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