Opinion: People need input on MARTA’s hard choices on transit

Credit: MARTA

Credit: MARTA

In 2016, voters in the city of Atlanta were asked to take a leap of faith — to increase the city’s sales tax by a half-penny for over 40 years to fund expanded MARTA transit service. The transit expansion, called the More MARTA program, would include: 29 miles of light rail transit; 13 miles of bus rapid transit; enhanced bus service; station renovations; and other improvements.

This ambitious transit expansion was planned by and negotiated by MARTA and city of Atlanta officials, but city taxpayers were asked to foot the bill. And it was an enormous one — the new tax was estimated to generate $2.5 billion for the More MARTA transit expansion.

City of Atlanta voters showed their strong desire for better transit and passed the More MARTA referendum by 71%. Following the referendum, MARTA conducted a two-year process with the public, stakeholder and technical advisory committees to refine, finalize and prioritize the More MARTA projects.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

But now, over six years into this ambitious project, the More MARTA program is at a crossroads. None of the new transit lines are open. The agency’s systemwide plan to redesign its network of bus routes is also severely delayed. The pandemic altered travel patterns and transit ridership has not rebounded. The More MARTA projects are facing inflation, escalating costs and unplanned delays.

In short, MARTA will be unable to deliver the More MARTA program as promised.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

MARTA and city of Atlanta officials are working to evaluate these new circumstances and renegotiate the list of More MARTA projects. But a critical voice is missing from these conversations — the taxpayers who made this project possible. More MARTA represents a once-in-a-generation investment in transit and must involve substantive community engagement.

This transparency and public accountability is critically important now, as MARTA and the city of Atlanta seek to change the promises first made to the public in 2016 and finalized in 2018 through the prioritization process. Every project deprioritized from the More MARTA list impacts access to jobs, schools, grocery stores and parks.

Having entrusted MARTA with this enormous responsibility, voters deserve to understand why some projects will move forward and others will not. They deserve to understand how these decisions will affect them. Making these decisions behind closed doors and without input from the public risks being inequitable, undermining public trust and misaligning with community priorities. Yet to date, neither MARTA nor the city of Atlanta has engaged with the public and key stakeholders in how to best rightsize the More MARTA program.

Why is it that public hearings are held to modify a bus route or choose the route of a new project, but not to prioritize between projects or potentially eliminate them altogether? MARTA and the city of Atlanta should consult with the public and stakeholders in changing the More MARTA program using criteria that are relevant to today’s realities.

Criteria for an updated More MARTA program should include improving access to places people need to get to every day (e.g. jobs, schools, libraries and grocery stores) and reducing existing delay and travel time for underserved communities. The list should also include quick fixes, such as bus-only lanes and customer experience enhancements, such as station improvements and fare system upgrades.

It is unfortunate that the More MARTA program’s original vision for expanded transit may no longer be achievable; deciding how to pare down this vision will be difficult and contentious. These enormous decisions must be made in an open, transparent and data-driven fashion.

To this end, we recommend that MARTA:

  • Prepare a comprehensive review of each project’s costs and benefits;
  • Reinstate the stakeholder and technical advisory committees from the initial More MARTA project selection process;
  • Host robust public engagement meetings throughout the city of Atlanta to get public feedback on the proposed revision of the More MARTA list.

Engagement cannot stop after More MARTA is changed; the public and stakeholders should be engaged in a recurring and regular manner to build trust and steward a long-term relationship.

Rebecca Serna is executive director of Propel ATL (formerly the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition). Brian Gist is senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.