Transit backer, legislator get aboard MARTA to listen
May 31, 2005
One recent sunny afternoon, community advocate Terence Courtney heads west on a MARTA train from the Five Points station.
He leaves the train at the Hamilton E. Holmes station at the end of the west line where, armed with fliers inviting people to attend a transit riders' meeting in June, he transfers to MARTA's bus Route 61.
The bus is filled with people, and its seats and floors are wet after running with open windows through spray from a fire hydrant. Route 61 is among the lines MARTA proposes to cut next year as it struggles to close a predicted $18 million gap between its spending and its income.
Route 61 is one of two bus lines that serve the Bowen Homes public housing complex in northwest Atlanta, but it is the only one that actually circulates through the development. Route 50 stops at the entrance.
Many of Bowen Homes' residents depend exclusively on public transit for access to jobs, services and recreation. Some of the early risers there don't want to walk the extra distance to the complex's entrance to catch the other bus because they don't feel safe.
Courtney is fairly new to his position as the Atlanta coordinator of Jobs with Justice, a coalition of labor, faith and advocacy organizations devoted to improving economic opportunities for blue-collar workers. He says he has come to understand the importance of affordable, reliable transportation to the community's economic well-being.
Courtney knows the proposed fare increase and service cuts would have an effect on the household budgets of many riders on Route 61. And he wants to experience their plight firsthand before the MARTA board takes up the budget at its June 13 meeting.
The board postponed a vote on the fare increases and other deficit-reduction proposals in May; the authority must adopt a spending plan by June 30.
Courtney meets Christine Leigh, 35, who uses MARTA to take her three children to school and the doctor, to shop for groceries and to do other regular errands. Leigh says she spends more than $200 a month to get monthly fare cards for her family.
"This is my only means of transportation," Leigh says.
Single mom Melanie Sumlin says she moved to Bowen Homes because of its access to transit. Sumlin uses the bus daily to commute to her job at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where she works for a cleaning contractor.
"If they want us [single mothers] to go back to work, they should give us a way to get there," Sumlin says. "My whole paycheck shouldn't have to go to transportation."
Since MARTA announced a 15 percent cut in its bus service last year, Courtney has been organizing MARTA's transit-dependent patrons. He hopes to intensify the campaign to add state funding to MARTA's operation as well as to pressure MARTA officials for the highest possible quality of service. State Rep. Jill Chambers (R-Atlanta) heads the General Assembly's MARTA oversight committee. Chambers also is new to the job, having been appointed in January.
Since taking the helm of the committee, Chambers has launched an aggressive examination of MARTA's spending.
With MARTA's pending approval of a budget containing a proposed fare increase, service cuts and other budget-balancing measures, Chambers, too, was eager to hear firsthand from riders about what effect the new measures might have on their lives.
Chambers recently boarded a train headed south from the Five Points station to the airport just before the afternoon rush hour.
Quintella Pitts, 22, a worker for United Parcel Service who lives in northwest Atlanta, is among the first riders Chambers encounters. Pitts says she uses MARTA to get to work, but is unhappy about the possibility of a fare increase. Sometimes, she says, the train is late, which gets her in trouble at work.
"I'm not going to pay $20 a week to take a train, and it's probably going to be late," Pitts says.
Chambers chats with a number of southbound commuters about the prospect that MARTA might end its free transfer agreements with other systems.
Under the agreements, riders now connect between systems without paying an additional fare. The MARTA board has proposed ending those agreements, which would force riders transferring between systems to pay extra for each system they board.
Postal worker Bernadine Reed, 45, commutes to her airport-area job on C-Tran, Clayton County's transit system run by the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, after traveling from her southeast Atlanta home on the MARTA train.
If the reciprocal fare agreement between MARTA and C-Tran ends, Reed's daily commute could cost as much as $6.50, double the current cost of a round-trip commute on the two systems.
"It'll take a lot out of me not having a [free] transfer," Reed said. "But by not having any other transportation, I have no choice. It's still cheaper than gas."
Adriana Russell, 45, who uses C-Tran's Route 501 and MARTA to commute between her Clayton County home and her job at an intown hospital, tells Chambers an end to the transfers would probably put her on the road or in the market for a job closer to home.
As it is, Russell says, erratic bus operations make smooth connections difficult and timing her arrival at work uncertain.
"I have to leave at 6:30 in the morning," Russell says.
Afterward, Chambers says her ride on MARTA and C-Tran was "probably the most productive time I've spent as chairman of MARTOC."
She says she enjoys seeing the full cross-section of riders, ranging from those who have no other transportation to riders who simply feel that taking buses and trains beats the aggravation of sitting in gridlock.
But she says it was the plaintive look on Russell's face as she talked about the possible end of free transfers that has stuck most indelibly in her memory.
"It helped reinforce to me why we need a regionwide focus on transportation," Chambers says.
Courtney says his ride through Bowen Homes reinforces his view about the importance of a well-funded transit system to the economic health of the city. He thinks the state should acknowledge MARTA's importance in Georgia's economic center by helping to support it financially.
"Public transit is one of the core issues that affects not only the city but the region," he says.
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