MARTA: It’s Not About Racism-It’s About the Math

MARTA_trainSince the beginning of the Mass Transit era in the Atlanta metropolitan area, I’ve constantly heard the arguments that the reason people were against the transit system was racism.

This is usually the moment that the local politician or commentator makes the statement about how people feared that their homes would be broken into and their tv set stolen and taken away on a bus or train. It’s a tired example, and an inaccurate example.

Of course, there were probably racists who used that as an excuse to be against mass transit.  But they were likely in the minority.  And nothing has changed in our media today that was not happening then.  Claims of racism make the news room tingle with joy, and the stories are repeated forever, even if they have little merit.

If there were a lot of people against an idea, and a few against that idea happen to be racists, is that enough of a reason to dismiss fiscal reasons to be against that idea?  I think not.  If one wants to get the Naked Truth, you eliminate the nonsense and look at the numbers.  That is what I do here.  Eliminate the emotions and look at the facts.

For those that were not living in the Metro Atlanta area in the 1970’s, things were much different. I-285 was just recently completed. Regional shopping malls were just opening.  The City of Atlanta was evolving.

MARTA was not the model of efficiency from the beginning. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium could have had a rail station. Instead it was decided that more bus drivers would be employed if they shuttled patrons back and forth to ball games(Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Falcons. The west line of the two line system  stopped short at HighTower Road, when it should have been extended to Fulton Industrial Blvd, a busy blue collar working area, and quite close to a large employment center for teens: Six Flags.

Even in the early ’80s we were asking why was this system not expanded to the county line (the Chattahoochee River), where riders could have then only had to walk across the river to get to Six Flags?  With a station also at Fulton Industrial Blvd, the ridership would have been high and strong.  They were already running buses to Six Flags, even though it was (SHHH!) in Cobb County.

I traveled on MARTA from Hightower to Georgia State daily. Having to park a half mile from the station, walk to the station, and then wait ten minutes on average for the train to depart was not efficient. But I felt good taking the train. It’s what urban college students did.

MARTA then tried to squeeze more out of the riders by charging to park. Not a smart move.

We could leave the inefficiencies of the past behind, but they haunt us today. Forty years later, and they still do not cover Fulton County completely. The system will be 60 years old before they get a rail station to Windward Parkway in North Fulton. And if you are in South Fulton, take a bus. MARTA has not been the right answer for our issues regarding transportation.

I am going to focus mainly on the Rail portion of MARTA.  It’s the only part of the system anyone dreams about having access to.  No one actually believes boarding a bus and then stopping every 1/4 to half mile is a fast mode of transit.  It’s also an impediment to the traffic on the roads as people swerve to pass the bus, not wanting to engage in a bus-like ride in their own car.

Here are a few basic facts about MARTA Rail you might not know:

  • MARTA has 47.6 miles of rail in service and 38 rail stations.
  • Rail construction started in 1975.  Overall , that means that MARTA has added an average of 1.19 miles of rail per year.
  • Extending the North Rail Line to Windward Parkway in North Fulton County would represent an extension of 11.74 miles.
  • At the rate of past expansion of the MARTA Rail system, that represents 9.85 years.
  • MARTA Rail  has 232,100 daily rail trips according to their website.
  • Divided by two, that means that daily 116,050 people take the train.

Fulton and Dekalb have a combined population of 1.7 million people. If all the rail riders were from Fulton and Dekalb, then 6% of us(us because I live in Fulton County) would be users. Since we know that there are riders daily from all metro counties, we know that number is much lower.

For argument’s sake, let’s use 5%.

The Transportation Special Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST for short) is coming up for another vote most likely this year.  There was a long conversation at the City Council Meeting in Johns Creek on Monday, December 14th,2015 on the merits of this tax. A 1% tax would yield about $1.2 billion dollars over five years. Of course there are varying high and low estimates, and we could pick another number, but this is good for our conversation.

Johns Creek might get $110 million over five years, if we went with the 1% TSPLOST and did not share it with MARTA. So we can roughly estimate what we currently contribute from residents in Johns Creek via the MARTA 1% sales tax we are already paying..

Doing the math, we are being taxed as a community(our combined taxes via the 1% MARTA tax)  about $3,751 per rider per year for both rail and bus. If the TSPLOST passes and MARTA gets an additional 1/2 of 1%, that rises to $5,627.00.

Should we (as a community) be taxed an average $5,627 per Johns Creek resident who uses Mass Transit each and every year in the future? Should we be taxed to the tune of $3,751 per rider as we are today?

The Johns Creek City Council think they are reaping a bonus with the deal they have struck collecting the Local Option Sales Tax(LOST) as it is today.  I think they are crazy.  They have agreed to a distribution based on population.  What they seem to have completely overlooked is that their population is one of the wealthiest in the county (and likely spend more and have more LOST collected from their residents than what they receive in return. More on that in another blog.

Back to MARTA:  This is for a transportation system that only 1 out of 20 people use daily.

I am certain that the one beneficiary loves the fact that 19 other people are being taxed to subsidize their mode of transportation. This is where the same person who tells me that the reason we do not have mass transit is due to racism tells me that roads are also subsidized. And this is where I tell them they are wrong in their logic.

Twenty out of Twenty people use the roads. So we cannot subsidize something everyone uses.
Think about that. You may be paying for more than you use, or less than you use, but we all pay for it and we all use it.

Not the same with Mass Transit.

So it really becomes a math problem. How many people must be taxed to support how few people who use a system?

Taxing 20 for 1 seems to be a very beneficial program for the 1. It would be cheaper to buy each of those individuals a car for $10,000 that lasts for five years. But it’s likely they own their own car already.

Most government programs are inefficient. For every dollar collected in taxes, you get much less than one dollar in benefits. If any government program returned more than it took in with taxes,we’d be begging to have our taxes raised. It would be the smartest thing to do.

I’d argue that MARTA is no exception to inefficiency. The question then becomes why are we so enamored with a system that returns less than it takes?

At this point, I hear about how awesome it is to take the train to the airport. I can’t argue that point.

But I do ask “How much did that trip cost?”

Usually people think just about the fare at this point. But that is a false conclusion.

A resident in Johns Creek who has a high income, and spends $30,000 a year on taxable goods and services (and that’s conservative) would be taxed $300 a year for MARTA. Use it ten times per year, and that’s $30 per trip.

Not as cheap as you thought is it?

For those of us that might use it once per year, that would then be $300 for the trip. Those that never use it? Can we at least get a thank you for our contributions?

So you see, it’s not about racism; it’s about the math.

MARTA just doesn’t add up to a fiscally sound venture. It might one day with the right vision and leadership. But that day is far off in the future. Not this decade.  Not the next.

Even more important, we must be able to ask “How much is this going to cost, and what is it really worth to us?”

There is a finite amount of money available.  Had we wanted a system that was twice as large as it is today, would we have been willing to pay 2 % sales tax for all these years?  Would you be willing to pay 3% to catch up to where we think we should be?

Those that love the idea of MARTA and rail as the cure to what ails us will not be persuaded, however. And I am not surprised.

The idea that mass transit is the solution, regardless of the real benefits, makes people feel good. It allows them to say “I’m not racist! I support Mass Transit!” “ I am saving the environment!” “I am making a difference!”

If only they were.


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