MARTA Hardly Indispensable

When MARTA took over the Atlanta Transit Co. from its private owners in 1972, transit provided economical bus service to customers who mainly had low incomes, and people who otherwise couldn’t, or preferred not to, drive. But MARTA, which was run by middle-class planners and managers, focused on building an expensive rail system that middle-class professionals like themselves would want to ride.

Four decades later, MARTA has spent more than $4 billion (in today’s dollars) building about 52 miles of rail lines that serve only a small fraction of the Atlanta metropolitan area. Far from increasing transit ridership, MARTA’s ridership is about the same today as it was 30 years ago (and was actually lower in 2010 than it was in 1985).

Given Atlanta’s 150 percent population growth since 1980, that means per capita transit ridership is way down. One reason ridership is so poor is that MARTA hasn’t grown the bus system to keep up with the population: The number of miles of bus service in 2010 was about the same as it was in 1982, the earliest year for which data is easily available.

Before MARTA took over the transit system, nearly 11 percent of Atlanta-area commuters took transit to work. Now, thanks to MARTA’s investment in high-cost rail at the expense of low-cost bus improvements, transit’s share of commuting has fallen to slightly more than 4 percent. That hardly helps to reduce congestion, air pollution, and all the other things transit is claimed to do.

MARTA’s strategy of favoring middle-income train riders over low-income bus riders can legitimately be called “transit apartheid.” While the private company that offered bus service before MARTA was far from perfect, it at least had the virtue of sending buses into the neighborhoods of people who wanted to ride them rather than building expensive rail lines into neighborhoods of people who have three cars in every garage.

The real problem is that MARTA gets little more than a fifth of its funds from fares, so it focuses more on chasing tax dollars than on serving transit users. That means pleasing middle-class elected officials, who have little understanding of the needs of working-class transit users who make up most of MARTA’s customers.

MARTA and its subsidies are hardly indispensable. The private jitney buses that serve parts of Atlanta show private operators can offer a reasonably high-quality service at affordable fares without subsidies. Take away MARTA’s subsidized competition and unneeded government rules, and such private jitneys could actually offer better service to more people than MARTA does.

Privatizing MARTA would save taxpayers $400 million a year, most of it coming from local sources. Some of that money could be used to do things that truly reduce traffic congestion, such as coordinating traffic signals and fixing bottlenecks. The rest should be left in the taxpayers’ pockets.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It.