Heard at the Hearing

23 May

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Given the reactions to MARTA’s proposed fare increase and bus service changes for this fall, I expected that at last Monday night’s 7 p.m. hearing I’d barely be able to wedge myself into a room packed with riders in various states of outrage. But not only was there a conspicuous absence of torches and pitchforks, but those in attendance filled only about one-third of the Fulton County Commission’s public meeting room.

The low turnout – I counted about 75 people – might indicate that the agency’s public outreach needs some work. It could also suggest that many of MARTA’s customers believe the proposed changes are pretty much a done deal, with only the matter of “when” left to be settled.

I was only able to stay for about an hour and 15 minutes of the hearing, so I didn’t hear everyone who came forward to offer comment, but the comments of the approximately 20 speakers I did hear were pretty evenly divided between complaints and suggestions.

Among the most often heard suggestions:

  • Raise revenue by re-negotiating reimbursement rates for transfers from other counties’ transit agencies
  • Sell more ad space on the bus and train exteriors
  • Have MARTA police officers spend more time riding the trains and buses and less time driving the their police cruisers – more security, less gas
  • Don’t leave buses idling if they’ll be sitting in a bay at a station for 10 or 15 minutes and don’t run the buses’ air conditioning on the “blast freezer” setting during the summer
  • Pursue state funding more aggressively

The most frequently heard complaints:

  • Late and overcrowded buses and surly drivers
  • Drivers who, when running far behind schedule, drive so fast to catch up that they blow past riders waiting at bus stops
  • Dark, unsheltered bus stops
  • Closed or out-of-order restrooms at stations

Although the hearing started out with a pretty formal air, by 8:15 it had taken on the feeling of a transit riders’ pep rally, with some audience members applauding and cheering when they found a speaker’s remarks particularly clever or insightful.

The loudest cheers came when a woman prefaced her remarks about the long-standing nature of some of the system’s problems by saying “It’s obvious that no one on this board rides MARTA.”

Although many of those who spoke were adamantly against the fare increase, many others said that the fare increase itself was less the issue than steadily decreasing service and reliability. The cost of most other commodities is rising, so it’s only fair that the same should be true for transit service, they said. But so many years of paying more and continuing to get less, they said, is unacceptable.

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