ATLANTA — About 200 public transportation riders and transit workers gathered in downtown Atlanta on Tuesday morning to kick off a week of rallies, telephone campaigns and other events in 11 cities to protest transportation cuts and fare increases.

On the street behind the demonstrators, a parade of buses rolled by with huge red X’s painted on them to illustrate that Marta, the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, is facing a 30 percent reduction in services because of a decline in sales tax revenue and a dearth of political will at the Republican-dominated legislature to help.

“We are just crawling out of a recession,” said Sam Massell, a former mayor, speaking at the rally, “but we will be knocked back into another one if the salespersons are not behind the store counters, if the restaurant workers are not in the kitchens, if the office staff are not behind their desks.”

The rally, at the city’s main transportation hub, was attended by people who depend on Marta to get to work, to visit ailing parents or to visit the charity hospital for medical care. About half of Marta’s riders say they do not have access to other forms of transportation.

More than 80 percent of the nation’s transit systems are facing fare hikes or cuts this year, according to a survey in April by the American Public Transportation Association, an industry group. The District of Columbia has already raised fares by 10 cents and is looking at another 15 percent to 20 percent increase; Los Angeles will raise fares to $1.50 from $1.25 in July; and Kansas City has cut services and raised fares for a program that serves the elderly, disabled and poor, according to the Transportation Equity Network, which is coordinating the protest events.

But Marta, the ninth-largest system in the country, faces particular difficulty because it is the only major transit system that does not receive any dedicated money from the state. None of the gasoline tax levied in the state can be used for mass transit, said Beverly Scott, the agency’s chief executive officer. Instead, Marta depends on a 1-cent sales tax in only two of metro Atlanta’s 28 counties, Fulton and DeKalb.

One major boost for Marta would not involve any new revenue from the state. The agency is governed by an unusual requirement that it set aside half of its tax revenues for capital projects. The agency, which says most transit systems spend a little more than a quarter of their budgets on capital projects, has begged for the flexibility to use some of that money to forestall cuts in operations, but the legislature has yet to approve the change.

The legislature has also repeatedly failed to pass a statewide transportation funding mechanism that Atlanta leaders, besieged by complaints about traffic, have lobbied with increasing urgency.

At the rally Tuesday, Marta supporters sang along to what Benita West, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 732, called its theme song: Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us.”


This story originally appeared in the New York Times on April 20, 2010 and is available here: