Red X's mark Atlanta start to transit cut protests


ATLANTA — Transit workers put giant red X's on Atlanta-area buses and trains and a few hundred riders and workers rallied at a downtown transit station Tuesday as part of a multi-city protest against funding cuts to mass transportation.

Organizers of the Atlanta rally urged participants to call their state legislators to tell them to approve both short- and long-term funding measures to avoid cutbacks at the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, or MARTA. The public transit system is staggering under a $120 million operating deficit.

"This is the beginning of a number of similar actions around the nation because, while MARTA is in worse shape than most transit systems, the recession is having a terrible effect on public transportation," said Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the Amalgamated Transit Union, which helped organize and fund efforts in Atlanta.

Fifty-nine percent of public transit systems have cut service or raised fares since Jan. 1, 2009 and many others are considering similar action, according to a report released last month by the nonprofit American Public Transportation Association. In addition, 54 percent of public transportation systems have shifted funds from capital use to operations, which could hamper efforts to keep systems in good condition, the report says.

Several groups demonstrated in Los Angeles at noon Tuesday for federal funds for transit operations. A rally was planned for 6 p.m. in Washington, D.C. with the cooperation of the local union. And an interfaith group in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn. was planning a phone-a-thon to ask their congressional representatives to support emergency transit funding.

The Transportation Equity Network plans to continue its efforts next week with additional actions in San Francisco, St. Louis, and Kansas City, Mo.

In Atlanta, MARTA gave permission for off-duty transit workers to use water soluble red paint to mark X's on 30 percent of the system's buses and 20 percent of its trains to represent the potential loss of service that will occur if no financial solution is approved before MARTA's 2011 fiscal year budget is adopted at the end of June.

MARTA and the local union, which represents more than 3,500 active and retired MARTA workers, split the cost of painting the X's. The union's national office paid for a radio campaign targeting auto commuters with the message that MARTA cuts will mean more cars on already clogged Atlanta area roads.

MARTA is the ninth-largest public transit system in the country in terms of trips, but doesn't receive any state money for its operating budget, unlike other systems its size. Without additional funding, MARTA would be forced to cut about 1,000 jobs by eliminating some bus routes and increasing wait times for trains, said spokeswoman Cara Hodgson.

A spirited rally and news conference Tuesday at the most-used public transit station in downtown Atlanta — complete with posters, balloons and a DJ — drew a crowd of 200 to 300 people, MARTA riders and workers alike.

"I came out today because I depend on MARTA to get to both of my part-time jobs," said Kimberly Thrush. "I can't afford a car, and even if I could, look at all the cars on the road already."

The 39-year-old, who lives in southwest Atlanta, said she was out of work for nearly six months and is trying to get back on her feet with two hospitality industry jobs.

"I can't imagine what will happen to me if the MARTA cuts happen," she said.

Transit union member Joseph McMichael, 68, has worked for MARTA for about 10 years and has a brother who has worked for the transit system for about 34 years. He was at the rally Tuesday to show his appreciation for his employer, he said.

"I'm dedicated to MARTA," he said. "I'm just about ready to retire and MARTA's been good to me and my family."

The fate of a measure before Georgia lawmakers that would remove restrictions on the transit authority's use of sales tax proceeds and interest earned on reserve funds, currently earmarked for capital improvements, is unclear as this year's legislative session nears its close next week.

The efforts in Atlanta were organized in collaboration with the Transportation Equity Network, a nonprofit coalition to raise awareness about the impact of service cuts and fare increases on mass transit riders around the country.


This story originally appeared as an Associated Press article on April 20, 2010 and is available here: