Where It All Went Wrong - Features - Atlanta Magazine

Where It All Went Wrong

If only we could undo the MARTA Compromise of 1971

Like ghosts rising out of a Confederate cemetery, Atlanta’s past lapses in judgment haunt the region today, leaving a smoky trail of suburban decay, declining home values, clogged highways, and a vastly diminished reputation.

At the heart of the rot eating at metro Atlanta is the Mother of All Mistakes: the failure to extend MARTA into the suburbs. It wasn’t just a one-time blunder—it was the single worst mistake in a whole cluster bomb of missteps, errors, power plays, and just plain meanness that created the region’s transportation infrastructure.

As we look at the future of Atlanta, there’s no question that battling our notorious traffic and sprawl is key to the metro area’s potential vitality. What if there were a Back to the Future–type option, where we could take a mystical DeLorean (heck, we’d settle for a Buick), ride back in time, and fix something? What event would benefit most from the use of a hypothetical “undo” key?

The transit compromise of 1971.

Before we get into the story of what happened in 1971, we need to back up a few years. In 1965 the Georgia General Assembly voted to create MARTA, the mass transit system for the City of Atlanta and the five core metro counties: Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett. Cobb voters rejected MARTA, while it got approval from the city and the four other counties. Although, as it turned out, the state never contributed any dedicated funds for MARTA’s operations, in 1966 Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment to permit the state to fund 10 percent of the total cost of a rapid rail system in Atlanta. Two years later, in 1968, voters in Atlanta and MARTA’s core counties rejected a plan to finance MARTA through property taxes. In 1971—when the issue was presented to voters again—Clayton and Gwinnett voters dropped their support, and MARTA ended up being backed by only DeKalb, Fulton, and the City of Atlanta.

In 1971, given the lack of support for MARTA by the five core counties, then Mayor Sam Massell came back with a new plan: to provide an ongoing subsidy for MARTA through a sales tax levied in Fulton, DeKalb, and the City of Atlanta. No other jurisdiction in Georgia had a local option sales tax, so the General Assembly had to approve the idea. When the notoriously anti-Atlanta legislators gave the go-ahead, Massell called a press conference that featured a flatbed truck pulling up in front of city hall, facing the Capitol, with a large billboard that said, “Thank You, Georgia Lawmakers!” Massell then dug a hole in the city hall lawn and buried a hatchet to symbolize his appreciation for the state’s rare support of the city.

In a promotional stunt worthy of Mad Men, Massell sent a bevy of young women to the Capitol in pink hot pants with little keys to the city, a proclamation expressing the city’s gratitude, and invitations to city hall for a lunch featuring fried chicken (for Lieutenant Governor Lester Maddox), peanuts (for Governor Jimmy Carter), and, of course, Coca-Cola. “We got a four-column picture—the biggest exposure we ever got from the Atlanta newspapers,” recalls Massell, now president of the Buckhead Coalition.

After getting the legislative approval for the sales-tax option, Massell had to persuade voters to pass the sales tax. “We were going to buy the existing bus company, which was then charging sixty cents and a nickel transfer each way—$1.30 a day—and they were about to go out of business. I promised the community we would drop that fare to fifteen cents each way immediately,” Massell says. The daily fare would plunge from $1.30 to thirty cents. Not everyone believed him. City Councilman Henry Dodson cruised the city in a Volkswagen with a PA system that blared, “It’s a trick! If they can’t do it for sixty cents, how are they going to do it for fifteen?”

Massell countered the VW with higher visibility, chartering a helicopter to hover over the Downtown Connector, congested even then, while he called through a bullhorn, “If you want out of this mess, vote yes!”

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  1. Michael Hadden posted on 07/24/2012 11:34 PM
    Excellent article! I hope this helps get out the vote next week. We need solutions. TIA2012 is a solution and it's a good solution. I liked the quote from Beverly Scott... San Francisco and Washington “kept building and moving . . . they had plans regardless of whether folks were red or blue. They had a vision and the fortitude to make purple and keep moving. We just got stuck.”

    We'll be stuck for a lot longer if we don't vote YES on Tuesday.
    1. CJ Millisock posted on 07/27/2012 08:01 PM
      @Michael Hadden Fascinating read. What vote is occurring on Tuesday?? 07/31/12?
  2. Josh White posted on 07/25/2012 09:59 AM
    Why was this article written in the future?
    1. Jackson Reeves posted on 07/25/2012 10:34 AM
      @Josh White The date at the top of the article actually refers to the issue in which the article originally ran. In this case, this story is from our August issue, and we're teasing it on our site ahead of schedule given its relevance to the TSPLOST vote on July 31. Thanks for reading!
  3. Chris posted on 07/25/2012 11:24 AM
    Fascinating article Doug!
    Can you say more sabout what Maddox's motives or intentions were in demanding the 50/50 restriction on MARTA? We can all see the negative consequences, but it is not clear what the possible benefit was for Maddox and his cronies.
    1. DougM_8345 posted on 07/25/2012 09:07 PM
      @Chris Chris, I asked Sam Massell about it several times and he insisted Maddox was seeking political vengeance for a friend. In the context of the times, Massell was a young, Jewish liberal from a prominent family while Maddox grew up poor and was an arch-conservative bigot. Maddox had been involved in politics since the1950s, when he ran unsuccessfully against Mayor Hartsfield, and wrote his weekly newspaper column "Pickrick Says." The enmity went back a decade. Massell and Maddox had other clashes later. Good question. I wish I had a more definitive answer. ...Doug
  4. Charles posted on 07/26/2012 12:06 PM
    Kudos! I only wished you had praised Los Angeles, too (where I lived 1979-99 before moving to ATL) for the enormous strides they have made with their underground and light rail systems.
    1. Debra posted on 07/27/2012 07:57 AM
      @Charles Charles, I grew up in LA, prior to the development of the rail system. I recently had the privilege of briefly riding it while in downtown. Although I initially thought it was crazy to build a subway in an earthquake-prone area, the subway was well-maintained and well-conceived. From downtown LA, I could have ridden to West Hollywood! And there is a definite reduction in the traffic congestion.
  5. wh17y posted on 07/26/2012 01:05 PM
    My biggest problem with TSPLOST is that I do not live or work in or near Atlanta. I fear that the 75% of 25% of 80% of 20% numbers game will be used to funnel money to projects that will have no benefit to me or my community. I know that money is supposedly "collected by the Georgia Department of Revenue, then transferred to the Georgia Finance and Investment Commission for distribution." But that seems like a lot of transferring and redistributing of wealth to me, with whatever counties that politicians know will get them reelected getting the bulk of the money and their higher priority projects moved up the list. I am all for some improvements to Atlanta traffic, I drove there from an hour out to the south for 10 years. But I don't see the problem with usage fees via tolls, a la GA 400, to pay for these projects. Of course, we all know how fast that toll plaza disappeared after the road had been paid for.
  6. JohnT_4364 posted on 07/26/2012 04:52 PM
    Best quote of the article... “This is the irony: The majority of whites in Atlanta wanted to be isolated when they thought about public transportation,” says historian Kevin Kruse. “As a result, they have been in their cars on 75 and 85. They got what they wanted. They are safe in their own space. They’re just not moving anywhere."
    1. Ben posted on 11/18/2013 08:00 PM
      @JohnT_4364 Actually it's one of the dumber and smugly self-righteous lines in an article chock full of them.
  7. marl745 posted on 07/31/2012 05:27 PM
    Wow...this was a very informative article. This is exactly the reason Im NOT voting for the TSPLOST. Theres not enough MARTA expansion plans. I live in Gwinnett, work in Dunwoody, and MARTA will never be a viable option for me or my family!! While i would love to park the car and ride, what sense does it make for me to Travel down 85 S, around 285 to park at a marta station(by the way only about 5 miles from my work exit), then get on marta to travel south to Lindbergh, get off to switch trains, then travel north to Dunwoody...smh, we've got to fix this! But not like this....
    1. Ben posted on 11/18/2013 07:59 PM
      @marl745 The public transport obsessives gush like little schoolgirls about how wonderful the subway is, but practicality never seems to enter their minds. It's like they think we all live in Paris flats with a Metro station every other block or so.
  8. Nathan posted on 08/01/2012 10:14 AM
    Great article, Doug, thanks for the history lesson and journey thru time!

    Do you have any info on the MARTA provisions for future expansions (Tucker-North Dekalb, Northwest, Hapeville). Like where the tracks were going to be laid, which parts were gonna be under/above ground, where the stations would be?
    1. DougM_8345 posted on 08/01/2012 03:23 PM
      @Nathan Nathan: try this link:


      Good luck. ... Doug
  9. Dominique posted on 08/08/2012 09:13 AM
    Great article! Atlanta has tried to do some annexing in South Fulton during cityhood fever of Fulton County. They did bring in a few neighborhoods but many simply said no thanks. However, many of the other cities like Union City, Fairburn and Palmetto grew tremendously. Forced annexation never works and while I think growing College Park would have been great, the people should have been allowed a choice.

    We all know that for years the city always wanted Fulton Industrial Blvd, hence the protection around it to keep it from being annexed by any city.

    Here is a link to what could have been for MARTA with canceled Fulton-Dekalb rail stations indicated on this map. There is also a similar map at Peachtree Center in the stairwell.

    1. DougM_8345 posted on 08/10/2012 12:36 AM
      @Dominique Wow, Dominique: what a fantastic link! Thank you.
  10. The Future of Atlanta posted on 08/17/2012 11:59 AM
    This is an excellent article and I am ashamed of the way everyone is set in their ways. The main point I gained from the article was what went wrong the first time. Everyone opposed to this new tax is concerned about how it’s going to benefit them NOW. It is not about you NOW it’s about the future of Atlanta. The city will still be here after you are dead and gone. In the 60s and 70s when the opportunity presented itself to make Atlanta a major city we didn’t and again we have failed the city of Atlanta and its potential for a bright future all because people are concerned about themselves. Selfishness is what got us in the position we are in now and it is going to keep us here for the next few decades.
    1. wh17y posted on 09/20/2012 01:12 AM
      @The Future of Atlanta Yes, we are concerned about how this is going to benefit us NOW, because we will have to start paying on it NOW. I don't know about you, but I am not exactly rolling around in extra money at my house. I have other bills that are more important than fixing up the roads in (North) Fulton, Dekalb, Gwinnett, and Cobb counties. I am sorry so many of you moved on top of each other on the north side of Atlanta. But I don't see how throwing money at this is going to work much better than a lifestyle change for many, if not all, of the commuters going into Atlanta.

      What I don't see is businesses allowing their people to report on staggered shifts, I don't see more than 20% of commuters carpooling, and I don't see many people trying to find a job (for even a little less pay) closer to their home or maybe in the opposite direction of traffic. Until a true effort is made to fix the problem from their own end by those crying for the government to help their commute, our wallets and pocketbooks are closed.
  11. Ben posted on 11/18/2013 07:50 PM
    This kind of supremely smug thumbsucker of an article almost writes itself by now. No matter the city, the argument is always the same: If only whitey hadn't been so racist and run off to the suburbs, all would be peaches and cream today. Please. Sure, racism played a part in white flight. But so did escaping crime and social dysfunction and the allure of a larger yard. Think back: What else was going on in the 1960s and 70s? Ah yes: Race riots in cities all across the country. Who in their right mind would want to stay in the central city?

    So to recap: Staying in the city would mean higher crime, smaller house, and falling property values. But all those minor little issues aside, the ONLY reason white people moved was because they were raaaaacist. Right.

    One more little problem with these kinds of claims: Atlanta really was a boom town for a few decades. Tens of thousands of people did, in fact, flock to the area. All those people had to live somewhere. So it was inevitable that congestion was going to follow. Except in very densely-populated cities like New York, Chicago, and Paris, public transportation is almost never a popular option. In order to get to work, most people would have to drive to a MARTA station, take the train into town to a station located only semi-close to their office, then wait for a bus to take them the rest of the way. As a result, the time saved commuting is not that great, but the aggravation and crime risk are appreciable. And if you have an errand to run after work, forget about it.

    The fact is, Cobb County got it exactly right not participating in the MARTA boondoggle.
  12. Kevin posted on 06/23/2014 02:59 PM
    All this is true!!! But even what that said All Five counties would have joined it still was a flawed designed system. I-285 was builted before Marta rail. If someone wants to get from Cumberland Mall to Lenox Mall they would have to ride the train into town then go back north to get to Lenox. What since does that make and all they have to do is go down I-75 to Northside Drive to West Paces Ferry Road. Marta should have been built on a true North, South, East, West grid map system!!!! There should have been more lines inside the City of Atlanta's Downtown area!!!!! should have a north/south line on West peachtree, Peachtree St., and Piedmont Ave. East/West lines going down Bankhead Hwy coming from Mabelton, Ga through downtown out through Dekalb, West/East line down Camp Creek Parkway from Douglass County Line from the river/down GA Hwy 166 through Lakewood Fairgrounds alone I-20 through Dekalb County have line from lindbergh station down Buford Hwy to I-285, and finally The State should Build a GRTA Cummuter Rail Line around I-285 and hook up at Marta Stations at both ends of I20, I85, & I75 around I285.
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