Will the pandemic ruin MARTA’s plans for its biggest expansion in decades?

The pandemic has crippled public-transit systems across the U.S. What will happen to ours?

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For 10 years prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, each weekday morning, Jeremy Wilhelm walked from his house in Grant Park to the King Memorial MARTA station.

There, he caught a train to Five Points and then walked another few blocks to his job in a Marietta Street office tower. In fact, when he and his wife were shopping for a house, their top requirement was being within walking distance of MARTA, says Wilhelm, a project manager and analyst at Westat.

Then, the coronavirus showed up, and Wilhelm’s office shut down. He’s been working out of his living room since March 2020 and expects to do so indefinitely. His wife, Holly, used to commute by MARTA, too, riding the train up to Buckhead. Her job as an aptitude consultant for the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation requires her to be in the office a couple of days a week, but these days, she prefers to drive.

“It just feels like the safer choice,” says Holly. Sometimes, the train has been uncomfortably crowded; a couple of times, she changed cars because someone nearby was sneezing or coughing. And her coworkers let her know that they’d feel safer if she didn’t take the train. Plus, she says, “now, it’s much faster to drive than take MARTA because there’s so much less traffic.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has been catastrophic for public-transit agencies across the nation. With lockdowns, increased telecommuting, and customers’ safety concerns, ridership has plummeted—in some cities, including New York, San Francisco, and Minneapolis–St. Paul, by more than 90 percent. Income from fares has taken a nosedive, while at the same time, agencies are having to shell out for new air-filtration systems and complicated disinfecting procedures.

It’s anyone’s guess when we will be able to toss our masks for good. The nation broke records for new daily cases in January, and even though the national case rate has began to decline from that peak, surveys show that many Americans remain skeptical of getting vaccinated against Covid-19. Even when the pandemic does end, it’s possible that our work and travel patterns will be disrupted permanently if remote work becomes the norm or commuters simply get used to driving instead. Then, there’s the economic impact of the pandemic and its corresponding effect on tax revenue, a major source of funding for many transit agencies, including MARTA. (A penny sales tax in the city of Atlanta and DeKalb, Fulton, and Clayton counties funds $512 million of system operations and capital improvements—more than four times the revenue from passenger fares.)

MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker says the Covid-19 pandemic is the most profound public-transit crisis he’s ever dealt with, and it’s happening on the precipice of the system’s biggest expansion plan since its founding more than 40 years ago. The next few months not only could determine the trajectory of the planned $2.7 billion, 40-year investment—which Parker has called metro Atlanta’s “moonshot for transit”—but also the fate of how commuters will navigate the region for the next decade or longer.

Has Covid killed Atlanta’s transit dream?
For five months, passengers boarded buses in the rear and rode for free. However, MARTA now has installed polycarbonate shields to protect drivers.

Photograph by Growl

Prepandemic, public-transit agencies were already feeling some pain. For several years, ridership had been dwindling in nearly every major metro in the U.S., including Atlanta, says Kari Watkins, associate professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech. Watkins is part of a team that recently was awarded $1 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation to study the decline in mass-transit use, which she says is driven by several factors. For one, gas prices have dropped in recent years—prices went down even more during the first few months of the pandemic—while bus and train fares have increased, making it cheaper for many people to drive than to take mass transit. (MARTA fares haven’t increased since 2011, when the price of a trip rose from $2 to $2.50, although Parker says the agency may need to implement a hike soon.) The proliferation of telecommuting and online shopping has translated into fewer trips overall. And transportation-network companies, or TNCs—academic parlance for Uber and Lyft—have brought new competition.

According to the most recent data from the American Public Transportation Association, MARTA rail usage dropped by more than 10 percent and bus usage dropped by more than 13 percent from 2015 to 2018. (Interestingly, Watkins notes that, in cities like Atlanta with heavy-rail systems, TNCs depress demand for buses more than they do for trains.) But that’s nothing compared to the freefall in ridership that occurred in 2020. During the pandemic, the number of people hopping aboard MARTA trains has declined by 65 percent, while 40 percent fewer people are riding the bus.

Still, MARTA has weathered the pandemic in better financial shape than many other mass-transit systems. MARTA’s relative youth—the heavy-rail lines were built just over 40 years ago—means less deferred maintenance compared to century-old systems like those in Boston or New York. Atlanta’s authority has ended its past nine fiscal years, including 2020, with a balanced budget, in large part thanks to a $300 million infusion of CARES Act money. (Of that $300 million, MARTA used $83 million to ease Covid-related revenue losses and earmarked the rest for fiscal years 2021 and 2022.) At press time, the $900 billion federal Covid relief bill passed by Congress included $14 billion for mass transit, and MARTA expects to receive $50 million of that funding.

Assuming a slow recovery of the economy and ridership, just the original CARES Act Funding “gets us through 2024 with enough revenue to support our current operations,” even without a fare increase or the second round of aid, says Parker. “We’re miles ahead of an agency like the MTA [New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority],” which has said it needs $12 billion to avoid what the New York Times called “doomsday” service cuts.

He is also optimistic that Atlantans are becoming incrementally more comfortable riding MARTA as the pandemic drags on and scientists learn more about the virus and how it spreads. Ridership began to tick up slightly last fall after steep drops in the spring. According to MARTA, about 117,000 more people entered the stations in the slowest week of October compared to the slowest week in April.

“It’ll take us years to get back to our prepandemic numbers at that pace,” Parker says, “but it’s steadily moving in the right direction, even as cases are greater today than they were in April.” And he’s convinced ridership will quickly regain momentum after the pandemic ends.

Commuters tend to follow routines. “Habit is a huge factor in all of this, and there’s actually a ton of research to show that when we pick a mode of transit, that’s what we stick with,” says Watkins. “People are not often multimodal.”

However, surveys and history show that our behaviors could be altered more permanently as a result of the pandemic. Psychologically, Americans’ tolerance for close crowds may be slow to spring back. Many of us are likely to keep working remotely.

“If telecommuting continues, that means less congestion. And one of the biggest catalysts for people wanting to take transit, when they have the option of driving, is the stress and time wasted on traffic,” says Watkins.

Fewer daily commutes means that transit pricing, currently designed around monthly passes, also might need to be rethought. If you’re going into the office just three days a week, it may no longer make sense for you to fork over $95 per month for unlimited rides. In turn, large corporations may be less likely to buy passes in bulk for their employees. “MARTA and others have to pivot to be more innovative about pricing and how fares are collected,” says Watkins. “Otherwise, they’re going to lose people.”

Has Covid killed Atlanta’s transit dream?
Train ridership has been down 65 percent during the pandemic, allowing plenty of room for social distancing.

Photograph by Growl

Back in March 2020, when Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued a shelter-in-place order for the city of Atlanta, MARTA was deemed an essential service, meaning buses and trains kept rolling during the lockdown. At the same time, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that people avoid mass transit to protect against potential exposure to the coronavirus. (They later revised their guidelines, encouraging riders to wear masks instead.)

MARTA has stayed open throughout the pandemic, but the agency has been forced to adapt. For five months, bus fares were suspended so that riders could enter through the back doors and avoid contact with drivers. (MARTA began collecting fares again in September, after they’d erected polycarbonate shields to protect drivers.) The agency instituted new disinfecting protocols, cleaning all vehicles and facilities with special sprayers that disperse a fine mist of disinfectant that more readily adheres to surfaces. They installed antimicrobial air filters on all buses and, over the summer, began requiring riders to wear masks. All buses and rail stations are equipped with free mask dispensers, and MARTA says it has so far handed out more than 700,000 masks.

The agency has earmarked $20 million to fund such precautions, but following the new protocols has been bumpy at times. In the spring, says Parker, only about a quarter of riders were wearing masks. (Now, more than 90 percent do, according to MARTA.) Even with the new procedures, as of late November, 274 employees (out of 4,406) had contracted Covid-19. In April, a station maintenance worker died.

To allow for social distancing, the agency also has reduced the number of passengers permitted on buses, marking off seats that shouldn’t be used. Buses that used to carry 30 or 40 people now have a capacity of just 15 or 20, and that’s meant making some hard choices about who gets to ride and who doesn’t. In April, MARTA cut 70 of 110 bus routes, redirecting all of its vehicles to the most essential routes that serve the greatest number of people. Redesigning the network was a difficult but necessary decision, says Parker. “The flip side is, we could have ignored it and helped spread a virus by not limiting the number of passengers.”

In fact, density on mass transit matters a lot, says Alicia Kraay, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University and an infectious-disease epidemiologist. “From a probability standpoint, you’re less likely to encounter an infected person with reduced density,” she says, “and that affects how much virus could be circulating in the air.” It’s hard to keep your distance from others on a packed bus or train. (MARTA says it has not had to limit the number of passengers on rail because ridership is down more significantly on trains than on buses, allowing plenty of space for social distancing.)

Remarkably, a Chinese study published last summer by the Infectious Diseases Society of America showed that if you are in the same train car as someone who has Covid-19, the average risk of getting infected is 0.3 percent—though the chance of transmission rises the closer a rider sits to an infected passenger and the longer they ride together and can rise higher than 10 percent. (The study did not consider whether riders wore protective gear.) The study’s estimated likelihood of infection may seem low, Kraay says, “but if you take MARTA every day, the risk accrues. And when community incidence is rising, the risk is inherently higher that you’ll encounter someone who has the virus.”

For Atlantans who rely on MARTA, the cuts have been tough to bear. Brenda Moore is a 68-year-old retired schoolteacher who lives in West End. She used to take MARTA to get to doctor’s appointments and do her shopping, but all three of her usual bus routes were eliminated in the spring and, as of December, none had yet been restored.

“Some people in the community are doing Lyft. Some are trying to walk it. If you’re younger, you can do that, but I walk with a cane,” says Moore. “I do understand that they’re in a difficult position. The drivers that we’ve had have always been very nice; I don’t want to see anything happen to them or their families. But I really do think MARTA let us down.”

She adds that many of her neighbors are essential workers with jobs that require them to show up in-person, and she often sees them walking home. “There’s one woman—I see her at 10 o’clock at night walking. It’s a long way. I couldn’t walk it physically.”

Parker says he knows that customers are hurting but insists that the agency has evaluated its decisions to make sure that service cuts haven’t disproportionately affected lower-income or minority communities. “We’re actually serving a higher percentage of minority populations than we were,” he says. (An internal analysis by MARTA found that, of people who lived within a quarter mile of the pre-Covid bus network, 70.9 percent were minority and 26.7 percent were low-income; for the “essential-service” bus network, it’s 72.7 percent minority and 28.7 percent low-income.) “And we’re constantly looking at our resources to see where we can skim a couple of buses off one line and put them back on another route.”

Atlanta City Council member Andre Dickens is chairman of the Transportation Committee and says he tries to ride MARTA often. He’s done his research to make sure that bus routes aren’t being eliminated unfairly. Still, he’s heard firsthand how taxing the service cuts have been, particularly for seniors or parents traveling with young children.

“Those [who live along] the routes that are not being serviced right now feel like, What did we do wrong? Why did you forget me? People were understanding for a little while, but now, they’re like, Get me out of this mess, and get my bus back.

Has Covid killed Atlanta’s transit dream?
The view east from Georgia State Station

Photograph by Growl

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that MARTA’s planned expansion remains vital—even in the face of the pandemic. Metro Atlantans historically have been slow adopters of mass transit. (Of the “big cities” that Watkins and her team studied, Atlanta had the lowest population density and one of the lower ridership-per-capita rates.) MARTA only operates in three metro counties—Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton—and ballot measures that would expand its service into Cobb and Gwinnett have failed numerous times.

When a portion of I-85 collapsed in 2017, experts predicted that it would lead to a permanent surge in MARTA use among suburban commuters, but after the interstate was repaired, drivers jammed up the lanes once again.

It’s been the same in many Southern cities, says Watkins, “but given the size of Atlanta, we cannot be auto-centric and continue to grow. Growth at some point requires some density, and density requires moving people in tighter spaces than a car can allow.” To ensure transit is successful and to allow it to compete fairly, the city and region have to build the necessary dedicated infrastructure.

Despite rumors of a mass migration out of cities due to the pandemic, so far, American city dwellers seem to be staying put, according to data from moving companies. Metro Atlanta’s population is still expected to balloon by nearly 3 million people—increasing by more than half its current number—over the next 30 years, and transportation experts say that managing that population infusion will be impossible without a more robust public-transit system. For one thing, metro Atlanta is notoriously sprawling, home to more than 5.4 million people but less dense than the urban areas surrounding Charlotte or Akron, Ohio. And at the moment, many metro residents don’t have the option of commuting any other way than by car. A 2012 study of 100 U.S. cities found that Atlanta had one of the lowest rates of public-transit connectivity to jobs.

“We definitely have a congestion problem that’s going to bounce back because of the low-density way that our city has developed,” says Watkins. “The more we can build dense, transit-oriented developments, the better off we’ll be longer-term.”

In 2016, Atlanta voters approved a half-penny sales tax to launch a $2.7 billion MARTA expansion plan, which includes a slew of new projects and improvements: nearly 30 miles of light rail; 14 miles of rapid bus lines, many with dedicated lanes; 22 miles of “arterial rapid transit” (faster and more reliable bus service along major corridors); and the renovation of heavy-rail stations.

The expansion is meant to better connect high-traffic streets and make MARTA more reliable and appealing for riders. Parker and Dickens both say the plan is critical to mitigating some of the negative effects of a rapid population boom (i.e., navigating an endless sea of brake lights) and that it isn’t on the chopping block. “It’s a 40-year plan with 40 years of planned revenue,” says Dickens. “One-and-a-half years will affect it, of course; the early years form the foundation. [But] I’m hoping that there are some financial levers that we can pull to make these 18 months not upset the whole 40-year plan.”

Still, Parker concedes that it’s possible that some initial projects may have to be “right-sized” to adjust for declining revenues. Some of the more costly projects that are slated to begin soon include improvements to the Bankhead rail station, an extension of the Atlanta Streetcar east to Ponce de Leon Avenue, and light-rail transit along Campbellton Road linking the Oakland City rail station and Greenbriar Mall.

“The good news is that we haven’t begun turning dirt. As we develop these corridors, we’ll be keeping in mind how many dollars we have,” Parker says. “[The pandemic] adds a layer of uncertainty, but I don’t think that it’s so profound that it will completely derail the projects.”

Some MARTA riders and transportation advocates argue that the pandemic should guide new decision-making about which projects to prioritize. Odetta MacLeish-White, managing director of the TransFormation Alliance, a broad partnership of community advocates, policy experts, transit providers, and government agencies, says the crisis has made it clear that MARTA needs to focus on its core riders—the ones who’ve always relied on public transit and have continued to do so.

“The pandemic has given us this new term: ‘essential workers.’ They’re the ones keeping society going,” she says. According to a 2020 report from TransitCenter, a foundation dedicated to improving public transit in U.S. cities, 2.8 million essential workers across the country use mass transit to get to work, making up more than a third of all transit commuters nationwide.

“This is the moment to center on them more and focus on making transit run best for them,” MacLeish-White says. “To bounce back to what was before would be to center on what I think is the wrong group.” Prior to the pandemic, she says the agency was seeking what she calls “choice” riders. Indeed, recent efforts to promote perks like free WiFi, smartphone apps, and easy access to the airport did seem aimed at attracting white-collar consumers, who have other transportation options.

Watkins agrees, noting that “transit is currently serving a whole population worth of people who have to have those services. A lot of MARTA’s planned projects are meant to ensure that these people are not living as second-class citizens in their own city.”

“After we’ve done the reparative work, then we can turn to the people who are choice riders and convince them of the benefits of transit,” says MacLeish-White. “Refocusing on the loyal, generational riders is a growth opportunity. [But] it’s a hard pivot because so much has been invested in convincing choice riders, because, if you can convince them, then maybe you can convince elected officials or economic-development organizations that transit is important.”

Although MARTA says it currently has no plans to reconsider the timeline of expansion projects, the pandemic may have provided the agency a chance to recalibrate more broadly. So has a new administration, with a new president who famously commuted by Amtrak for decades and who has named transit as one of his priorities. Locally, there may be new opportunities to better connect the metro region. In November, county commissions in Cobb and Gwinnett flipped from Republican-controlled to Democrat-controlled, and both counties’ newly-elected commission chairs have made it clear that they’re interested in supporting transit.

“There’s a lot that could happen in the next year,” says Saba Long, a former MARTA spokesperson and a founding member of MARTA Army, a grassroots organization dedicated to improving riders’ experiences on public transit, which has had 300 people participate in its programs in the past year. “While there are still the types who like to say that trains are a waste of money, there’s a rising level of education and awareness as it relates to public transit, particularly around economic development.”

Tejas Kotak, a 29-year-old transportation planner for the Atlanta Regional Commission, also sees new opportunities for transit in the pandemic. He rides MARTA and other transit services several days a week, and he’s noticed that reduced traffic has made buses more efficient. One of his regular trips, from Doraville to Sugarloaf Mall, used to take up to two hours. Now, it’s reliably an hour or less.

That’s an opportunity for MARTA, says Kotak, because unreliable and infrequent service is one of the biggest obstacles to get people to use transit. “To me, this is the time to put in dedicated bus lanes, while we have less cars on the road.”

MARTA’s first planned rapid bus lines will have dedicated transit lanes that are primarily on Atlanta city streets. Watkins says that, while congestion is low, the city’s Department of Transportation should help MARTA get a jumpstart on those lanes. In fact, in August, the city passed legislation setting aside the first reserved lanes along the North Avenue, Summerhill, and Campbellton Corridors.

That all sounds nice to Moore, but for now, she just wants her bus back. “I’ve been riding MARTA since 1976, when it was 15 cents. Now, it’s $2.50, but I get the senior discount. People in my community, this is our way of getting around. We just need it. We really do.”

This article appears in our February 2021 issue.

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