Fight over Atlanta mass transit MARTA system raises race issues

February 18, 2013

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Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013

Fight over Atlanta mass transit raises race issues

The Associated Press

ATLANTA — A proposal to change the power structure of metro Atlanta’s mass transit system raises the complicated politics of race in Georgia.

The tension is evident when comparing the demographics of mass transit riders against those seeking change. Roughly three-quarters of transit riders are black, according to government surveys. The lawmakers seeking a larger political role in transit decisions for northern Atlanta and its predominantly white suburbs are white.

Transportation policy involves a complex mix of public issues — taxation, financing, economic development. For some residents in and around Atlanta, one unspoken issue often is race.

“It’s the fear of white people and black people,” said Terry Parker, a store owner from Roswell who acknowledged that race shapes his views in the transit debate. Parker is white, as is three-quarters of his community in northern Fulton County. He pays a sales tax to support the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority but said he dislikes riding a subway and bus system that he perceives as dangerous. “What are you going to do? It’s human nature.”

Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, denies that race is an issue in his proposed overhaul, which he said would benefit all riders. He said his plan would stabilize MARTA finances, put limits on its debt and position the agency for future growth.

“Unfortunately there are people in our community who play that card,” he said, speaking of race issues. “But it really does a disservice to the fact that people who ride MARTA as a matter of necessity and people who would like to ride MARTA as a matter of choice universally look to systems like Washington, D.C., and New York and Boston and Chicago and say, ‘Wow, we’d like to have something more like that.'”

The MARTA board declined through agency spokesman Lyle Harris to comment on the legislation.

His bill, even if unintentionally, has political consequences that unfold along race lines. It would keep MARTA’s board at 11 voting members but change who appoints some of them. For example, the Fulton County Commission, dominated by black Democrats, now selects its own appointees to the MARTA board, though they must by law come from certain regions.

By contrast, Jacobs’ bill would allow a caucus of municipal mayors to pick two of the three MARTA board members from northern Fulton County. The mayors would come from communities including Johns Creek, which is 64 percent white; Roswell, 75 percent white; Milton, 77 percent white; and Sandy Springs, 65 percent white.

Commission members and mayors from southern Fulton County would pick the third Fulton representative to the board. That board member would be picked by politicians who mostly represent majority-black communities.

The DeKalb County Commission, dominated by black Democrats, would cede one of its four board appointees to a similar caucus of local mayors. The governor would name another voting member.

Others aspects of Jacobs’ plan would privatize back-office support functions to save money, put limits on MARTA’s debt and eliminate a defined-benefit pension system for new unionized workers. In return, Jacobs’ plan would extend a temporary suspension of a rule forcing MARTA to spend half of its revenues on its capital budget — a restriction that is unique in state government.

MARTA is an easy political foil for Republicans in Georgia’s Statehouse, who typically come from suburban or rural stretches of Georgia. They oppose organized labor. MARTA serves urban Atlanta and has a unionized workforce.

Jacobs said his constituents also complain about what he called “knucklehead” behavior on the system, even though he said MARTA’s low crime rate compares favorably with other transit agencies. In the agency’s last survey, less than half of a percent of riders said they were the victims of a crime on a bus or subway during the preceding month.

Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain, a black lawmaker who sits on the transit oversight committee, said the region made a mistake when neighboring Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton counties declined to join MARTA. It resulted in a less diverse mix of riders. Cobb and Gwinnett are majority white counties. Clayton was majority white when MARTA was first proposed, but it’s now majority black.

“Believe it or not, there were communities in the metro area that did not want it simply because they felt that there would be an undesirable element, citizens, who would evidently ride MARTA to their communities, steal their TVs, electronics and get back on MARTA to go home, apparently, because they did not wish for MARTA to be in their communities,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said he believes attitudes are improving. He said some lawmakers backing the GOP-led overhaul might be seeking political buy-in for MARTA from a larger constituency.

Still, there is tension.

Nick Holman, 34, who works in Roswell, said he drove to the nearest MARTA station and rode the subway downtown to Georgia State University while he was a student. He said taking public transit was easier than driving on crowded highways and cost less than city parking.

Still, Holman said some suburban — and largely white — communities view the system as primarily serving minorities.

“A lot of the northern suburbs don’t want MARTA because they think it could bring an undesirable element,” Holman said. “But that’s stupid.”
Brief history of African Americans and public transportation in Atlanta


By 1860 Atlanta was home to 9,554 people and was already the 4th largest city in the state. Enslaved African Americans and free persons of color were part of this population, although in smaller numbers than in the older, larger port cities of the South. In 1860 African Americans in the city numbered less than 2,000.

By 1900 the city of Atlanta had a population of almost 90,000. Atlanta was now the largest city in the state and the 3rd largest in the Southeast. Adding to this growing population were large numbers of African Americans. There were more than 35,000 black Atlantans, approximately 40 percent of the total population of the city.

By 1930 almost half of all Atlantans lived north of Ansley Park, many of them in Buckhead, which grew from a population of 2,603 in 1920 to 10,356 in 1930.

Rapid population growth accompanied this post World War II economic activity, and Atlanta expanded its borders to accommodate this growth. In 1952 the city annexed an additional 82 square miles, adding 100,000 new residents. Highways and freeways were also built and expanded to meet the city’s growing need.

Highway construction (combined with urban renewal activities) also lowered the supply of black housing within the city—displacing almost 67,000 people in the period from 1956 to 1966 and adding to an already severe housing shortage. By 1959 African Americans made up 36 percent of the city’s population but occupied only 16 percent of the available residential land.

In January 1957, following the successful bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama (1955-1956), a group of African American ministers launched the Love, Law, and Liberation (or Triple L) Movement to desegregate Atlanta’s city buses.

Triple L, under the leadership of the Reverend William Holmes Borders, the ministers staged a violation of the state law requiring segregation on common carriers, thereby securing the grounds for a legal challenge to the very foundation of Georgia’s Jim Crow architecture. Two years later, on January 9, 1959, a federal district court ruled in favor of the ministers, ending more than 6 decades of segregation on Atlanta’s city buses.

In 1960 Atlanta Chamber of Commerce president Ivan Allen Jr. proposed a six-point program for the city’s growth and development. The proposal’s centerpiece was a rail transit system that would solve Atlanta’s impending transportation crisis and distinguish the city from its regional peers. When he was elected mayor the following year, Allen made rail transit an administrative priority and began the difficult task of obtaining legislative approval, assembling a board of directors, and soliciting architectural and engineering plans.

An important racial barrier fell in 1962, when courts ordered the removal of city barricades along Peyton Road in southwest Atlanta that had been erected to prevent black residential expansion into that area’s majority white neighborhoods. This decision opened up new areas of the city for black residential development (particularly in southwest Atlanta). It also accelerated the exodus of white Atlantans to the suburbs.

During the 1960s the white population of the city declined by 60,132, while the black population increased by 68,587.

MARTA was established in 1965 by an act of the Georgia General Assembly

When the referendum to create MARTA finally appeared on ballots in the city of Atlanta and in Fulton and DeKalb counties in the fall of 1968, MARTA’s proponents touted the system as a transportation cure-all that would ease the metropolitan area’s congestion and establish Atlanta as a “national city.” Despite enjoying wide support in the city’s business community, the measure failed in all 3 jurisdictions. MARTA encountered stiffest opposition from Atlanta’s black community and black voters objected to the proposed system’s marked service inequality (routes would provide greater service to white neighborhoods than to black ones), limited African American representation on the MARTA board, and the board’s refusal to honor requests for minority employment guarantees.

In 1969 Maynard H. Jackson was elected the city’s first African American vice mayor.

Over the next 3 years of negotiation, the board took steps to become more representative of citywide interests, welcoming its critics to the negotiating table, restructuring routes to better serve black communities, implementing a minority employment plan, shoring up federal financial support, and proposing the system’s extension into the suburban Atlanta counties of Clayton and Gwinnett.

The 1970 census revealed that Atlanta had a majority black population for the first time in the city’s history.

In 1971 MARTA was put to the voters again, appearing on ballots in Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett counties as well as the city of Atlanta. As a result of the board’s concessions, voters in Atlanta, Fulton, and DeKalb approved the measure.

Nov. 9, 1971 — Voters in the City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties approve a referendum that provides the tax revenue to start MARTA.

This time MARTA encountered opposition from conservative suburban residents in Clayton and Gwinnett counties, where metropolitan expansion and white flight from Atlanta had recently contributed to dramatic population growth. The system’s suburban critics, many of whom left Atlanta following the integration of the city’s public spaces, predicted that MARTA would expedite the racial integration of predominantly white suburbs, would lower home values, and would make suburban communities vulnerable to federal busing programs and the dispersal of public housing. As a consequence, voters in the two counties defeated the measure by a four-to-one margin. In so doing, the system’s suburban opponents limited MARTA’s effectiveness as a solution to the area’s transportation woes and helped to redefine the lines separating the city from its suburbs. Although they retained representation on the MARTA board, suburban voters have continued to resist efforts to expand the system.

In 1971, MARTA purchased the Atlanta Transit Company and completed the sale on February 17, 1972.

In 1973, when Maynard H. Jackson became Atlanta’s first African American mayor of Atlanta and blacks gained equal representation on the Atlanta City Council and a slight majority on the Atlanta School Board.
Source: The New Georgia Encyclopedia

In 1972 MARTA purchased the Atlanta Transit System and took control of the area’s bus transportation.

Video: Atlanta 1973 Maynard Jackson is elected the first African American mayor of Atlanta 
The racial change of Atlanta’s city government


Construction began on a rapid rail system in 1975 with the first rail service commencing in 1979.

MARTA Civic Center Station Construction

Pictured above: Construction of the Civic Center MARTA Station, looking toward Peachtree Plaza in Downtown Atlanta.

MARTA North-South Midtown subway construction

Pictured above: Construction of the MARTA subway in Midtown near the under construction AT&T building (former Southern Bell headquarters), looking north toward Colony Square in Midtown.

MARTA Coliseum Station Construction

Pictured above: Construction of the MARTA subway near what is now the Georgia Dome.


MARTA today



Video: MARTA train


Atlanta demographics

MARTA Atlanta Core Metropolitan Population

MARTA Atlanta Core Metropolitan Population

MARTA Atlanta Core Metropolitan Population

The Atlanta metropolitan area spans up to 28 counties in north Georgia and is known as Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Gainesville with a population of 5.7 million

Atlanta core metropolitan counties

MARTA Atlanta Core Metropolitan Population

Georgia Regional Transportation Authority

Xpress – Metropolitan Atlanta’s regional commuter coach service provides weekday morning and afternoon service on 33 routes serving the Downtown, Midtown and Buckhead areas of Atlanta and the Perimeter Center areas. (Xpress partners Cobb Community Transit and Gwinnett County Transit provide similar service on six additional routes.) Xpress routes are aligned with and provide free transfers to and from the MARTA rail and bus services, allowing riders to complete trips throughout the metropolitan Atlanta area. Xpress park-and-ride lots are located throughout the region, typically close to interstate highways or major arterial roads. The service is provided by GRTA in partnership with 12 metropolitan Atlanta counties.

GRTA Atlanta Commuter Express Buses

GRTA metro commuter bus map

Source: GRTA

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