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Host Forum: How MARTA Transformed Atlanta

Representatives of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) and state officials talked about the pivotal role of the agency in transforming public transportation in Atlanta since the 1960s during the Host Forum Oct. 9.

MARTA Board Chair Robert L. Ashe III spoke about the evolution of the organization from its beginnings in the mid-1960s to its status as a powerful economic driver in the Greater Atlanta region. In particular, he discussed the 2014 Clayton County referendum, passed with a 70 percent vote, that imposed a one-cent sales tax for transit. Its passage led to local expansion, Ashe said, adding that since then “we’ve seen billions of dollars flow into the economy.”

Roberta Abdul-Salaam, MARTA board secretary, talked about how the 2014 referendum helped restore suspended service to Clayton County. She also spoke of the education of legislators by local citizens that was instrumental in securing passage. “Four months after passage, service was up and running,” she said. “And we have a world-class, first-rate affordable public transit system.”

State Sen. Brandon Beach, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the state has seen a lot of change over the past few years. “CEOs [of businesses] used to decide to locate their companies based on where they wanted to live,” he said, but today decisions are driven by where the talent is—so businesses locate near public transit. As chair of the transportation committee, Beach had an important platform from which to elaborate the progress that has taken place with regard to businesses investing in a particular neighborhood because of public transit accessibility.

Host Forum speakers, from left: Scott Haggard, moderator, at podium, Robert Hiett, Christopher Tomlinson, Roberta Abdul-Salaam, Brandon Beach, Robert L. Ashe III and Kevin Tanner.

Robert Hiett, a former chair of the Georgia Transit Association, offered a statewide overview of public transit. He said 123 counties have public transportation and that rural transit is vital to the economic mobility and prosperity of both rural and suburban Georgia. One continuing challenge he cited, however, is coordination among agencies to fund a solid public transit system.

Hiett also spoke of the diverse needs public transit service can meet, with customers using it to get to employment training, jobs and medical services and older Americans using it as a lifeline.

MARTA Board Member Christopher Tomlinson emphasized the cooperation that took place after the I-85 bridge ­collapse, which he said was “because of the high level of coordination among regional providers. It’s one of our strengths.” As a result, he added, new routes were in place the following morning, a testament to the swiftness of the response.

Tomlinson also emphasized the importance of good customer service: “If we look at what’s best for our customer, we can make a lot happen.”

Scott Haggard, governmental affairs manager, Atlanta Regional Commission, moderated the session.
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