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Friday, October 16, 2015 - 6:10pm

Race, History And Public Transit: Atlanta's MARTA

When Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen first proposed the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority in the early 1960’s, he had a vision to connect Atlanta’s burgeoning metro communities by rail and bus. Today, only three counties have agreed to pay for it. For perspective on MARTA in its early days and today, Rickey Bevington interviewed former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell and current MARTA CEO Keith Parker.

Bevington: Thank you both very much for coming in today. Keith, let’s start with you. Would you give us an overview of MARTA? Some numbers so we can paint a picture of it.

Parker: Sure, MARTA is the primary public transportation provider in the Atlanta metro region for the 9th largest transit authority in the country, carrying over 400,000 people every day. We have around 2.6 billion dollars annual impact on state’s economy. We, I think, when the books close out, have seen our best year financially in about 25 years and the last three years have been the best years since the Olympics. We are on a pretty good roll.

Bevington: Who rides MARTA today?

Parker: About two-thirds of folks have cars available to them but they choose to ride MARTA. What we see is that millennials will ride with us pretty readily, baby boomers ride us if they feel safe and secure and people who have no choices will ride us no matter how crummy we are.

Bevington: Mayor Massell, you were Atlanta's mayor from 1970 to 1974. Talk about the beginning of the idea of MARTA itself. Who came up with the idea and why?

Massell: Well, it’s man's 5th freedom -- mobility -- being able to get to and from work, shops, parks, churches and any other facility or amenity. As to who came up with the idea, it was proposal at City Hall, of course, in Mayor Ivan Allen's administration at which time I was P resident of the then-called Board of Alderman but equivalent to the City Council. We worked together on it.

(This story also appears on Medium).
Bevington: Is it fair to say the vision of MARTA, under Ivan Allen, Sam Massell, Maynard Jackson, was to unite white and black Atlanta to be a metropolitan, cosmopolitan city like any other in the United States?

Massell: (Long pause) Mayor Jackson was not a supporter of MARTA and joined after it was passed. We were glad to have endorsement of course. But I am not going to give it the credit that you do our being that sophisticated with where we were going. We just knew we had to have mobility whether we were all white or all black or mixed.

Bevington: And yet there was conversation. Again, you are here to set the historical record. What were the conversations around race and class at that time in the 1960’s and 1970’s vis a vis public transportation, busing and MARTA?

Massell: (Long pause) Well, you can tell by my pause that I’m struggling to give you the answer you want.

Rickey: I don’t want any answer but your opinion and memory.

Massell: We were doing everything we could to improve race relations in Atlanta with or without any kind of public transportation system.

Bevington: And yet only two counties opted in.

Massell: Yes

Bevington: Why did the rest of the counties say no?

Massell: Their reasons reportedly. The reason that they didn't support it then was because of race, if that's where you are going, that's commonly known.

Parker: Mayor Massell has been very modest. I had the fortunate opportunity of sitting down with President Carter about a year ago to talk about the history MARTA and we sat for a full 30 minutes. He was very complimentary about the leadership of Mayor Massell and making MARTA a reality. Very, very complimentary.

Bevington: Was Carter Governor when you were (Mayor)?

Massell: Yes, part of the time.

Bevington: If there were a vote today to extend MARTA to counties that decades ago opted out, what would be the outcome?

Parker: Well that remains to be seen. If you go back just three years to summer of 2012 with the T-SPLOST. Clayton County voted it down by a two to one margin.

Bevington: Can you tell us a little about what the vote was for?

Parker: It was for a whole series of capital projects that combine public transit projects as well as road projects and a number of things. I believe there is a total of – in the neighboring 14 or so? 14 or 15 counties.

Bevington: And it was a penny tax.

Parker: Right, it was a penny sales tax. And it failed in the vast majorities of the areas, Clayton being one of them. So you fast forward two years. Last November, Clayton voters had the same opportunity to vote for a one penny sales tax to join MARTA and they passed it by a three to one margin. So 74 percent said yes. When Gwinnett and Cobb and Henry and Douglas and all those other places, when they’re ready my goal is to have a very sold, strong organization so that if they join us they know they’ll be making a good investment and joining a very solid organization. So we don’t go out and say “This politician or that politician is doing the wrong thing,” instead we just say “when you’re ready, we’ll be here.”

Bevington: Any the words of advice for Keith Parker today, Mayor Massell?

Massell: Keep up what he’s doing. I don't know how he’s doing it but keep it up. He is nonpolitical, i just don't understand him, but he is successful at it and nobody complains about him. (Laughs)

Parker: Thank you Mayor. And just wait a little while. You will begin to hear few. (Parker and Massell laugh together)

(This story also appears on Medium).