By John Schaffner

The problem faced by MARTA is “we got stuck over the past 15 to 20 years,” the Atlanta transit system’s general manager and CEO, Beverly Scott, declared at a Dec. 18 breakfast meeting of the Buckhead Business Association. “We got lost because we stopped building. Now we need to get unstuck.”

Scott made only a brief reference to the $60 million budget shortfall MARTA faced in 2008, which this month has been projected to be even worse than originally forecast for 2009. “I consider it to be a distraction,” she told the audience.

But during the first week of January, the transit system’s CEO acknowledged that, with a growing deficit and decreased revenues, everything is on the table right now. “It’s bad,” Scott said. “We’re in one of those real periods of realignment.”

Specific belt-tightening measures being considered include raising base fare by 25 cents to $2, raising parking fees, closing station restrooms; reducing or halting weekend services, shrinking the bus service, and shortening the rail service day.

The agency now expects a $57 million operating deficit this year, despite cutting $11 million in operational spending at the end of 2008. Officials are predicting the agency’s financial picture the next 10 years could be $588 million worse than they thought last fall.

In her speech to the BBA in December, Scott said Atlanta and the region have “underinvested in public transportation for the past 15 to 20 years. I honestly believe that the convergence of events that we find ourselves with on an international, national, state and regional level are giving us a wake-up call.

“This is the time to make the kind of investment needed on the local, regional, state and national level in infrastructure that is warranted and has been what makes America great and what makes this region and state great.”

The BBA’s weekly breakfast meeting address at Anthony’s Restaurant came two days after MARTA officials laid out their financial plight to a committee of state House and Senate members overseeing the agency and asked that the General Assembly lift a requirement dictating what portion of its money the agency may spend on operating costs vs. capital costs.

“I came here because of what I saw. I could tell this region was in the period of churn — where people were coming together, questions were being asked, the transit planning board, with leadership across the region, was beginning to really grapple with the issues of transportation and transit,” said Scott, who has been at MARTA for 13 months.

“I will tell you there is no agency in and of itself that can do that. Transit is a part of the fabric of the community. There is no transit for transit sake.”

She said people likely think the agencies plan and plan and do nothing. “That is not true. It is just that over the past 15 to 20 years we got stuck.”

Scott said that until the mid-1980s, the state of Georgia and particularly the Atlanta region led the country in per capita investment in transportation. Today, Georgia is the second-worst state in terms of investment in transportation, behind only Alabama. “That is abysmal,” she said.

“Twelve years ago, when Fortune 500 companies were looking at where they would locate their businesses, this region was one of the top five or top three. Today, they say, ‘Don’t even show me the Atlanta region.’ That is not because we have a (transportation) problem,” she said, “because other places have the same problems. What they are disenchanted with is that we have no plan or vision to deal with the transportation problems.”

She added: “Most people who are asked to support public transportation will never use it,” but people “will support those institutions for which they believe there is credibility and there is good utilization in terms of their tax dollars.”

MARTA is the ninth-largest public transit system in the country, with 5,000 employees. It is the only multimodal system in Georgia.

“We got lost because we stopped building,” Scott said.

MARTA, Washington’s Metro and BART in San Francisco were built at the same time, Scott said. “Metro and BART kept building, and both systems are at about 100 miles of service area. MARTA stopped at 40 miles.”

BART and Metro have gotten $2 billion more than MARTA “because they kept building, and we stopped. Those were lost opportunities. Now we need to get unstuck,” she said.

“There is a need for top-notch, quality mobility across at least a 10-county-plus area in the Atlanta region,” Scott said. “It cannot be done with just Fulton and DeKalb and the city of Atlanta. That is what must be accomplished in this region. Nothing should stop that. If we are going to become competitive, we have got to think of much more than what we are.”

Despite the economy, she said: “This is a time when we need to build, and we can and we must. We are either going to continue to bask in the 1996 Olympics, or we are going to ask, ‘Where are we going with the future?’ ”

She said her message is to ask for active help and advocacy. “We need to move forward with a vision of what is the best we can be.”

She said her vision is for MARTA to be the best transit system in the United States.