By Amy Wenk
United Parcel Service employee Lauren Schmidt Downs depends on MARTA.
“I picked where I live because I could ride the train to work,” the 25-year-old Downs said.
She and her husband, Andy, have one car and a baby, which is why they’ve carefully scheduled their days around work, daycare and the MARTA schedules for buses on Route 105, which runs to and from UPS headquarters in Sandy Springs.
But now their perfect plan has hit a snag.
On June 28, the MARTA board approved its 2011 budget, which totals $710.4 million and allocates $52 million in newly unrestricted funds for operations. Decreased revenues from sales taxes in Fulton and DeKalb counties, which are the agency’s major source of money, forced the board to eliminate 40 bus routes, reduce rail service by 14 percent, increase fares, close bathrooms and eliminate 734 jobs.
Downs’ ride to work, Route 105, was cut.
“I’m sad about it,” Downs said. “I value public transportation. It just improves the city so much. It’s a safe way to get around. It uses fewer resources. But the more inconvenient you make it, the less people will ride it.”
Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos also hates to hear the route was cut. Route 105 carries employees of the city’s largest corporations, including UPS, Newell-Rubbermaid and Kaiser Permanente.
“It does serve a lot of people,” Galambos said.
MARTA spokesperson Lyle Harris said Route 105 was cut because it was “unproductive.”
“It has a small number of daily riders,” said Harris, estimating 54 people boarded the bus on Route 105 each day. The line, he said, costs around $200,000 a year to operate. “The ridership is just too low to justify it,” he said.
Galambos, in fact, questioned whether MARTA could legally cut the route under terms of a recent state law lifting restrictions on ways the transit system spends money. House Bill 277 says that “newly unrestricted funds shall be utilized, subject to total funding, to maintain the level of service for the transit system as it existed on Jan. 1, 2010.”
“MARTA can tap that part of the sales tax that they were never allowed to tap before,” Galambos said. “They can tap capital money for operations. The law then says if you do that, you can’t reduce service. I checked it with our city attorneys and they said I was totally right that you cannot cut service.”
But MARTA officials say the cuts are within the rules. MARTA spokesman Lyle Harris said the bill makes the distinction that the ability of the “newly unrestricted funds” to maintain service levels was “subject to total funding.” Since sales tax revenue is down, MARTA had no choice but to reduce service. “We have to make cuts,” Harris said.
Dist. 54 Rep. Ed Lindsey, who represents Buckhead and Sandy Springs, said “maintaining service levels” was a top priority in return for allowing MARTA more flexibility in spending money.
“If [MARTA] is diverting any of the new money to other purposes … I’d like to hear its explanation,” he said, “because these proposed cuts raise more questions than answers at this point.”
Other nearby bus routes eliminated were routes 38, 70, 9, 151, 328, 329 and 341. That reduces bus service along roads like Peachtree-Dunwoody Road, Windsor Parkway, Dresden Drive and Ashford-Dunwoody Road. Those routes also pass places such as Perimeter Mall, Chastain Park, Oglethorpe University and the hospitals on “Pill Hill” like Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
The service changes are effective Sept. 25. Fares go up Oct. 3.
“A lot of us view it as a problem to solve,” Downs said. There’s talk, she said, of carpools and trying to pitch an idea to UPS and Newell-Rubbermaid executives about a shared shuttle for employees.