By Maggie Lee

There’s “heightened public interest” in public safety on MARTA, state Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-DeKalb County) said at a May 3 legislative hearing on the topic. MARTA CEO Beverly Scott testified the system has a problem with “hooligans,” but some northside lawmakers suggested she’s got a problem with public perception too.

The heightened public interest started this April, after a group of juveniles mobbed a southbound train car and ended by stealing a flight attendant’s wallet. MARTA officials said some facts about the incident were distorted.

MARTA Police Chief Wanda Dunham said there was no one attacked with a can, nor were there train doors jammed shut at a station.

State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) pointed out that one alleged victim in a separate case immediately admitted he had lied to the media and had never been attacked.

“I’ve got a concern about the perception,” he said.

“We did not get the facts until the victim came forward after the [media] firestorm,” Dunham responded. But after hearing from them, “within 24 hours we had our first suspect in custody… they [the victims] said that a lot of the things that were alleged did not occur.”

Seven people had been charged as of May 3.

Scott pointed out that two of her main public safety problems are gangs and so-called nuisance behavior, like using profanities, playing loud music, refusing to give up seats for older folks and jumping turnstiles.

“It’s no different from regular policing with the broken window theory,” said Scott, referring to the idea that if litter and graffiti line the streets, criminals will begin to feel they own the place.

People on legitimate business feel uncomfortable.

Serious crime on MARTA property has been declining for the past five years, according to Scott’s data, and she’s about to activate a nuisance campaign to fight hooliganism.

“We need to make it clear as a city, state and region we will not tolerate that,” she said.

MARTA patrons will see more messages about civility and encouraged to call a hotline to report disturbances.

The city of Atlanta is going to rejoin MARTA in truancy and curfew enforcement. Scott’s budget for next year requests funds for closed circuit televisions on buses, and eventually, on trains.

“From a trend standpoint, your performance is very good,” said Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody), also a member of MARTOC, the House-Senate MARTA Oversight Committee. But, he also saw a perception problem.

“I’ll tell you right now I don’t know anyone who wants their wife or daughter or teenage child to be in a MARTA train after dark,” he said.

“It comes back down to an economic development issue,” said Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody). “You have somebody coming in from the airport, and that one experience can change their view of moving a company.”

MARTOC operates like other legislative committees, and hears MARTA-related legislation. State law, which governs MARTA, includes a rigid statute that says the system must spend half its revenue on operations, the other half on capital works.

“MARTA has wanted to do away with the fifty-fifty split. … That’s something I’d consider,” said Jacobs, MARTOC’s chair.

MARTA and MARTOC will review the MARTA Act “top to bottom and front to back” between now and the next regular legislative session in January, Jacobs announced, aiming for updates and good changes.

MARTA will be pushing for distance-based fares.

The first meeting of the two groups is tentatively scheduled for May 24 at the Capitol.

To report suspicious activity on MARTA, make a free call to #mpd on most cell phones and #673 on BlackBerries.