By Joel Hall
The Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority faces a strong challenge.
It has again taken control of Clayton County's C-Tran bus service, but at a time when county leaders are unsure of needed financial support, and some have complained about the safety of the vehicles used.
C-Tran was operated at a cost of more than $4 million under First Transit's management, and predictions are that operating MARTA will cost much more.
A legal maneuver to cover the increased operation costs of MARTA, through a 1-cent tax levied on concessions at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport did not work. The measure was later found to be unconstitutional. The Georgia State Legislature would have to vote on the tax, and that can't happen before it reconvenes in 2008.
"The biggest concern for me is the increased cost to the county" said Clayton Commissioner Wole Ralph. "It's a challenge ... without the [penny tax], it's going to be a lot more difficult to support the whole MARTA transition."
MARTA operated C-TRAN when it started up in 2001, through the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. In 2004, when the three-year contract with Clayton County ended, the county gave the contract to First Transit. On Sunday, Oct. 1, at the stroke of midnight, MARTA took over all C-TRAN operations from First Transit.
Not only did MARTA inherit the lease at the C-TRAN central facility, located at 7535 Southlake Parkway in Jonesboro, but also the mechanical issues of the buses, such as faulty air-conditioning and inadequate safety straps for para-transit riders.
"I think with MARTA running the service, it will be better for the public," said Yvette Chatmon, the former operations manager of First Transit.
Cheri Mitchell, secretary of People First of Georgia, an advocacy group for the disabled, has ridden C-TRAN and MARTA for several years from her home in Jonesboro to her job in downtown Decatur.
She is unable to walk and depends on C-TRAN's para-transit service. She said she feared for her safety when the buses were being operated by First Transit. "I've been riding those buses for years, so I know how rickety and broke down they are," said Mitchell.
"I feel like switching the management to MARTA was a good move. My hope with MARTA is that all of the safety issues that we've had in the past will disappear."
The company will use 90 days to assess its fleet of 24 route buses and six para-transit vehicles, examining bus safety, rider comfort, route scheduling, and customer service.
"That's a good span to see what you need to do to make the service better," said Franklin Beauford, assistant general manager of operations at MARTA. "In 90 days, you should know which way to go."
Another challenge for MARTA was the First Transit workforce. "We utilized a large portion of the existing staff," said Dave Springstead, senior director of maintenance for MARTA. Springstead said 90 percent of the workers were hired by MARTA.
Jeffrey Parker, senior director of operations at MARTA, said that under MARTA, the drivers and maintenance personnel have several perks that were unavailable in the First Transit contract, including membership with the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 732 -- the union that represents all MARTA drivers.
They also received a wage increase. Entry level MARTA drivers make $13.48 an hour, compared with $12 an hour for First Transit drivers.
"They were not unionized under First Transit," said Parker. "What MARTA did with the ATU is that we laid out a memorandum ... to recognize these bus drivers as part of the union. We wanted to make them feel like part of this organization, not some step children of MARTA."
Beauford said that MARTA's first focus will be to take stock of what is wrong with C-TRAN, repair buses with broken air-conditioning units, and improve customer service, by putting all former First Transit drivers through MARTA operator training.
"If you run a good business and treat people like human beings, you will be good, no matter which way you go," Beauford said.
Theo Letman, former general manager of First Transit, and Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell could not be reached for comment.