The History of MARTA

Transit 101: How MARTA became MARTA

MARTA is engrained in the fabric of Atlanta. The system’s routes and rail have shaped the story of our region and influenced development.  However, few Atlantans know the history of MARTA and the challenges it has and continues to face today.

MARTA is primarily funded via fare collections and a 1% sales tax levied in Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton counties, in addition to a limited pool of federal funds.  

Atlanta benefits from the eighth-largest transit system in the United States by ridership.  In 2014, approximately 440,000 daily riders relied on MARTA’s trains and buses for transportation.  As of 2014, MARTA ranked 6th in the U.S. for average daily riders per rail station (9,915 riders), following New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and San Francisco.  The system is comprised of 38 rail stations that cover 48 miles of track in Fulton and DeKalb counties. But, MARTA’s original vision called for a network that reached far beyond its current footprint.

The proposal for a system linking the burgeoning region was introduced by Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen’s administration in the early 1960s. In 1965, the Georgia General Assembly voted to create MARTA as the transit system to serve the City of Atlanta and its surrounding five counties (Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett).  The act required local approvals and which were received from all counties with the exception of Cobb County.  

In addition to seeking approval, funding for the system was another significant challenge.  In 1966, Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to fund up to 10 percent of the cost of the system. The original plan for the local portion of funds was to finance the system through property taxes, though the measure was handily defeated in 1968. Following Ivan Allen, Mayor Sam Massell developed a proposal to fund the system through a special sales tax. Local option sales taxes were new to Georgia and the creation of one would require legislative approval, something that was not easily gained for city-centric legislation.

Backers worked to see the legislation advance and it gain approval, but at a cost. As the bill made its way through the Georgia Senate, Lieutenant Governor Lester Maddox communicated to supporters that if they wanted to see it pass, they would have to accept an amendment requiring MARTA evenly split the sales tax revenues between operating costs and capital expenditures. From the beginning, this restriction would hamstring the system by forcing a significant increase in fares and cuts whenever operating shortfalls arose.

Though the legislation emerged with stipulations, the eventual approval by the Georgia House and Senate were nonetheless celebrated. Massell called a news conference on the City Hall lawn, facing the capitol, where he unveiled a flatbed truck carrying a billboard that read “Thank You, Georgia Lawmakers!”. He also reportedly dug a hole in the City Hall lawn and ceremoniously buried a hatchet as a symbolic gesture of thanks.

Now that backers had won legislative approval, they had to define the terms of the ballot measure. One of the early sales tax proposals was for Fulton and DeKalb to levy a 3/4 penny tax and rely on the state for the 10 percent which was approved in 1966. Then Governor Jimmy Carter called MARTA officials to inform them that the state could not afford the $25 million contribution at that time.  Instead, Carter offered to allow MARTA to collect a full penny in local revenue if they did not lean on the state for dedicated funding. At the time, this revision put MARTA in a better financial position so leaders readily accept the alternative, but it was a decision that many would regret in years to come.

When the penny sales tax came to a vote in 1971, voters in Fulton and DeKalb narrowly approved the measure by a few hundred votes. Voters in Gwinnett and Clayton soundly defeated the measure.

Over the years, additional opportunities for MARTA expansion have unfortunately failed. Nevertheless, in a sign that old attitudes toward mass transit are evolving, Clayton County reversed its 1971 decision.  In 2014, a resounding 74% of the county voted in support of allowing expansion of MARTA service into Clayton County. This was the first expansion of MARTA outside of Fulton and DeKalb counties. Recent polling data in other surrounding counties shows shifting views in support of MARTA. Another survey shows the organization’s favorability within Fulton and DeKalb is as high as it’s ever been.

Part of the system’s renewed community support can be attributed to a financial turnaround engineered over the past several years, leaving MARTA operating with a budget surplus. The 50/50 restriction on the system was also removed in 2015, thus providing MARTA with more creativity and discretion on how it allocates funding.

As the region faces decisions on expanding our transit network, we at Advance Atlanta find it constructive to take stock of the successes and failures of those who have come before us. One thing is certain, the Atlanta region’s decisions on transit have had a significant impact (for better and for worse) on the development of our region. There is no doubt that improving transit access and mobility will leave a lasting legacy.

The Coalition to Advance Atlanta is a citizen-driven grassroots advocacy coalition dedicated to building support for regional transit and championing existing transit resources. Advance Atlanta brings together businesses, residents, and other community partners to advocate for transportation solutions that will advance the region we are all proud to call home.

We believe that the future of the metro region will be driven in large part by strategic investments in transit. If metro Atlanta is to remain competitive it will need to provide residents with  comprehensive transit options capable  of efficiently moving residents where they need to go when they need to be there.

For Atlanta to continue its position as a dominant economic force in the U.S. (and the world), a comprehensive, modern transit system is crucial.  We at Advance Atlanta invite you to join us.  To stay informed on our progress and to get involved, sign up for email updates here.  

Thank you for your support!

Joey Kline is an Atlanta native, Midtown resident, commercial real estate broker with Jones Lang LaSalle, and Board Member of Advance Atlanta. 


Transit 101 series:

This blog post is the third installment in a comprehensive series of stories discussing components of Georgia transit systems, transit decision makers, and regional transit opportunities.  We hope you find this series educational, entertaining, and insightful.


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