MARTA train ridership up 10%; small rise for buses
By PAUL DONSKY
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 12/12/06
Ridership on MARTA's rail system has surged to its highest level in five years.
The transit system on Monday reported a 10 percent jump in daily ridership between July and September compared to the same period a year ago. The number of rail trips handled each day rose from 231,000 to 257,000 during that time.
Rail traffic hasn't been this high since 2001, when passenger volume began to drop amid tough economic times that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
MARTA's bus ridership has risen only modestly, about 1.5 percent over last year. MARTA's combined bus and rail ridership — about 487,000 per day — is up 6 percent.
It's not clear why the rail numbers have spiked. Gas prices remain high, though they've fallen sharply after peaking in the months after Hurricane Katrina roared ashore in August 2005.
One possible explanation: new electronic fare gates MARTA has installed at all 38 rail stations. The 6-foot-tall gates do a much better job of counting passengers than the oft-broken and easy-to-hop turnstiles they replaced.
MARTA officials acknowledge the new head counts are more reliable. But they stress the old numbers should not be discounted, as they are based on a complex formula that included other measures, such as fare revenue.
Richard McCrillis, MARTA's general manager and CEO, said a renewed effort to keep the rail system clean, safe and on-time has helped attract new customers.
"It's a very positive trend," he said. "We're trying to give customers a better experience, a better transit ride."
Charles Rutledge, a 45-year-old computer systems administrator from Lilburn, said traffic — not high gas prices — prompted him to start taking the train last June to his new job in downtown Atlanta. It's the first time he's ever been a regular transit rider, and he's loving it.
"I spend 20 minutes in my car getting to the train station, and then I can read or sleep or whatever," he said Monday evening, waiting for his ride at the Five Points rail station.
"Even when there are service delays, it still beats the interstate. I have a co-worker who lives in Cobb [County] who would love to take MARTA, but it doesn't go there. So he has to drive — and I get to ride," Rutledge said with a big smile.
The ridership bump comes as MARTA is in the midst of a massive train car rebuilding project that has pulled a number of cars off the line. As a result, many rush-hour trains have been shortened, leading to severe crowding.
Osla Coleman, a junior at Mays High School in southwest Atlanta, said she noticed the trains getting more crowded this fall.
"It's packed at all times," she said. "The buses are more crowded, too."
Coleman, 17, has been regularly riding MARTA for about a year. She said as soon as she gets her own car MARTA is going to lose one rider — her.
"The service is very bad," she said. "It's late all the time."
MARTA's passenger counts began falling in early 2001, when the transit system last increased fares from $1.50 per ride to $1.75. The downward trend picked up steam in the year following the terrorist attacks, when an economic slowdown led to higher unemployment — and fewer people riding to work.
It also caused a big drop in sales tax collections, which MARTA depends on for much of its revenue. To balance its budget, transit system officials cut back on bus and rail service three times between 2002 and 2005, pushing even more riders away.
MARTA's ridership numbers remained flat, even after higher gas prices following Hurricane Katrina. That came in sharp contrast to transit systems around the country, which began to see an influx of new customers seeking a cheaper commute.
MARTA's finances have turned around in the past year, and some of the service has been restored. More bus and rail service will be restored in two weeks.
Lechandra Alexander is one of MARTA's new riders. She began taking MARTA two months ago when she got a new job downtown.
There are times when she could drive, she said, "but I prefer to take the train. I get here quicker, faster, there's less traffic."
Staff writer Ariel Hart contributed to this article.