(The Center Square) – A DeKalb activist has continued his push to resume metropolitan Atlanta bus routes that have been suspended since the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Edward Williams, chairperson of Concerned Citizens for Effective Government, has sent a letter to the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) demanding it reinstates at least 20 bus routes by Friday and 30 additional routes before the end of the month.
"If you do not hold public hearings and re-establish routes, I will organize and protest the actions of the MARTA board and the CEO and seek to reconstitute the MARTA board," Williams said in written public comment to the MARTA board of directors.
Williams filed a lawsuit in late June against the MARTA board and CEO and General Manager Jeffrey Parker after more than half of its bus routes were stopped. Williams claims Parker made the decision without a board hearing or any public input, violating the state law that established the public transit system.
MARTA, the eighth-largest transit system in the U.S., provides public transportation in the Atlanta metropolitan area. It was established in 1971 by Fulton and DeKalb county voters and is funded by fares and taxpayer money. The transportation system is funded with a 1% sales tax in Fulton, Clayton and DeKalb counties and federal funds. Before the coronavirus outbreak, its 101 routes served about 500,000 people.
With bus ridership down by 40 percent, Parker announced a plan April 16 to run 41 bus routes and double buses on 34 of the busiest routes, starting April 20. By law, however, a public hearing must be held before changes can be made to schedules or fares.
"MARTA is a public entity," Williams said. "They are acting like it is a private entity. All their actions should be public."
Melissa Mullinax, MARTA chief of staff, said the authority resumed eight routes at the end of September, but since COVID-19 still remains a threat, social distancing and mask wearing continue to be recommended by scientists.
"As such, our buses are still operating at half capacity, with seats blocked off, to ensure social distancing," Mullinax said. "All of our buses are running, but on a reduced number of bus routes so that we have enough buses on those routes to allow for the mandated social distancing."
MARTA has created a coordinated plan to slowly resume routes based on capacity, effect on vulnerable communities, essential stops, pre-COVID-19 ridership and customer comments, she said.
The Superior Court of Fulton County will hear arguments in the case Oct. 22. Still, Williams wants MARTA to resume the bus routes sooner than later since thousands of Georgians rely on the service for everyday transportation. Most businesses, schools and other establishments have reopened.
Military veteran Toney Taylor, 64, has had to walk an extra 2 miles from his home in Doraville for the past four months because his local bus route was suspended. Taylor told the MARTA board he has to use a taxi service now to get to the grocery store and doctor appointments.
"My neighbors are doing the same thing due to the suspension of bus route No. 104," Taylor said in an email to the board, which Williams obtained through a public records request.
In legal documents to the court, attorneys for MARTA agree the transportation authority is a public entity but argue Parker did not "eliminate" the routes but "temporarily suspended" them because of the pandemic.
"Defendants admit that the at-issue temporary service modifications were relatively large, but state that the coronavirus and its effects were unprecedented, and MARTA took appropriate actions in response to the novel circumstances," the court documents read.