By John Schaffner

Failure to keep pace with the Atlanta area’s growth has driven MARTA to a crisis, in the view of its general manager and CEO, Beverly Scott.

“We got lost because we stopped building,” Scott told a recent meeting of the Buckhead Business Association. “Now we need to get unstuck.”

MARTA, Washington’s Metro system and BART in San Francisco were built at the same time, Scott said. “Metro and BART kept building, and both systems are at about 100 miles of service area. MARTA stopped at 40 miles” with a system designed for the Atlanta of more than two decades ago.

Thus, the MARTA rail system ends at North Springs, one of three stations in Sandy Springs, while the metro area has exploded northward along the Ga. 400 corridor.

Both BART and Metro have gotten $2 billion more than MARTA “because they kept building, and we stopped. Those were lost opportunities,” Scott said.

“There is a need for top-notch, quality mobility across at least a 10-county-plus area in the Atlanta region,” she said. “It cannot be done with just Fulton and DeKalb and the city of Atlanta. That is what must be accomplished in this region. Nothing should stop that. If we are going to become competitive, we have got to think of much more than what we are.”

But MARTA faces a growing financial crisis. The transit agency cut $11 million in operational spending in late 2008 in response to a projected $60 million shortfall in the current fiscal year, which runs through June 30. But those savings were nearly wiped out when new projections last month showed the deficit back up to $57 million.

The long-term picture is more dire. The Georgia State Economic Forecasting Center now predicts that MARTA will receive $1.2 billion less than expected in sales tax revenues over the next decade, roughly double the loss the center projected last fall.

The transit system’s CEO acknowledged in January that, with the growing deficit and decreased revenues, everything is on the table right now. “It’s bad,” Scott said. “We’re in one of those real periods of realignment.”

Belt-tightening measures being considered include raising the base fare by 25 cents to $2, raising parking fees, closing station restrooms, reducing or halting weekend services, shrinking the bus service, and shortening the rail service day. MARTA also hopes for relief from the General Assembly or Congress.

In her earlier speech to the BBA, Scott said the Atlanta region has “underinvested in public transportation for the past 15 to 20 years. I honestly believe that the convergence of events that we find ourselves with on an international, national, state and regional level are giv ing us a wake-up call.

“This is the time to make the kind of investment needed on the local, regional, state and national level in infrastructure that is warranted and has been what makes America great and what makes this region and state great.”

Scott has led MARTA for less than a year and a half. She said she took the job because of the potential she saw.

“I could tell this region was in the period of churn — where people were coming together, questions were being asked. The transit planning board, with leadership across the region, was beginning to really grapple with the issues of transportation and transit,” she said.

“I will tell you there is no agency in and of itself that can do that. Transit is a part of the fabric of the community. There is no transit for transit sake.”

Scott said that until the mid-1980s, the state of Georgia and particularly the Atlanta region led the country in per capita investment in transportation. Today, Georgia is the second-worst state in terms of investment in transportation, behind only Alabama. “That is abysmal,” she said.

“Twelve years ago, when Fortune 500 companies were looking at where they would locate their businesses, this region was one of the top five or top three. Today, they say, ‘Don’t even show me the Atlanta region.’ That is not because we have a (transportation) problem,” she said, “because other places have the same problems. What they are disenchanted with is that we have no plan or vision to deal with the transportation problems.”

Scott said her goal is for MARTA to be the best transit system in the United States. “We need to move forward with a vision of what is the best we can be.”