By John Schaffner

Failure to keep pace with the Atlanta area’s growth has driven MARTA to a crisis, said 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 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.”

Thus, the MARTA rail system’s Northeast line runs for only two stops beyond the Brookhaven/Oglethorpe station, ending at Doraville, despite the rapid growth into Gwinnett County along I-85.

Both BART and Metro have gotten $2 billion more than MARTA “because they kept building, and we stopped,” 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.”

But MARTA faces a financial crisis. The agency cut $11 million in operational spending in late 2008 to stem a projected $60 million shortfall in the current fiscal year, which runs through June 30. New projections last month pushed the deficit back up to $57 million.

Long term, the Georgia State Economic Forecasting Center predicts 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.

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 service, shrinking the bus service, and shortening the rail service day. MARTA also hopes for relief from the General Assembly or Congress.

Scott has led MARTA for less than a year and a half. She was drawn by potential. “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.”