By Jody Steinberg

“MARTA is facing a severe and substantial financial crisis, but we’ve managed to put off the day of reckoning for another year,” Davis Allen, MARTA assistant general manager of finance, said last week at a public hearing at the North Fulton Service Center in Sandy Springs.

Davis introduced MARTA’s proposed fiscal 2010 budget, which goes into effect July 1 and includes plans to modify or eliminate routes, decrease the number of buses and trains, and increase fares. Some service cuts were avoided in the final budget, approved June 22, but rate increases and route changes will go into effect.

“Fares are going up, and service is going down. I’m just a working stiff riding MARTA every day. This doesn’t benefit me, my constituents, clients or co-workers,” said Debra Thompson, who works at the North DeKalb Health Department on Clairmont Road.

The MARTA cuts, which affect Sandy Springs, Buckhead and Brookhaven buses and rail stations, come in response to a severe drop in the Fulton and DeKalb sales taxes that subsidize public transit.

While the crowd was sparse in Sandy Springs, where eight people spoke, a simultaneous hearing at Atlanta City Hall drew more than 100 people and 56 speakers. Two other hearings and weeks of public comment made an impression: The MARTA board nixed plans to end rail service at midnight and preserved some of the routes originally on the chopping block, including 19 (Clairmont Road), 139 (Lenox) and 70 (Chamblee). So trains will keep running until 1 a.m.

The routes being reduced Aug. 15 include buses serving North Druid Hills Road in Brookhaven, Peachtree Road in Buckhead and the hospitals in Sandy Springs.

Effective Oct. 1, fares for bus and rail passengers will increase from $1.75 to $2 per ride, and the fee for long-term parking will rise by $1. At the Brookhaven/Oglethorpe and Lenox stations, where long-term parkers pay at entry, the fee will be $5. At Dunwoody and Sandy Springs, the fee will be $5 per day. At North Springs and Lindbergh, it will be $8 per day.

The last fare increase was in 2001.

“Public transportation is a human right, and we oppose all cuts and all service reductions,” said Terrance Courtney from Atlanta Jobs for Justice, who spoke at the hearings and the MARTA board meeting June 22. “It won’t solve the problems.”

MARTA officials blamed the General Assembly for the financial woes. During the spring legislative session, MARTA threatened service cuts if it didn’t get more control over a reserve fund earmarked for capital expenditures.

“The future of quality public transportation in our region is at a critical junction because of inflexible and outmoded legislative restrictions on sales tax revenues and inaction from the state,” Allen said.

The approved fiscal 2010 MARTA budget is $787.6 million: $399.1 million for operations and $388.5 million in capital expenses, including $134 million for debt service.

The Atlanta Regional Commission gave MARTA a one-time, $25 million grant from federal stimulus funds, and the transit agency tapped operating reserves to fill its shortfall.