MARTA debates fare-free transit


Alannah Edwards

While introducing free-fare poses a potential financial risk for MARTA, advocates of the policy argue that the reduced prices will increase usage of MARTA and encourage more Atlanta residents to use public transportation.

Alannah Edwards

Transit systems across the nation are debating whether to introduce fare-free transit. MARTA is heavily relied upon by many in the Midtown area, and is assessing whether the benefits of introducing fare-free transit would offset the costs that would be needed to cover the loss of revenue. 

MARTA fare is $2.50 for a one-way trip and varies based on which “Breeze Card,” a yearly pass ranging from one to two dollars, customers have. While removing the transit fee would have a negative financial impact on MARTA, the policy could generate benefits including a reduction in both car traffic and carbon emissions while providing greater access to public transportation for low-income residents. 

“Public transit is incredibly important as just a key piece of infrastructure for any community,” AP Economics teacher John Cowan said. “Transportation of any type increases productivity and economic growth. For those that will always use public transit regardless, going fare-free can be a nice financial break for those who may need it the most.”

Fare-free transit would allow more individuals to have access to MARTA, increasing its usage while providing efficient and affordable transportation. 

“From a purely economics point-of-view, lowering the price of anything should increase its consumption,” Cowan said. “This could obviously mean more people will make use of public transportation, which could have the positive effects of lowering traffic congestion.” 

MARTA’s accessibility would increase with fare-free transit, allowing students to take advantage of the transportation more regularly. 

“I ride the MARTA once a month, and I buy the three-dollar ticket which is pretty expensive given that it only takes you to one destination,” senior Neisha Ball said. “The Midtown MARTA location is close to a 10-minute walk from school, and by waiving the fee, students would be encouraged to take advantage of that.”

By encouraging residents to use public transportation, MARTA could also contribute to a decrease in traffic congestion and reduced carbon emissions. 

“I think if accessibility is what they are going for, removing the transit fee is the most direct way to do that,” Ball said. “It would be great for everyone and encourage more people to take public transportation. Less people would drive their cars, which is substantially better for the environment.”

The issue faced by MARTA and many public transportation systems like it is the immediate loss of revenue. In order to account for this lack of direct funding, the number of residents who ride MARTA would have to increase. 

“Our revenue loss during COVID-19 was massive, in billions,” Chief Financial Officer of MARTA Raj Srinath said. “The challenge is bringing riders back, taking all of the necessary precautions and providing safe, clean and reliable transportation services.” 

For some frequent MARTA users, the price wouldn’t impact the frequency of trips taken. 

I have been in Atlanta for two years and riding MARTA has been my main form of transportation my entire time living in the city,” Midtown resident Alex Philemon said. “For me, the price is reasonable, but if they are thinking about lowering the price or even making it free, I could put that money towards other things I need.”

A study commissioned by the Atlanta City Council was created to assess the conditions of public transport and evaluate the potential of free-fare transit. 

“The goal of the study is to see what the impacts are of free-fare and if it is feasible. It will look at impact revenue and how we make up for that,” Srinath said. “MARTA faces legislative barriers as well. There are certain stipulations about how our grants can’t go below a certain threshold.  The purpose of the study is to explore the issues and the impacts, after that decisions will be made based on that information.”

Srinath agrees that in theory, the removal of a transit fee would be beneficial, but is concerned about how MARTA will continue to allocate the funds necessary for satisfactory service. 

“In concept, free fare looks very good, but our mission is to provide public transportation in a safe manner and those things cost. How do we pay for employees’ living wages. Once we take a big hit, how do we sustain ourselves. More riders mean more expenses. Identifying the challenges and overcoming them is what we need to do,” Srinath said.

While the implications of such a decision may be financially risky for MARTA, the benefits that free-fare transit would provide to the public appear to be substantial. 

“If the goal of the program is to just ease the financial burden on individuals, then this works fine at that,” Cowan said. “We may not have the full benefit of fewer cars on the road if public transportation is still not accessible, practical and convenient enough to incentivize a change in behavior.”