Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Transit systems shouldn't be in the tourist business

Atlanta GA - The Atlanta Journal Constitution* reported on the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) and the struggling tourist bus operation that they run.

MARTA's two route shuttle service, introduced last spring, has been struggling since its inception. The problem? MARTA runs standard city style buses with appliqu├ęs to distinguish the bus from a regular route on the lines rather than cutesy motorized trolley style buses that tourists want.

Now MARTA is trying to save the money losing shuttles by proposing that they partner with Central Atlanta Progress, a local downtown business group partnership, which has been working on starting its own shuttle service.

The shuttle services connect many of the tourist attraction in the Atlanta area. The fare is $1.75 which is the same fare as regular route MARTA buses.

First off, MARTA shouldn't be running "tourist" buses. Yes, they are a transportation agency however these shuttles are a specialized service which A. is losing a lot of money, B. is not even remotely close to its ridership projections, C. requires specialized equipment if the line is to even stand a chance at succeeding and finally D. such a line can be run by a private entity.

Looking at the four points which I listed, it is clear that this service needs to be eliminated from MARTA's direct control. MARTA, like all transit systems in the United States, is screaming over insufficient operating funding. To hang onto these shuttle routes strictly to promote tourism in the city is a bonehead move.

MARTA estimated that the two shuttle routes that run every 30 minutes from 8 AM to 8 PM would carry 1300 people a day. A recent ridership count showed only 338 per day on average. Almost 1,000 people a day short of projections.

Tourists as well as city politicians have been complaining that they were disappointed having the bus looking like a regular bus. They wanted something along the lines of a "charming sight-seeing bus". City council has blasted the service as "poorly conceived and executed."

Given the fact that a downtown business group was planning its own shuttle, MARTA needs to just let them do it. They could run the line far cheaper than MARTA however MARTA is determined to save their shuttle routes.

This type of specialized "tourist" service is best left in the hands of groups like Central Atlanta Progress. The problem is MARTA doesn't want to give up control since they were the ones that dreamed up the service and have already invested heavily in the shuttle lines.

MARTA avoided a possible lawsuit from private charter companies since they purchased 30 foot Opus transit coaches rather than the cutesy trolley style buses for this shuttle line. Setting it up as a bus route rather than a tourist line, MARTA was able to side step Federal regulations regarding providing specialized services which a private carrier was able to do. MARTA did this strictly because they wanted control over the shuttle lines.

MARTA gets the Lance for trying to hang onto these failing shuttle lines. It is costing them money daily and providing no real service.

* The AJC site requires you to be registered to view the item. Try using this link from Google to the AJC story if you can't see the story directly from the AJC link provided at the top of the story.

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