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Jimmy Carter: A MARTA Supporter from the Start

Special from MARTA

How many public transit agencies have a close connection with a U.S. President?

Jimmy Carter voted to create the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) while he was a Georgia state senator, believing that the agency would “transform” the Atlanta region, and he continued to encourage it through its early years during his term as governor, 1971-75. During Carter’s tenure as president, he supported funding for public transportation.

As part of MARTA’s 35th-anniversary celebration, MARTA General Manager and Chief Executive Officer Keith T. Parker sat down with Carter for a one-on-one interview at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

“Sitting down with President Carter as part of MARTA’s 35th Anniversary and listening to him speak so passionately and vividly about the importance of mass transit to the growth and quality of life in the Atlanta region was a one-of-a-kind opportunity,” said Parker. “We had a great conversation and our interview was one of the highlights of my time here at MARTA.” 

Here are excerpts from that interview:

In the Beginning
The original “dream,” [Carter] said, was for MARTA to be a comprehensive metropolitan transportation system serving the city of Atlanta and the five counties that then made up the metropolitan area: Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett. That was the system he voted for when the Georgia General Assembly first approved it in 1965. That same year, however, Cobb County voters passed a referendum in which they declined to participate in the system. MARTA’s prospects were dealt a second blow in 1968 when a referendum to fund the system based on property tax financing also failed.

“When I became governor in 1971, I was quite interested in saving what I could of the original MARTA dream,” said Carter, recalling the eroding suburban support for the system and the delicate negotiations that were taking place to finance it. “Sam Massell was mayor (of Atlanta), and Sam came to me and asked if I would support a 1 percent sales tax (to fund MARTA). At that time, a separate sales tax for local governments had never been heard of in Georgia. It was the first time. But, I agreed with him, because it was almost impossible to get the rural members of the state Legislature to approve an overall tax to pay for a transportation system just in (several) counties.” …

Carter’s fears were realized in November of 1971 when Clayton and Gwinnett overwhelmingly voted against a 1 percent local sales tax to join MARTA. The city of Atlanta and DeKalb and Fulton counties voted for the tax, which enabled the agency for the first time to begin purchasing trains and the buses, Carter said.

In February of 1972, with only two of the original five counties and the city as members of the system, MARTA completed its purchase of the existing, bus-only Atlanta Transit Company. The bus fare, as longtime commuters will remember, was just 15 cents. It would be another seven years before the rail component of the original rapid transit system was initiated.

You Can’t Stop a Train
Since then, MARTA has become a catalyst for Atlanta’s staggering population and business growth. The transit system has also helped the Atlanta region become a top relocation destination for Fortune 500 companies, was instrumental in the city’s selection as the host for the 1996 Olympics, and cemented its status as an international city. Recently, there has been burgeoning interest in Clayton County in putting MARTA back on the ballot.

None of this surprises Carter. “It’s obvious to me that any major location for many employees can be greatly enhanced in its attractiveness if you have a rapid transit system providing service so people can go to work without having to drive a car,” he said. “It’s just as a matter of principle all over the United States.” …

Carter said metro Atlanta has an opportunity to catch up with the rest of the world and other parts of the nation that are investing in high-speed rail and rapid transit. Given the growing concerns about global warming, rising gasoline prices, and mounting frustrations with traffic congestion, Carter predicts the state and region will inevitably embrace rail transportation to move large numbers of people quickly and efficiently.

“I don’t think there is any doubt that to bring the metropolitan area of Atlanta, which encompasses almost two-thirds of the people in our state, into a cohesive group, not just for a job enhancement but for community spirit, cooperation, mutual respect, equality of opportunity, and attractiveness of ­Georgia to foreign and domestic investors, that a rapid transit system is one of the best things to have,” he said.

Another long-standing challenge that Carter believes is fading away is the federal government’s heavy emphasis on funding road transportation while starving mass transit, which he considers counter-productive.

“Even if you put 10 or 11 lanes in the heart of Atlanta, within a few years it’s going to be jammed up again every time you have a bunch of workers going to or from their jobs,” he said. “So I think there is a general trend and a general realization in America that rail transportation is by far the most efficient and the best way to attract industry to invest in a community and get people to and from work.”

Millennials, MARTA, and A New Day
The millennials—the generation born between 1980 to 2000—will drive these changes, Carter believes. … Millennials are growing up in an America with a very different view of energy and transportation than their parents had when MARTA was first launched as a combined bus and rail system in 1979. …

Those attitudes have shifted dramatically as younger people are more inclined to using mass transit or other modes and are forgoing automobile ownership. … “I think it’s becoming more apparent to the people in Atlanta, as it already has to people who live in downtown New York, that we don’t need to own an automobile.”…

“I think it’s a propitious time, a good time,” he continued, “for another effort to be made to expand the system. I don’t have any doubt, with those five counties working together and with the city of Atlanta, of course, that the original dream of MARTA can be implemented in the future.”

This article is excerpted with permission from a special publication issued by MARTA to commemorate its 35th anniversary.

Former President Jimmy Carter and MARTA GM Keith Parker discuss MARTA's past, present, and future in a rare face-to-face conversation that marks the agency's 35th anniversary.

Photo courtesy of MARTA

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