MARTA is the only major heavy-rail system in America built after World War II that does not use distance-based fares. Rail systems in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. charge their customers based on how far they are traveling. Today, MARTA should be looking to enact distance-based fares on rail, as well as on bus rapid transit (BRT) and express buses.
For example, passengers on MARTA’s BRT system currently pay a flat fare no matter how far they are going. So, passengers traveling on Route 520 from Mountain Industrial Boulevard and E. Ponce De Leon Avenue to Kensington Station pay $2.50 to travel seven miles. Passengers traveling from Memorial Drive at Georgia Perimeter’s Clarkston Campus to Kensington Station pay the same price, $2.50, to go two miles.
If you were going to make those trips by car, the federal government’s reimbursement rates for traveling the seven miles from Mountain Industrial to Kensington would be $3.92. The reimbursement rate for traveling from Georgia Perimeter to Kensington would be $1.12.
Those rates reveal how MARTA’s current fare policy is in conflict with the region’s transit goals. Atlanta has been trying to encourage people to use transit for short trips. But why take transit when the fare system makes driving cheaper and discourages short transit trips?
Similarly, many Atlanta planners want people to live closer to where they work, but the flat fare system encourages transit users to live far away from their jobs because long-distance bus riders don’t have to pay the full costs of their transit trips.
So how would MARTA’s BRT service differ with distance-based fares?
Using a rate of $0.56 per mile on MARTA’s 520 BRT, the fare from Mountain Industrial to Kensington would be $4. The trip from Hambrick Road to Kensington would cost $2, and from Georgia Perimeter to Kensington, $1.20.
GRTA’s Xpress has already implemented a two-zone fare structure. Green Zone users pay $3 each way, while Blue Zone customers pay $4 each way. But under a distance-based fare system, customers would see some changes. Let’s use Xpress Route No. 400 as an example. Since this route is on a freeway, we will use a rate of $0.25 per mile.
Customers traveling from Cumming to the North Springs MARTA station would pay $5.40; to Midtown, $8.75; and to downtown Atlanta, $9.
This is obviously an increase from current rates, but these higher rates could be used to run more buses more often, which would reduce wait times and increase the efficiency and reliability of bus travel. And to ensure low-income individuals aren’t priced out of the bus system, transit vouchers should be provided to those in financial need.
MARTA should be looking at distance-based fares as one of the ways to give riders incentives to use transit for short trips and make the fare system more equitable as long-distance users pay fares that more accurately reflect their costs.