After years of service cuts and fare hikes, MARTA is profitable again and planning to reinvest in beefed up rail service.
More trains could be running on weekdays during rush hour and on weekends as early as December. MARTA has set a Sept. 19 public hearing on that proposal.
The improvements proposed to a MARTA planning committee on Monday would add service on all four lines on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Trains on the Red and Gold Lines, which extend to North Springs and to Doraville respectively, would run every 10 minutes instead of every 15 as they do now. That means where the trains share a line from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport north to Lindbergh Center Station, trains would run every five minutes during those times.
Likewise on the Blue and Green Lines, which run to Hamilton E. Holmes and Bankhead Stations respectively, rush-hour service would be every 10 minutes instead of 15. And where the lines share tracks, from Ashby east to Candler Park Station, trains would run every 5 minutes during those times.
Late-night service would be added for the Red Line to North Springs. Train service would continue all the way to the airport from North Springs until 9 p.m., instead of 7 p.m. That means people riding in either direction between the airport and North Springs would no longer have to exit at Lindbergh after 7 p.m.
On the Green line, trains during the middle of the day would run all the way to Candler Park, instead of stopping at King Memorial.
MARTA general manager Keith Parker said Monday that the addition of late-night service from North Springs could probably be implemented by December. However, the other changes may have to be phased in early next year since they involve hiring and training new train operators.
The proposed service additions are estimated to cost about $1 million per year. But the transit system can afford it because the agency's books are out of the red for the first time in seven years. Revenues exceeded expenditures by about $7.5 million last fiscal year.
Officials had budgeted for a $33 million loss, but wound up adding $9 million to MARTA's general fund, Parker said.
The agency's newfound solvency was achieved in part by eliminating some positions in the information technology department, nixing four vice president positions and doing away with some of their support staffers, Parker said.
There are still concerns about the agency's long-term debt, and that's a challenge that won't be overcome as quickly, said MARTA's chief financial officer Gordon Hutchinson.
Despite the encouraging news that service additions are on the horizon, the transit system is still bleeding riders after more than four years of service cuts and fare increases in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
In fact, MARTA rail and bus ridership declined from 156 million trips in mid-2009 to 130 million trips in mid-2013, a drop of 26 million.
Officials hope restoring some targeted services will be the carrot some riders need get back on board.
"We see ridership declining so significantly that we think these moves are necessary," Parker said. "We're hopeful this will create a new positive conversation about MARTA."
Tom Woodward is president of the Lindbergh LaVista Corridor Coalition, a nonprofit made up of residents, business owners, and property owners in northeast Atlanta. He had not heard about the proposal, but he welcomed the suggested changes.
"I am glad to hear that they can even look at options and that they're financially doing better," Woodward said. "I think MARTA being a big agency is probably capable of spending some money unwisely, so it's good to know they can look at every penny they can spend or save and make a better return and improve customer loyalty."
Also on Monday, the MARTA Board took another step to boost its image by addressing safety. As expected, the board approved a new code of conduct that allows MARTA Police to suspend unruly passengers from using the transit system for offenses such as spitting, playing music too loud, panhandling, soliciting, eating or drinking. Suspensions can range from one day up to a year, and even a permanent ban in certain cases where someone commits a felony that causes physical harm to another person.