Atlanta’s Transportation Mess Has a Long History

By Abbey Meller

Atlanta is at a crossroads in more ways than one. Both I-85 and I-20, the two busiest interstates in the Atlanta metro area, were damaged in the span of a few weeks. In the past six weeks, Atlanta has seen the infamous bridge fire on I-85, buckling roads on I-20, flooding off of I-285, and a giant sinkhole in midtown. This series of unfortunate events is indicative of much-needed repairs to Atlanta’s infrastructure.

In a southern city with such a deep-rooted attachment to cars, the interstate system was bound – eventually – to collapse. MARTA, the Atlanta rail and bus system, provides a great alternative for many commuters, but the system has faced unjustified prejudice due to its high Black ridership.

From the time that a 1971 referendum to expand the rail system failed to pass in two of Atlanta’s largely White suburbs, to the major infrastructure changes leading up to the 1996 Olympics, Atlanta’s infrastructure turned into a two-tiered system. This system consisted of “highways for the largely White suburbs and a chronically underfunded public transit system for people of color and low-income people.” While the highways were ripping through majority Black neighborhoods in the city, MARTA’s referendums failed because of a fear that it would allow Atlanta’s Black population to spread to the White suburbs.

Distrust and fear of public transportation, especially MARTA, historically has acted as a barrier to public support and funding for public transit. A poll conducted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2011 found that 42 percent of respondents believed that mass transit brings crime, and they therefore opposed funding for MARTA. Atlanta’s residents have historically voted against transportation referenda that would have provided resources for improving a promising yet underfunded public transit system. Recently, however, with changing demographics and perceptions of public transit, the city was able to pass a sales tax increase for transportation in 2015, and again in 2016.

Georgia officials have announced that I-85 will be re-opening this week – five weeks ahead of schedule. Besides major hikes in gas prices, which greatly affect Atlanta residents due to the strong and prevalent driving culture (86 percent of people drive to work, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission), this event has brought unprecedented ridership to the MARTA system. But it shouldn’t take a series of unfortunate infrastructure disasters for commuters to give MARTA a chance. MARTA is an important transit option for all, and shouldn’t be used only during unforeseen circumstances.

Abbey Meller is a field assistant at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund.