Recent news of an attack by a horde of gang members against two Delta Air Lines employees on a late night MARTA train has prompted renewed interest in the issue of public safety on MARTA. The attack also has prompted me, as chairman of MARTOC, the joint legislative committee that oversees MARTA, to delve into the issue.
Over the next few months, MARTOC will be looking for ways that we can make the experience of using MARTA better for its customers. One of the key areas on which we will focus is public safety. I strongly believe that we will see more people choose to ride MARTA if they perceive the system as clean and safe.
Deterrence is essential to enhancing safety for MARTA customers. MARTA police are aggressively pursuing the gang members who perpetrated the attack against the Delta employees and have arrested seven of the perpetrators as of the time I write this column. This effort is commendable, but after-the-fact arrests and prosecutions are not sufficient to provide the level of deterrence that is necessary to significantly improve safety on MARTA.
I held a MARTOC meeting on the public safety issue on Tuesday, May 3. In their presentation, MARTA officials informed the committee that they are in the process of installing closed circuit cameras on every bus and train car in the system. With respect to buses, this project is expected to be completed by the end of 2014. It will take somewhat longer to outfit all trains with closed circuit technology. The price tag to outfit all MARTA vehicles with closed circuit cameras is expected to be $15 million with annual operating costs of $2 million.
This is a significant step in the right direction, but closed circuit cameras are only as good as the human eyes that monitor them. A more significant step to improve deterrence would be to increase the number of uniformed police officers who are present on trains and buses. MARTA is now taking steps to place uniformed officers on 60 percent of evening trains. The closer we get to 100 percent coverage — both during the evening and daytime, and particularly on trains — the better.
Some of my constituents have noted that there was a time in the past that it seemed routine to see a uniformed MARTA police officer on every train, walking the train from front to back, back to front, and then back again. These days it seems that sightings of uniformed MARTA officers on trains are less frequent.
One project that MARTOC is undertaking this year, prior to the 2012 legislative session, is a comprehensive review of the MARTA Act. This is the 1960s state law that created MARTA. In the MARTA Act, there is a restriction that 50 percent of MARTA’s revenues must be used for operations and the other 50 percent for capital and infrastructure. This is known as the “50-50 split,” and it is a restriction that MARTA has long asked the General Assembly to repeal.
If the General Assembly decides to repeal the 50-50 split, it would not happen without replacing it with some specific requirements on MARTA’s operations in particular areas. One of these areas is almost certain to be public safety.
We might mandate that more uniformed officers be deployed on trains and buses. We might require that the closed circuit cameras be operated in such a way that they are more interactive, rather than simply appearing to the public as fixed objects for which it is not apparent whether or not they are manned.
Any public safety requirements added to the MARTA Act will be aimed at stronger deterrence. In the May 3rd hearing, MARTA informed us that the number of serious crimes within the MARTA system such as robberies, aggravated assaults, auto thefts, rapes, and burglaries have been reduced from 540 in FY 2006 to 418 in FY 2010.
This downward statistical trend is a good thing, but we will not have fully addressed the issue of public safety on MARTA until deterrent measures are adopted to make riders feel safer.
On a final note, MARTA informed us that they will have a police officer walk you to your car during the evening if you pick up a blue or white telephone located at a station. I am passing this information along to you, in case you might need to make use of this service in the future.