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Lawrence J. Hanley Headshot

Atlanta Transit Bill Harkens Back to the Days of Jim Crow

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A lot of racial progress has been made in our country over the last 50 years for which we can be justly proud. One of the unfortunate by-products of success, however, is complacency, and those who resist change in the first place often take full advantage of that.

An example of this is taking place in Atlanta, the birthplace of the civil rights movement, where state legislators are pushing for a transit bill that would go a long way toward turning the clock back to the Jim Crow era. But as highlighted in a Associated Press article, instead of forcing African Americans to the back of the bus, the new legislation threatens to take the bus away altogether for many of Atlanta's working poor.

The measure introduced by State Rep. Mike Jacobs, R, would shift control of MARTA, Atlanta's public transportation system, away from the two county commissions that currently choose MARTA's 11-member board, to a broader group that includes the governor and the mayors of those counties. The change would give Republicans and white communities more control over a system with a 75-percent African-American ridership.

Privatization is insidious

All of this, however, is only meant to grease the skids toward Jacob's real objective -- privatization of mass transit in Atlanta. Privatization would require MARTA to outsource the operations of its system to the lowest private bidder -- most probably one of the two foreign multinational companies that run most of the private transit operations in the United States.

Privatization is insidious. It's always touted as a way to increase efficiency, save money and provide better service, but these assertions are just the bait used to get a contract.

The reality is a lot harsher. Private transit operators save money by firing workers, and cutting service and maintenance. Fares often increase too, effectively raising the taxes of the poor who rely on public transportation, while further lowering the taxes of the wealthy.

The result is cut routes (particularly in poor communities), less frequent service, poorly maintained vehicles, and higher fares. This hurts those who need transit the most - the poor, senior citizens, and persons with disabilities who rely on transit to get to and from work, school, the doctor and other critical daily tasks.

Transit employees suffer too. Good jobs are tossed out in favor of cuts in wages, benefits, holidays, vacation, health care, working conditions, and almost everything else that makes a job worthwhile.

Transit dollars line pockets of executives of foreign companies

Transit privatization can't simply be dismissed as an Atlanta problem. Jacobs is following a local variation of a script that is being played out in state houses and city councils around the United States in which a bill to privatize a transit system is pushed through a legislature faster than anyone thinks possible. Committees don't hold hearings, debate is blocked, and a vote is taken before most people even know about it.

Privatization not only suppresses the advancement of African-Americans, but it impoverishes communities by sending tax dollars allocated for U.S. transit to the foreign multinational corporations that run private transit in our country. Those are tax dollars that could have been spent here in America.

It's no secret that most of the poor in Atlanta are people of color who depend on mass transit to get to work, and that most of MARTA's employees are African-American. As such, transit privatization is racist because it makes it difficult if not impossible for the working poor to get to jobs that would lift them out of poverty. And in Atlanta it will force MARTA's mostly African American employees out of good middle-class jobs.

At its core, privatization is "separate and unequal," and a step back in the fight for racial and human justice for all. That is why we as MARTA workers are already joining with community groups like Georgians for Better Transit, the Georgia NAACP and the Georgia Federation for Blind to rally around this issue and organizing in the community to stop the bill and protest privatization.