MARTA gets $285.7 million in federal COVID-19 aid

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MARTA plans to scale back its bus service beginning Dec. 18 amid a shortage of bus drivers. (AJC file photo by CHRISTINA MATACOTTA)

By David Wickert

MARTA will get $285.7 million in federal aid from the COVID-19 relief package that Congress approved in March.

The $1.9 trillion relief bill includes $30.5 billion to support public transportation amid the coronavirus pandemic. MARTA’s share was slightly more than $284 million the agency estimated when the bill passed.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday that the money will help MARTA “become a driver for equity and opportunity.”

The aid comes as MARTA and other transit agencies have seen decreased ridership and increased expenses during the pandemic. Agencies increased spending on cleaning and other public health measures, even as fare revenue plummeted.

MARTA is using hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to balance its budget until ridership recovers. Pandemic relief accounts for 20% of its budgeted revenue this year.

Local transit agencies have benefited from three rounds of federal aid since the pandemic began. But MARTA has struggled to maintain full service.

At the height of the pandemic, MARTA eliminated most of its bus routes so it could provide more frequent service on its busiest routes and encourage social distancing. MARTA restored full bus service in the spring.

But on Dec. 18 the agency will reduce the frequency of most of its bus routes indefinitely because of a shortage of bus drivers. More than 900 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, and absenteeism has taken a toll on bus staffing.

On Thursday, CEO Jeffrey Parker told the MARTA board of directors that 73% of the agency’s 4,300 employees are vaccinated. That’s a big increase from September, when just 48% of employees were vaccinated.

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