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MARTA’s COVID-19 bus plan goes to court

By David Wickert, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

(CNT) City News And Talk #atlanta-ga

A lawsuit seeking to restore dozens of MARTA bus routes suspended during the coronavirus pandemic got a day in court Thursday but no decision.

In April, the transit agency suspended 70 of its 110 routes and increased the frequency of service on most of the remaining routes. The goal was to reduce the number of passengers per bus on key routes and promote social distancing during the pandemic.

DeKalb County resident Ed Williams filed a lawsuit in the summer, saying MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker lacked the legal authority to make the move without approval of the agency’s board and without public hearings. On Thursday he asked Fulton County Superior Court Judge Shukura Ingram Millender to order MARTA to restore the suspended routes.

“It’s not about why they reduced routes,” Williams argued in an online court hearing. “It’s about how they did it.”

MARTA says Parker has the legal authority to temporarily suspend routes under state law and under agency bylaws. On Thursday, agency attorney A. Andre Hendrick argued that restoring the routes would jeopardize public health.

If Williams gets his way, “there is no way to know how many employees and members of the public will contract COVID,” Hendrick said.

The lawsuit is just part of the pushback to MARTA’s decision to curtail bus service amid the pandemic. Critics say the move has hurt residents who rely on public transportation to get around, including the elderly and those with low incomes. Protesters have also called on MARTA to restore the bus service.

MARTA has restored some routes. But it says it will take a significant improvement in pandemic conditions for the agency to safely restore all service. Nearly 240 MARTA employees have tested positive for COVID-19, and hundreds more who have come in contact with them have been quarantined.

“MARTA has spent an inordinate amount of time trying to serve as many people as it can while keeping its employees and the public safe,” Hendrick said at Thursday’s hearing. “It is running as many buses as it can, given the impact that COVID has had on its employees.”

Williams said the reasons for MARTA’s actions are irrelevant. In the lawsuit, he says the state law governing MARTA requires decisions about bus routes, fares and schedules to be made by the agency’s board of directors — and only after input from the public.

“It is not an academic exercise to make sure that MARTA, the MARTA CEO and the MARTA counsel follow the law,” he said.

Williams has asked the court to rule on a motion for partial summary judgment in the case. Millender said she will take Thursday’s arguments under advisement and issue a written ruling.