You’ve probably been hearing a lot about MARTA lately.
For the first time since the transit system was originally funded in 1971 by a referendum, Atlantans will have the chance to vote on a proposed half-penny sales tax increase that would provide $2.5 billion in funding the system over 40 years.
That is significantly less than the initial $8 billion proposal that caused urban and suburban lawmakers to do battle in what perhaps ranks as the most passionate debate EVER about MARTA.
For whatever reason, Atlantans have never really had a strong love affair the local transit system.
Remember 10 years ago when MARTA got rid of the metal tokens it had been using for almost 30 years and introduced Breeze cards? I didn’t think so. No one cared then, either.
In honor of possible new beginnings for MARTA, here is a look back the death of the MARTA token and the breakout moment of the Breeze card.
Swipe Out: Unmourned and uncollected, MARTA Tokens give way to card technology
(This story was originally published June 1, 2006)
First there is a clink, followed by a clunk, or possibly nothing.
At which point an expletive may be uttered, followed by a swift meeting of shoe leather against steel machinery or a sigh of defeat.
Even when it won’t get you a single ride, the MARTA token has the power to elicit emotion.
At least, it does for now.
After almost 30 years, the mash of mystery metals faces a fiery end, and Atlantans, it seems, couldn’t care less.
“They should have gotten rid of them a long time ago, ” said rider Al Adams, “The only time I ever used a token was if I found one.”
In a move that mirrors a number of major cities, including New York, Chicago and more recently Boston, MARTA — the nation’s ninth-largest transit system — is phasing out its tokens.
Breeze Cards, reusable electronic fare cards expected to eliminate up to $10 million in lost revenue each year, will sweep them out of rotation.
As of Tuesday, only 14 stations were still accepting tokens in fareboxes. The other 24 stations require tokens to be exchanged for a Breeze Card, which is then tapped on an electronic reader to open the entry gates.
While similar announcements have been known to set off collector frenzy in other cities, in Atlanta, the termination of the token has been met with as much fanfare as, ummm . . . Georgia Heritage Day.
“It is not that serious, ” said Johnny Darden, 26, when asked if he planned to hold on to a token or two for nostalgia’s sake.
“My dad keeps a jar of old coins from different countries. There might be a token in there, ” said Yournesha Swain, 22, of Decatur.
And that’s from commuters who claim to be fans of the token.
“Our customers want to be on the cutting edge, ” said Bob Thomas, director of revenue operations for MARTA. “They are tired of those tokens in their pockets. … It’s sort of like the dollar coin. The government has been minting them for a long time, but I don’t have one in my pocket.”
Heavy-duty MARTA rider Wendy Darling said the ambivalence toward the token has more to do with the city’s attitude about commuting.
“In general, people in Atlanta aren’t really into transit, ” said Darling, 31, a Web designer who lives and works downtown.
Since moving to the city in 1997, Darling is the odd Atlantan who has amassed an impressive collection of MARTA cards — 103 in all, including a 1997 and 2002 series on art in MARTA stations and the 1999 sequence on prominent Atlantans.
She keeps them wrapped in plastic and clamped in the back of a business card binder.
But tokens? Thanks, but no thanks.
“It’s not like New York where everyone is into transit . . . and [the token] is so nostalgic because it is such a ubiquitous life thing, ” Darling said.
In New York, where subways have been a city fixture since 1904, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority killed off tokens in 2003.
According to Mpire research, a company that tracks eBay sales, New York City dominates transit token auctions online.
In a recent 30-day period, 46 percent of the token auctions on the site were related to New York City subways. One set of 10 “rare New York City tokens” sold for $51.01.
Darling, a transplant from the Boston area, said that city is undergoing a token phase-out that began in March.
But unlike Atlanta, in Boston, home of the nation’s oldest subway system, the prospect of losing the token has at least generated some buzz.
In recent months, bunches of 50 “T” tokens have appeared on eBay, earning up to $61.01 for $62.50 worth of tokens (which can still be used for travel).
Atlanta does have a token history. As early as the 1870s, tokens were used for horse and cart rides. By 1923, the Atlanta Coach Co. was issuing trolley tokens.
Then, circa 1938, came the Georgia Power Co. tokens with a cutout “A” in the center.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s, just a few years after San Francisco’s BART system touched off a surge of interest in subways, that the modern-day MARTA token appeared.
The first was dime-sized, known as “.650, ” and cost 15 cents. It was made of brass and easily imitated.
“We started seeing other transit tokens in our rail system, ” Thomas said. New York subway tokens, ground-down coins and other fare box flotsam that gained free entry, led MARTA in 1992 to create a token made of a secret metallic formula that only works in MARTA boxes. By then, the fare was up to $1.25. With each fare increase — a total of nine from the start to the current $1.75 — MARTA lost money, Thomas said.
The new tokens would be revalued in the books, but MARTA only earned the extra cash on new tokens sold, not the millions still in rotation.
In part to recover lost revenue, MARTA began introducing special edition tokens.
There were the 400,000 Super Bowl XXVIII tokens issued in 1993; 100,000 each for the Peachtree Road Race and Paralympic Games in 1994, and for the 125th anniversary of Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus in 1995.
The last special edition tokens were the more than 300,000 issued in 1995 for the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Special-edition tokens were often purchased as souvenirs that would not be redeemed for rides, resulting in revenue for the transportation system.
From time to time, said Thomas, people still write in requesting the special tokens, and MARTA sells them to the public at face value.
Which is, according to collectors, all that Atlanta tokens will ever be worth, even after they are long gone.
“Collectors have all the modern Atlanta tokens, ” said John M. Coffee, editor of Fare Box, the official publication of the American Vecturist Association, a group of transit token collectors. “Once the several hundred collectors have them, they are nothing but metal.”
And a heck of a lot of metal at that. When the 7 million Marta tokens circulating are corralled into MARTA coffers, they will be sent to a vendor for a big meltdown.
The secret metal content will be separated and re-used, as it has in many other cities.
In Chicago, where the Transit Authority discontinued token use in 1999 after 50 years, 20 million obsolete tokens were sold as scrap metal, yielding $157,000 in revenue.
The agency retained 2,000 tokens, which were turned into commemorative jewelry, cufflinks, tie tacks, bracelets and necklaces, sold on the CTA Web site.
For the MARTA token, however, there will be no such fate. Just one final clink through a machine before they turn to molten metal and are possibly recycled into tokens for another city to discard.
TOKENS: GOING, GOING, GONE .
Transit tokens regularly appear on eBay. Here’s how MARTA tokens fared against those in other cities in a recent auction roundup:
Atlanta: A 1996 Olympic Summer Games commemorative MARTA token for $1.99.
Boston: A package of 50, still current, Boston “T” tokens at a starting bid of $9.95.
Chicago: A 1940 token from Chicago’s “L, ” the elevated train, offered for $9.99.
Toronto: One Toronto Transit Commission token for $12.99.
New York: A set of 10 different subway tokens dating from 1953 to 1995 for $49.95.