A local state legislator recently returned from a business trip to Japan, where she brought back some ideas that could help expand and/or improve the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA).

District 52 State Rep. Deb Silcox, R-Sandy Springs, along with District 115 State Rep. Bruce Williamson, R-Monroe, visited the cities of Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kyoto Sept. 7 through 14 on an economic development journey paid for by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan.

“It was amazing,” Silcox, who represents parts of Buckhead and Sandy Springs, said of her first trip to the country.

MARTA effect

She said she was chosen for the visit because she is chair of the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Oversight Committee (MARTOC), a seven-member group comprised of state representatives and senators. The group has oversight regarding MARTA’s budget but doesn’t handle MARTA legislation or have the ability to vote at MARTA board meetings like its board members do.

Also, Takashi Shinozuka, consul general of Japan in Atlanta, lives in her district and his office is nearby in Buckhead.

Silcox said she and Williamson met with representatives of the Bureau Metropolitan Tokyo Transit Authority, which oversees its mass transit system. According to the CityLab news website, Tokyo has the world’s busiest transit system, with 3.46 billion riders annually, well ahead of Moscow (2.37 billion).

“Unlike (metro Atlanta), the train system in Tokyo has 40 million rides per day and 80% of the population takes transit every day,” Silcox said. “Because they have such a high percentage of people taking transit, the highways are busy but the traffic is not nearly as bad as it is here.”

She said she hopes MARTA will expand into Cobb and Gwinnett counties as part of the Atlanta-region Transit Link (The ATL), but it could take several years.

In March 54% of Gwinnett voters cast “no” ballots in a referendum on expansion that included a 1% sales tax to help pay for new transit projects. Cobb is considering holding a similar voter referendum on expansion but has not set a date yet, with plans to delay the vote as long as possible.

In the meantime, Silcox said she has another plan to help MARTA – doing away with its system of having riders pay a flat $2.50 fare for each one-way trip on its buses or trains.

“I think the biggest change I would love to see is for MARTA to use distance-based fares the way they do in Tokyo and in all the major systems in Washington, New York and other (U.S.) cities,” she said. “If you pay less to go one stop and more to go further stops, the system may be could be more profitable, and improve service delivery. That would be a huge improvement in our system.”

In a statement, a MARTA spokeswoman said the authority appreciates Silcox’s “ongoing commitment to improving public transportation and exploring innovative solutions to transit-related issues,” but it has “no immediate plans to restructure the fare system or increase fares.”

“MARTA conducted a comprehensive study in 2012 on the feasibility of implementing a distance-based fare structure on its rail and bus systems,” she said. “The study looked at pricing options based on trip distance, trip time, mode of service, special events and a combination of those variables. MARTA studied distance-based fare systems in San Francisco (BART) and Washington, D.C. (WMATA) and analyzed implementation cost, ease of use, revenue and ridership impacts, with special attention paid to the impact on minority, elderly, disabled and transit-dependent customers. The study also took into consideration the technological upgrades needed to support a fare re-structuring and integration of the fare structure into the transit systems of MARTA’s regional partners.

“The decision was made to maintain the existing fare structure, primarily due to implementation cost and the potential impact on low-income customers, with the recommendation to revisit the topic before the next proposed fare increase.”

Georgia-Japan trade

Silcox said another reason she and Williamson were invited to go to Japan was the country’s business alliances with the United States and Georgia.

“Of all the countries that deal with Georgia, Japan is its largest trading partner. They’ve invested over $12.2 billion in Georgia and thousands of jobs,” she said.

Walton County, where Williamson resides, is home to two plants owned by Tokyo-based corporations: Takeda, a pharmaceutical company, and Hitachi, an auto parts one.

“The neat thing is we have a program called Quick Start where (through the Technical College System of Georgia), at the state of Georgia’s expense, we train workers on their equipment so that when they finish the training, they can go straight into a full-time job,” Silcox said.

“The great thing about these jobs, for example with Hitachi, is they start at $60,000, which is a great starting salary. Particularly for a county like Walton County, which is not as urban as Fulton County, it’s a great opportunity for that area.”

She also said they met with representatives of Marubeni, a Tokyo-based trading company that has an office in southeast Cobb County. “They basically broker a lot of specialized equipment through other companies internationally,” Silcox said.

She said she and Williamson have been invited to the annual joint meeting of the Southeast U.S./Japan Association’s and the Japan-U.S. Southeast Association in Savannah Oct. 20 through 23, and likely will attend it.

South China Sea

Also on the trip, she said they learned about the decades-long dispute Japan and other countries have had over islands in the South China Sea, where sovereignty is uncertain. In that area China has staked a claim to and/or built on some of the Spratly, Paracel and Pratas islands in a highly sought-after trade thoroughfare that also includes oil and gas reserves under the sea’s floor.

The U.S. has sent planes and ships there to protect them as much as they can on behalf of their allies there, partly because Japan has not had its own army since it surrendered to the Allied forces at the end of World War II.

China and South Korea have been trying to claim some of these islands for themselves, and Japan really has no army to defend itself,” Silcox said.

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