Being a stubborn ass, I couldn't just take Joel's word for it. So I did some research. I should note, that I am NOT a policy expert, or even trained in this stuff in any way. I am just a layman taking a look at raw numbers to try and make sense of it all, because I find what gets reported in the AJC to be lacking (not a dig at the AJC, this sort of thing would bore the crap out of their readers).
Here is what I found on the National Transit Database for 2007 for MARTA. All of these numbers are in the thousands, btw (except for the number of vehicles).
What does that mean? It costs about the same to operate the bus lines and the rail lines, and the rail lines carry more than twice as many passengers. You can see the expense comparisons per vehicle, mile, and passenger mile here:
So Joel's basic point, that it cost less to operate heavy rail per passenger mile, is by far correct. It is in fact 1/3 as expensive.
However, in my defense, I'd like to point out that per vehicle, it is more expensive to operate rail. I have no idea how many vehicles run on a line, but for arguments sake, lets say we are talking about a quarter of the vehicles (let's say we are talking about the entire rail line from Five Points going west).
Vehicles Cut Expenses Saved
RAIL 46 $ 42,907
BUS 120 $ 42,907
You would have to cut almost three times as many buses (or about 23% of the total bus lines) to save as much money. Joel is dead right that in terms of passenger miles, cutting rail would be far worse than because each rail car carries so many more passengers than a bus. Still, I at least had a something that I was right about.
Still, part of what makes MARTA work is that the buses provide a much larger network of service - I know that James, for example, takes two buses and a train to get to work. When I commuted to GSU, I took the #16 Noble.
Trains are the workhorse of the system, but the buses act as feeders. The numbers above are for passenger miles - if I take the bus 1 mile to the station, and then take the station 5 miles to somewhere else, the train counts 5 times the passenger miles. But if you cut my bus route, I can't take the train period. I don't think it is quite as simple as it appears.
Cutting the buses would make sense financially, but how many people lose complete access to transit? Sure, as Joel says, it is a political decision, but it matters. In raw numbers, it makes sense to cut bus service, but the "political" price is denying huge swaths of the city any access to transit.
At the end of the day, this still comes down to a broken funding mechanism. As much as Jill Chambers still wants to make political hay out of MARTA (and it has worked for her so far), I don't think this is a mis-management issue.