ATLANTA - MARTA riders may not know it, but driving a bus or carrying a badge for MARTA can pay off big.
A Channel 2 Action News investigation found bus drivers and MARTA police officers who make nearly as much as Georgia's governor.
Investigative reporter Aaron Diamant showed some of the numbers to MARTA bus riders.
"I need to become a bus driver," MARTA passenger Alan Clark joked.
Diamant spent weeks crunching the numbers from MARTA payroll records he got through open records requests.
Between January 2010 and September 2012, MARTA paid its top earning driver $252,807.49,
$108,997.24 of that was base salary. The rest came from overtime 4,269 hours of overtime -- as much as 82 hours in a single pay period.
Diamant found at least 10 drivers who doubled their salaries or better by racking up thousands of hours in overtime each.
In all, in 2010 and 2011, MARTA paid its drivers $16,031,162.85 in overtime.
"It absolutely is from a dollars and cents perspective, a problem for the taxpayers," State Rep. Mike Jacobs told Diamant.
After seeing our numbers, Jacobs, who chairs the MARTA Oversight Committee, put MARTA's leaders on notice.
"I think MARTA needs to come in and justify what it's doing," Jacobs said.
Experts said it is not just the money that is a problem.
"We're all at risk," Georgia State University sleep medicine specialist Dr. Michael Decker told Diamant.
He's worried about the fatigue factor.
"They're at such a high risk for impaired decision making, poor responsiveness to quick changes in their environment. They are at risk for accidents," said Decker.
Diamant took those concerns to the head of MARTA's bus operations, Mary Ann Jackson.
"My issue is not who gets the overtime. My issue is that we would be better off with a lot less overtime, and the key to that is being fully staffed," Jackson said.
Jackson admits she's about 35 drivers short. She said recruiting and training new ones takes time.
"In some ways our hands are tied," Jackson said.
Overtime is already built in to many shifts, and a union contract mandates senior drivers get first priority to claim extra overtime.
Diamant found it's not just the bus drivers cashing in. Plenty of MARTA's police officers are pulling down some big paychecks.
Between January 2010 and September 2012, MARTA's highest paid officer took in, with overtime, $364,249.21. At least a dozen more officers were not far behind.
Diamant sat down with MARTA Police Chief Wanda Dunham to find out how officers can make so much money.
"Well, I mean, the overtime is available," Dunham said.
Dunham blamed a perfect storm -- a rash of high profile violent crimes, sinking public opinion, and a federal counter terrorism campaign that forced her to keep more cops on the clock.
"Our resources were already stretched to the max," Dunham said.
The records Diamant dug through show some officers have put in more than 100 of overtime in a single pay period, over and over again.
"These officers are productive. They are still making cases. They're still doing their patrol. They don't call in sick, and so they're coming to work," Dunham said.
But with little margin for error, Decker warns the cost of working too much may be too high.
"Individuals who are chronically sleep deprived can be as impaired as an individual who is legally drunk," Decker said.
MARTA said there are policies in place that limit how long a bus driver can work. But federal laws that limit hours on the road for private motor coaches and school bus drivers do not apply to transit workers.
MARTA's police chief said she recently took steps to cut down on officer overtime -- at around the same time Diamant first requested to look at overtime records.