Making Transit Work Across Georgia
As Investment in and Support of MARTA Grows, State Leaders Look at Plans for a Cohesive Regional System
By Allison Floyd
Rhonda Briggins watches how her 34-year-old niece gets around town and knows that public transit will soon become a more critical part of Georgia’s transportation system.
“She takes two buses and a train to get to work. She gets up at 6 a.m., rides the buses and train and thinks nothing of it because it is her way of life,” Briggins says.
Her niece – a young professional with a Ph.D. – could easily afford to buy a car, but prefers transit for her daily commute and to run errands. “It is not a trend for her; it is her lifestyle. And, I think, it is the lifestyle of a lot of millennials,” adds Briggins, who serves as the Senior Director of External Affairs for MARTA, as well as President of the Georgia Transit Association.
Briggins is right; support for MARTA has swelled over the past few years as teens wait longer to begin to drive, young office workers seek transportation alternatives and seniors stay active but no longer want to be behind the wheel. MARTA carries more than 500,000 riders a day on its 338 rail cars and 550 buses across Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties.
Still, many were surprised at the resounding support transit received when Atlanta voters were asked in November whether to tax themselves to pay for improvements and expansion of the system. The question of whether to add .5 percent to the sales tax for MARTA passed by more than 71 percent citywide and by nearly 80 percent in DeKalb precincts.
“We were pleased with the results,” says MARTA CEO Keith T. Parker. “We won every precinct and had the highest success rate of any transit initiative on the ballot across the country. Some people tend to stereotype transit as just a coalition of people who can’t afford cars. Instead, it was a diverse group of citizens from diverse backgrounds coming together to do something they thought would be quite meaningful to the region. That was gratifying to see just how deep the support was.”
MARTA Board Chairman Robert L. Ashe III says the margin of the win shows how much Atlantans want transit and trust MARTA’s reputation. “I’ve lived in Atlanta my whole life and the appetite for transit here in the city is as strong as I’ve ever seen it,” says Ashe, an attorney at Bondurant Mixson & Elmore.
By holding information sessions and paying attention to rider feedback, MARTA pieced together an impressive coalition, drawing support from organizations spanning the Sierra Club to the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.
Sales tax collection that began this spring will soon result in more sidewalks, train stations and in-town buses, as well as smart, synchronized traffic lights that can sense the speed and flow of cars.
The investment will come from two separate sales taxes tacked on to Atlanta’s previous eight percent tax (now 8.9 percent). The first will bring in about $300 million over five years through a 0.4 percent tax for City of Atlanta transportation improvements. A chunk of the money – $66 million – would go to buy right of way for the BeltLine, closing the 22-mile loop. The rest is targeted toward more traditional street-focused projects, including:
- $75 million for 15 Complete Streets projects
- $3 million for Phase 2 of Atlanta’s Relay Bike Share program
- $69 million for pedestrian improvements in sidewalks
- $40 million for traffic signal optimization
The other tax – a 0.5 percent issue – will bring in $2.5 billion over 40 years for transit expansion and enhancements in the city.
MARTA began to increase hours on some bus lines within a few weeks of the referendum, though tax collection did not begin until March. Planning light rail on the BeltLine starts soon, as well as implementing a plan to add infill stops along existing rail lines.
The project that may draw the earliest attention is the rehab of the MARTA station at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. While MARTA overhauls the station, airport officials have agreed to improve signage to the station and airlines will promote MARTA, introducing passengers to the transit system before they collect their bags.
“The second you get off the plane, you will see the way to the MARTA station,” Parker says. He wants to world to know that MARTA can get you from the airport to downtown Atlanta in 16 minutes (the best time in the country, he adds).
MAKING A CONNECTION
Now advocates hope the energy and enthusiasm generated by transit growth in Atlanta will continue to spread to surrounding metro counties where elected officials are seeing alternative transportation as an economic development tool. In Cobb County, for example, which rejected MARTA decades ago, CobbLinc buses travel outside the county to connect with MARTA, taking commuters to and from work, especially given the developments around the new SunTrust Park and Battery Atlanta.
Similarly, in nearby Gwinnett County, which is expected to become the most populous Georgia county by 2040, leaders have begun to discuss rail as a traffic solution for the future. The county currently has an ongoing Comprehensive Transit Development Plan, and in March, commissioners took a step forward, voting to hire Kimley-Horn to conduct a study and offer short to long-term recommendations on various transit options.
But while Cobb and Gwinnett County both have their own respective systems that connect with MARTA, all the entities operate independently. Back in 2011, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal appointed a task force to work on legislation that would knit together the disparate systems across metro Atlanta and create a governance system for a regional transit network. In the 2017 legislative session, both the state House and Senate took up bills to work toward that goal. The bill to create a House commission passed 166-1, while a similar bill gained unanimous support in the Senate. (Legislators ran out of time to get a single bill through both houses, and the House proceeded with a House-led committee.)
“Transit is becoming more and more important to Georgia’s future,” House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) said in a May statement as he appointed members to the new commission on transit governance. “From congestion relief to economic development, a robust transit network across our state will have long-term benefits for our citizens. Situations like the recent I-85 rebuild have clearly demonstrated the importance of transit to our state and its economy. The House is proud to lead on this initiative to develop actionable, meaningful solutions.”
The newly formed committee – the House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding – will make recommendations to House leaders on how transit can benefit not only Atlanta, but also local and regional economies outside the core of the city.
When people talk about transit, they often start with heavy rail, but commission Chairman Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville) sees many more components to a regional or statewide network of systems. “Transit encompasses so much more than just that, from the express lanes that we are building with the state Department of Transportation to express buses to light rail – it’s all important for us to look at,” he says.
The commission ultimately could recommend that the state dedicate funding for a regional transit system and establish an authority to govern it. To get to that recommendation, though, the group is considering workforce development and technical education across the state, finding the intersection of mobility and access to jobs. Transit leaders are working with technical school administrators to plan for the workforce that an expanded transit network will need, Briggins says.
The six House members appointed to the commission come from across the state: Cartersville, Dawsonville, Decatur, Dunwoody, Columbus and Lakeland. The Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation, Russell McMurry, serves as an ex-officio member, along with Parker and Chris Tomlinson, the Executive Director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) and State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA).
“Many of the folks on the commission have been at the table for a number of years looking at this issue. It gives us a great opportunity to continue to do the work many of them have started in the past,” Briggins says. Tanner is also urging commission members to think about what is best for the overall transit system, not just advocate for their particular region or service.
The commission held its first meeting at the end of June to begin to delve into the history and current status of transit in Georgia. “I try to be a very deliberate legislator,” Tanner says. “I’ve started to have meetings with individual experts to get background and ask their opinions, but as I sit here today, I don’t have all the answers.”
FIGURING OUT TRANSIT’S FUTURE
According to Senator Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta), Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, transit is an economic development factor, with proximity to talent driving decisions by corporations. “I’m glad people are talking about transit,” he says. “Now people realize it’s an important issue.”
Residents in different areas of the state may have different needs from a transit system, but the issues of mobility and connectivity concern people in all communities, Tanner says. As the House Rural Development Council, which was formed at the same time as the transit commission and has Tanner as an ex-officio member, discusses job creation, transit is never far from their minds.
“It doesn’t matter where you live. We have the same issues across the state of Georgia – and that is having access to opportunities, including jobs, education and healthcare. These are accessibility issues,” Briggins says. “Back in the day, when we would talk about funding for transit, MARTA was the only one at the table. Now, we have Columbus, Augusta, Savannah, Macon, Athens and other areas busting at the seams because of population growth.”
When she became Chair of the state organization of transit systems, Briggins asked members what they want and need to improve transit across the state. “They want innovation and flexibility. They don’t want policies to hinder innovation,” she says. “That innovation may mean technology – an app to help riders find the best route – or, it might also be flexibility in funding. Transit systems have previously found partners in the public and private sector – like universities or apartment developments – to fund service or capital investment, while improving service to customers. They want the state and federal government to allow them to be as innovative as they can be to provide access and mobility to these citizens,” she adds.
Technology will also be important in creating a cohesive system, says Tanner, pointing to one simple example: Riders can download the Xpress app to locate buses operated by GRTA, but when they step off the Xpress bus in Midtown, that app won’t tell them when a MARTA bus will arrive to take them to their next destination.
“We can coordinate better, but at some point, we are going to require some technology and some investment in technology to make the consumer’s job easier,” Tanner says. “From an engineering perspective, there is going to be some heavy lifting there and some costs associated with that.”
Improving and expanding the system in a way that will appeal to a transit focused generation of millennials will take even more investment than the sales tax from Atlanta, Parker says. Beach agrees. “If we’re going to have a regional transit entity and we’re going to be an international, world-class city, the state’s got to put some skin in the game. We’ve got to be somehow involved in funding transit,” he says. “We have to show some commitment to it. The best way to show commitment is with dollars.”
But the fight is far from over. While Atlantans committed to $2.5 billion over 40 years with the November vote, at the same time Los Angeles voters agreed to spend $120 billion in new sales tax for rail expansion, highway improvements, biking and walking infrastructure, and local street repairs. “We are extraordinarily appreciative of what happened with the citizens of Atlanta agreeing to spend a bit more to get more MARTA,” Parker says. “To create the infrastructure that is necessary, it’s a start.”