Fate of transportation in DeKalb, eastern region to take shape as Legislature ponders funding plans

By David Pendered

Two matters that will affect the future of transportation options in DeKalb County and other eastern counties of the metro region are likely to rise in debate when Legislature convenes.

Xpress ridership in DeKalb County. Credit: GRTA

Xpress ridership in DeKalb County. Credit: GRTA

One involves the fate of the 432,000 commuters who use Xpress buses to travel through DeKalb. Funding for the commuter bus system is slated to end in June unless Gov. Nathan Deal and the General Assembly provide operating funds.

The other issue is DeKalb’s proposed sales tax to pay for road and sidewalk improvements within the county. The Legislature has to authorize the tax before voters could cast their ballots.

DeKalb has a particularly keen interest in the Xpress commuter system, given its high usage:

  • Almost 25 percent of Xpress riders board in DeKalb – 432,000 out of a total ridership of 1.8 million;
  • The route to the Perimeter Center/hospital complex area reported 37,500 annual boardings – commuters who don’t have to transfer to MARTA to get to work and other destinations;
  • Ridership in DeKalb grew by 4.2 percent, from the 2011 to through 2012 (the dates compares are January through September);
  • Total ridership on Xpress increased by 2.5 percent during the reporting period.

The relative spike in ridership in DeKalb is of note because it occurred at a time Xpress lost ridership in six of the 12 counties it serves.

According to GRTA, which operates Xpress, two factors contribute to the dip in ridership: Falling gas prices, which makes automobile trips less expensive; and the weak economy, which results in fewer folks commuting to work.

The counties where boardings increased are: Cherokee; Clayton; Coweta; DeKalb; Gwinnett and Henry.

The counties where boardings decreased are: Cobb; Douglas; Forsyth; Fulton; and Paulding.

Ridership in Rockdale County was virtually unchanged, at slightly over 238,200 a year.

The future of state funding for Xpress will become more clear when Deal releases his budget later this month.

Deal has supported Xpress during the past two years. Service would have been reduced, if not ended, during that time because of falling contributions from local governments and federal sources.

This year, the state provided about $5.4 million for Xpress and that pot of money is to run out in June.

To put that in perspective, Xpress is expected to require almost $200 million over the next decade, in operating and capital expenditures, to continue its level of service, according to estimates GRTA has provided.

The proposed sales tax for transportation in DeKalb is part of the county’s legislative package and was cited in the budget recommendation released in December by DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis.

Details of the proposal haven’t been widely discussed. But the idea behind it is clear in this statement from Ellis’ budget proposal:

  • “In 2013, we will seek the Georgia Legislature’s approval for a local option sales tax for Transportation purposes, in order to address this growing backlog of street resurfacing, sidewalks, intersection safety and congestion relief and related projects.”

These measures are on the table even as Congress considers National Infrastructure Bank discussed by President Obama.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has indicated he’s pinning his hopes for transportation upgrades in Atlanta to the creation of such a bank.

A proposal was introduced in October in the House and Senate, but it’s future is viewed as dim. The two companion bills have just one co-signer, and neither bill calls for any offset in federal spending to get the $5 billion a year needed to fund the bank.

 

About David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with nearly 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.
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8 comments
The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

Just think of how much in fuel and maintenance costs the state (and GCT) would save if all Northeast Corridor GRTA Xpress and GCT commuter bus routes terminated and originated at the North Springs and Doraville MARTA stations instead of traveling to and from Downtown on GA 400 & I-85 during peak hours.

 

Or just think of how much in fuel and maintenance costs the state would save if all East Corridor GRTA Xpress commuter buses terminated and originated at Kensington and Indian Creek MARTA stations (except Route 428 between Perimeter Center and I-20 East/Sigman Rd/Conyers) instead of traversing I-20 East between Downtown Atlanta and the I-285 East Perimeter during peak hours.

 

Or just think of how much in fuel and maintenance costs the state would save if all South Corridor GRTA Xpress commuter buses terminated and originated at either the Airport and/or the College Park MARTA stations instead of traversing Interstates 75 & 85 South between the I-285 South Perimeter and Downtown Atlanta during peak hours.

 

Or just think of how much in fuel and maintenance costs the state would save if all West Corridor GRTA Xpress commuter buses terminated and originated at Hamilton E Holmes MARTA station instead of traversing severely-congested Interstates 20 West and the I-75/85 Downtown Connector between the I-285 West Perimeter and Downtown and Midtown Atlanta.

 

And even though there is no existing MARTA heavy rail line that operates and terminates in the I-75 Northwest Corridor, the state could still recognize a significant savings by terminating and originating all I-75/I-575 North Corridor GRTA Xpress commuter buses at Arts Center MARTA station instead of continuing down to Peachtree Street in Downtown.

 

In addition to eliminating duplicative transit services, dramatically reducing GRTA Xpress operating costs and helping to increase overall operating efficiencies, terminating and originating GRTA Xpress commuter bus lines at the nearest farthest outlying MARTA heavy rail line stations will also help to take much of the GRTA Xpress commuter bus traffic off of the streets of downtown that has become more of a nuisance as the GRTA Xpress commuter bus service has expanded and put increasingly more bus traffic on congested city streets not designed to handle them.

 

The transit infrastructure, in the form of MARTA heavy rail lines, already exists to operate suburban and exurban express commuter bus services at a much greater savings to Georgia (and Gwinnett) taxpayers and much greater efficiency and higher level of service to commuters than is being operated today.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

Just think of how much in fuel and maintenance costs the state (and GCT) would save if all Northeast Corridor GRTA Xpress and GCT commuter bus routes terminated and originated at the North Springs and Doraville MARTA stations instead of traveling to and from Downtown on GA 400 & I-85 during peak hours.   Or just think of how much in fuel and maintenance costs the state would save if all East Corridor GRTA Xpress commuter buses terminated and originated at Kensington and Indian Creek MARTA stations (except Route 428 between Perimeter Center and I-20 East/Sigman Rd/Conyers) instead of traversing I-20 East between Downtown Atlanta and the I-285 East Perimeter during peak hours.   Or just think of how much in fuel and maintenance costs the state would save if all South Corridor GRTA Xpress commuter buses terminated and originated at either the Airport and/or the College Park MARTA stations instead of traversing Interstates 75 & 85 South between the I-285 South Perimeter and Downtown Atlanta during peak hours.   Or just think of how much in fuel and maintenance costs the state would save if all West Corridor GRTA Xpress commuter buses terminated and originated at Hamilton E Holmes MARTA station instead of traversing severely-congested Interstates 20 West and the I-75/85 Downtown Connector between the I-285 West Perimeter and Downtown and Midtown Atlanta.   And even though there is no existing MARTA heavy rail line that operates and terminates in the I-75 Northwest Corridor, the state could still recognize a significant savings by terminating and originating all I-75/I-575 North Corridor GRTA Xpress commuter buses at Arts Center MARTA station instead of continuing down to Peachtree Street in Downtown.   In addition to eliminating duplicative transit services, dramatically reducing GRTA Xpress operating costs and helping to increase overall operating efficiencies, terminating and originating GRTA Xpress commuter bus lines at the nearest farthest outlying MARTA heavy rail line stations will also help to take much of the GRTA Xpress commuter bus traffic off of the streets of downtown that has become more of a nuisance as the GRTA Xpress commuter bus service has expanded and put increasingly more bus traffic on congested city streets not designed to handle them.   The transit infrastructure, in the form of MARTA heavy rail lines, already exists to operate suburban and exurban express commuter bus services at a much greater savings to Georgia (and Gwinnett) taxpayers and much greater efficiency and higher level of service to commuters than is being operated today.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

The state could also dramatically reduce operating expenses for the GRTA Xpress commuter bus service by starting and ending GRTA Xpress commuter bus routes at and near the furthest outlying stations of MARTA heavy rail lines, where applicable (mainly on commuter bus lines that operate in the Northeast, East, South and West Corridors where there is a nearest MARTA heavy rail line for express bus commuters to transfer onto and off of...there are no outlying MARTA heavy rail line stations for I-75/I-575 Northwest Corridor express commuter buses to terminate and originate from, those buses must travel into Midtown Atlanta before reaching the nearest MARTA heavy rail line).

 

It is completely non-sensical for the state to operate GRTA Xpress commuter bus lines on what are often severely-congested freeways that run parallel to MARTA heavy rail lines Inside-the-Perimeter during peak hours.

 

The duplication of GRTA Xpress (and CCT and GCT) commuter bus lines and MARTA heavy rail lines Inside-the-Perimeter makes no sense whatsoever.

 

GRTA Xpress (and Gwinnett County Transit) Northeast, East, South and West Corridor commuter buses should feed their inbound lines into MARTA heavy rail lines (in the mornings) and GRTA Xpress (and Gwinnett County Transit) NE, E, S and W Corridor commuter bus outbound lines should be fed by MARTA heavy rail lines.

 

 

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

The state could also dramatically reduce operating expenses for the GRTA Xpress commuter bus service by starting and ending GRTA Xpress commuter bus routes at and near the furthest outlying stations of MARTA heavy rail lines, where applicable (mainly on commuter bus lines that operate in the Northeast, East, South and West Corridors where there is a nearest MARTA heavy rail line for express bus commuters to transfer onto and off of...there are no outlying MARTA heavy rail line stations for I-75/I-575 Northwest Corridor express commuter buses to terminate and originate from, those buses must travel into Midtown Atlanta before reaching the nearest MARTA heavy rail line).   It is completely non-sensical for the state to operate GRTA Xpress commuter bus lines on what are often severely-congested freeways that run parallel to MARTA heavy rail lines Inside-the-Perimeter during peak hours.   The duplication of GRTA Xpress (and CCT and GCT) commuter bus lines and MARTA heavy rail lines Inside-the-Perimeter makes no sense whatsoever.   GRTA Xpress (and Gwinnett County Transit) Northeast, East, South and West Corridor commuter buses should feed their inbound lines into MARTA heavy rail lines (in the mornings) and GRTA Xpress (and Gwinnett County Transit) NE, E, S and W Corridor commuter bus outbound lines should be fed by MARTA heavy rail lines.

writes_of_weigh
writes_of_weigh

A rail-centric "bank" of this nature, controlled by the Federal Railroad Administration, was established and funded several years ago when Senator Thune(R-SD) convinced fellow senators to pass such a bill, or attach it to other transportation funding legislation. Though available funds were reported to be around $35B, strangely, none of this money floe made it to the Peach State.  Now that money pot will likely disappear over the edge of the "cliff," though, it remains one of the more viable ways of leveraging taxpayer monies for transpo development. Who knows for sure.....there may still be a billion or two stuck in Ray LaHood's dusty office cabinet in Washington.

writes_of_weigh
writes_of_weigh

A rail-centric "bank" of this nature, controlled by the Federal Railroad Administration, was established and funded several years ago when Senator Thune(R-SD) convinced fellow senators to pass such a bill, or attach it to other transportation funding legislation. Though available funds were reported to be around $35B, strangely, none of this money floe made it to the Peach State.  Now that money pot will likely disappear over the edge of the "cliff," though, it remains one of the more viable ways of leveraging taxpayer monies for transpo development. Who knows for sure.....there may still be a billion or two stuck in Ray LaHood's dusty office cabinet in Washington.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @writes_of_weigh

 It shouldn't matter how much (or how little) taxpayer funding an increasingly financially-troubled federal government is or is not willing to put forward to help Georgia invest in its transportation infrastructure.

 

Georgia should be more than ready, willing and able to make the much-needed investments in its own transportation infrastructure without the help of an increasingly dysfunctional (and virtually bankrupt) federal government.

 

Georgia does not necessarily even need the help of the Feds to make the required investments in its own transportation infrastructure in many regards.

 

The State of Georgia can make those necessary transportation infrastructure investments on its own without much, if any, help from the Feds by taking full responsibility for its own transportation infrastructure funding and financing by eliminating the increasingly-ineffective state portion of the gas tax and replacing it with distance-based user fees on all major roads.

 

The State of Georgia can also much more effectively fund increasingly critical required transit investments with the utilization of distance-based user fees, public-private partnerships (private investment) and Tax Increment Financing (property tax revenues from new development that pops up along transit lines).

 

All this sitting around and waiting for a highly-dysfunctional and virtually-dead broke federal government to contribute bare-bones amounts of funding for long-overdue transportation projects is completely non-sensical.

 

But then again look at how long the Atlanta Region has been sitting around waiting for a completely-dysfunctional and highly-incompetent Georgia state government to better invest in and better manage transportation in North Georgia, so no one should be the least bit surprised.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@writes_of_weigh  It shouldn't matter how much (or how little) taxpayer funding an increasingly financially-troubled federal government is or is not willing to put forward to help Georgia invest in its transportation infrastructure.   Georgia should be more than ready, willing and able to make the much-needed investments in its own transportation infrastructure without the help of an increasingly dysfunctional (and virtually bankrupt) federal government.   Georgia does not necessarily even need the help of the Feds to make the required investments in its own transportation infrastructure in many regards.   The State of Georgia can make those necessary transportation infrastructure investments on its own without much, if any, help from the Feds by taking full responsibility for its own transportation infrastructure funding and financing by eliminating the increasingly-ineffective state portion of the gas tax and replacing it with distance-based user fees on all major roads.   The State of Georgia can also much more effectively fund increasingly critical required transit investments with the utilization of distance-based user fees, public-private partnerships (private investment) and Tax Increment Financing (property tax revenues from new development that pops up along transit lines).   All this sitting around and waiting for a highly-dysfunctional and virtually-dead broke federal government to contribute bare-bones amounts of funding for long-overdue transportation projects is completely non-sensical.   But then again look at how long the Atlanta Region has been sitting around waiting for a completely-dysfunctional and highly-incompetent Georgia state government to better invest in and better manage transportation in North Georgia, so no one should be the least bit surprised.