GRTA’s Xpress bus service up for major overhaul; final plan to be presented Wednesday

By David Pendered

The first official step toward the first major overhaul of GRTA’s Xpress bus service in a decade is on track to be formally presented Wednesday to the board that oversees the regional transit agency. The board is to vote on the proposal in August.

GRTA is planning a number of service changes intended to improve access to the employment center of Midtown. Credit: David Pendered

GRTA is planning a number of service changes intended to improve access to the employment center of Midtown. Credit: David Pendered

These service changes are to be implemented next year over a period of time. The changes are part of a broader effort by GRTA to boost ridership.

Other plans call for installing new technology in hopes of attracting more riders, who want to check their smart phone for the location of their bus and feel secure under the watchful eye of a security camera, GRTA Executive Director Chris Tomlinson said.

“Everything we’re doing is important,” Tomlinson said at GRTA’s May 13 board meeting. “We can’t stress enough the critical importance of this. … This is what the future of GRTA is all about.”

The underlying premise of the service alterations is to improve the quality of service to destinations where most riders are heading. GRTA hired a Seattle-based consultant with Nelson\Nygaard to do the review. The project started in January 2014.

These destinations are in Downtown Atlanta, Midtown, and the Perimeter business district. Consequently, improvements are weighted toward:

  • Enhanced frequency from park and ride lots;
  • Chris Tomlinson

    Chris Tomlinson, GRTA’s executive director

    Longer hours of service to Downtown and Midtown;

  • New service routes to the Perimeter business district;
  • Simplifying routes by having all routes have a consistent pattern of “stops” in Midtown and Downtown Atlanta.

GRTA’s team also wants to ensure that the service revisions don’t alienate current riders. Or, at least, that they alienate as few riders as possible. Route revisions a few years ago caused quite an uproar.

GRTA amended more than half of its initial recommendations on the basis of feedback from riders – an online survey netted more than 4,500 responses and more than 8,000 written responses. Other outreach efforts included telephone surveys, a technical advisory committee, and three public meetings in May that attracted 200 individuals and netted than 400 online responses, according to a report by Nelson\Nygaard consultant Thomas Wittman.

GRTA Midtown proposed routes

GRTA proposes a number of service changes that would make Midtown a major destination of its service. Credit: GRTA

Xpress ridership peaked in 2012, at about 2.4 million riders a year, according to Wittman’s report. Ridership has hovered between 2 million and 2.5 million a year from 2009 to 2013, according to the report.

“Overall, we’ve reached a state of stasis with ridership,” Tomlinson said. “The best way to stay stuck there is to do nothing. Direct Xpress is trying to come up with a transformative way to set ourselves up for growth. What we’re seeing happening with economic development and job growth in our work centers is transformation and change.”

GRTA has a number of scenarios to provide service to folks who are part of that change. The implementation schedule calls for GRTA’s board to approve a final version in August, following a scheduled break in July.

Riders are to start seeing new routes and service in the first quarter of 2016, Wittman said.

The Perimeter business district is a prime example of a changing workforce.

“This is the second-biggest regional employment center,” Wittman said. “We’re proposing new service from Cumming, Cobb and Gwinnett counties. … We have service from I-20 east. We will create a one-stop ride to serve this incredible regional employment center.”

GRTA proposes a number of service changes that would make Downtown Atlanta a major destination of its service. Credit: GRTA

GRTA proposes a number of service changes that would make Downtown Atlanta a major destination of its service. Credit: GRTA

Another aspect of the plan is to take better advantage of the region’s expanding network of managed lanes. Construction is underway along I-75 in Cobb and Cherokee counties, and along I-75 in Henry County.

Of note, in this part of the discussion, is Tomlinson’s duel role as executive director of both GRTA and the state agency that’s playing an integral role in the expansion of managed lanes, the State Road and Tollway Authority. Gov. Nathan Deal serves as SRTA’s chairman and named Tomlinson to head both agencies in an attempt to improve coordination.

“Where there are managed lanes, we have to add service to attract folks who otherwise would use the lanes to cut their travel time [as a solo driver],” Wittman said. “There needs to be enhanced capacity for park and ride lots, and the bus services that serve them.”

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 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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