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Columns John Ruch

In Rockdale transit master plan, The ATL’s chief sees his own commuting future

Chris Tomlinson in The ATL's board room Chris Tomlinson in The ATL's board room Downtown on Thursday after he was named executive director. Credit: Maggie Lee

Shortly after my U-Haul and I blew into metro Atlanta from Boston in 2013, I was fortunate to quickly score a part-time job with a newspaper in Rockdale County. I made a weekday-morning trip to get acquainted with my new beat, and I was instantly charmed.

“The Dinky,” a historic locomotive in Conyers, as seen by a naive Yankee reporter in 2013. Now preserved along the also historic tracks that are still used by freight trains, the Dinky ran on a separate, short route connecting to a nearby cotton mill. Credit: John Ruch

Conyers, the southeast metro county’s one and only city, had an old-time soda fountain, a voodoo shop and a historic mini locomotive named “The Dinky.” Its quaint “Olde Town” was gussied up to look like New Orleans for a vampire TV series — one of many Hollywood productions based there. Farther afield, there was Panola Mountain, a monastery that would sell you home-bottled honey, and a wildly oversized horse park, one of those classic Olympics white elephants that the locals were somehow keeping afloat and full of quirky events.

“This is the sort of place I could see myself living,” I thought, turning my blissfully ignorant Yankee eyes to a metro map. “Why, look. Rockdale’s only about 20 miles from Downtown Atlanta! It’s close to everything!”

Then I covered my first Conyers City Council meeting. I was living in Dunwoody at the time, and the rush-hour trip down I-285 and out I-20 took 90 minutes — which I didn’t yet know was downright speedy because I was lucky enough to avoid a wreck. Worse still, in the 18 months I worked out there, the average drive time increased by about 10 minutes — a terrifying harbinger of the pace of growth and traffic. “Why don’t they just build a train down the middle of these highways?!” I fumed. I finally got a full-time job five miles from home and never looked back.

So my ears perked up when I heard Rockdale, like several other metro counties these days, is creating a “transit master plan” in partnership with the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority (The ATL), the umbrella agency overseeing all metro transit planning.

And I’m not the only one taking it personally. So is ATL Executive Director Chris Tomlinson, who happens to be a 14-year Rockdale resident.

“The county’s really excited about moving forward,” said Tomlinson at a July 1 ATL committee meeting. “I’m grateful because I live in Rockdale County.”

In a later interview, Tomlinson said he thinks the transit improvements could not only help transportation, but also economic growth in a county where land prices are still relatively low and there’s plenty of tourism potential.

Chris Tomlinson in The ATL's board room

Chris Tomlinson, executive director of the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority and a resident of Rockdale County, which is getting its own transit master plan, to his commuting relief. Credit: File/Maggie Lee

“I definitely could see opportunity,” he said, “and ultimately we’ll see where my fellow citizens are on whether it’s time and [there is a] need for some local transit options.”

The current options are slim. The state’s Xpress commuter bus system — run by authorities that Tomlinson also heads — operates two routes in Rockdale. The “Blue Bus,” a privately run shuttle bus service within Rockdale and connecting to DeKalb County’s Stonecrest mall that launched in 2018, says it is on hold due to the pandemic but aims to return later this year.

As a regular commuter to Downtown Atlanta by both car and his system’s own Xpress bus, Tomlinson has felt the pain. “I’ve been in Rockdale now since 2007. I’ve definitely seen it change over time,” he said. The average commute by car or bus, he says, has grown to 40 to 45 minutes, and “easily could have been an hour with any kind of incident, even a minor one.” He says he used to allow himself 90 minutes as a margin for error on important meetings.

The pandemic changed everyone’s commute for at least a little while. Tomlinson said he’s now back in the office three or four days a week and for a while saw the trip time drop to around 35 minutes — but it’s back to normal now. And traffic from passenger vehicles and commercial trucks is only growing, he says.

As for transportation issues within the county, the biggest challenge may be long distances in suburban and rural areas with no sidewalks, let alone transit. Tomlinson says local traffic in his time has gotten “thicker but not bad,” aside from the infamously snarled I-20 Exit 82 at State Route 138, a shopping-center-surrounded interchange that the Georgia Department of Transportation intends to rebuild.

As for what might add to transit options, the page is unwritten. Assuming the ATL’s board approves taking on $420,000 in federal funding for the Rockdale transit plan next month, matched by $105,000 from the county, that will begin an 18-month process of selecting a consultant, holding public meetings and developing the vision.

A restaurant in historic Olde Town Conyers, Rockdale County’s only city, along with a car predating today’s commuter traffic. Credit: Conyers Georgia Convention & Visitors Bureau

John Moretto, director of the Rockdale County Department of Transportation, is ready to go. “Rockdale County and RDOT are very excited to be working with the ATL on our transit master plan,” he said in a written statement. “This master plan will provide us a strategic roadmap for the future of transit in our county. We look forward to collaborating with the citizens to better understand their mobility needs. Our goal is to provide a safe and efficient system with a quick rollout of transit services.”

If other county master plans are a guide, the definition of “transit” will be a big sticking point amid tensions about class, race and rural-vs.-urban areas. Back when I covered Rockdale, a few brave souls openly wished for MARTA’s Blue Line to extend there, while many, many others thought “MARTA” was a dirty word. In neighboring Henry County, part of the work underway on its transit master plan includes “educating” the public on transit benefits and “perspectives concerning MARTA.”

Tomlinson was willing to float one very big idea by pointing out one very obvious fact: Conyers is an old train town, as “The Dinky” and its neighboring tourist center in a former train station remind us. The tracks that still run freight trains right through Olde Town used to carry passenger trains as well — so why not once again? Tomlinson says today’s freight operators are often hesitant about letting passenger trains use their lines, “but I think there are some real opportunities. We have this historic downtown.”

“I know anything’s possible,” he said. “… And so I don’t think our full potential out here has been realized yet.”

Hey, just save me a seat — at Beasley’s soda fountain, and on whatever gets me there that isn’t my car.

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