By John Ruch
MARTA and Gwinnett transit station makeovers seeking federal grants have been approved for matching funds from rideshare fees by the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority (ATL).
The total of $15.75 million in matching funds is supporting parts of MARTA’s Five Points Station renovation and an expansion of the Gwinnett Place Transit Center, a regional bus station.
Five Points is the nexus of MARTA’s rail lines and “ground zero” for its system, as Jonathan Ravenelle, the ATL’s transit funding director, put it at an April 7 meeting of his authority’s board. MARTA is planning a multi-phase renovation, with the bulk of it aiming to be ready for the 2026 World Cup soccer matches hosted in Atlanta.
MARTA says the first phase of the $150 million project is below-ground platform and mezzanine renovations. Phase 2 is deconstructing a canopy and creating a new plaza level. Phase 3 would be transit-oriented development atop the site. For the current application, due April 14, MARTA is seeking a U.S. Department of Transportation RAISE grant of $45 million — the maximum possible amount — for Phase 2 work. The ATL authorized the required local matching funds of $11.25 million.
For Gwinnett County, the transit center at Gwinnett Place Mall is key to fitful plans to expand the system and, as Ravenelle noted, can play a role in surrounding economic development. Gwinnett County Transit (GCT) is seeking $8 million in federal funds for the first of a two-phase expansion, according to the ATL, which authorized $2 million in matching funds. The Gwinnett application is due May 31.
The first phase would include expanding the bus transfer center and starting a building to house GCT customer service, according to county spokesperson Heather Sawyer. A consultant is in the early stages of a conceptual site plan. The overall vision is a multi-modal center that would serve the current six local routes as well as bus rapid transit, rideshares, pedestrians and bicyclists. Public plazas, meeting spaces, on-site fare sales and restrooms are among other future amenities. And supporting future mall redevelopment is another goal.
“The county also has embarked on the creation of a fresh new Transit Development Plan, which may identify other connections to the center,” said Sawyer.
For the ATL, the use of rideshare funds is significant as not only a source of revenue, but also a way to provide matching funds that officials say are often hard to secure at the county and city level. The ATL says Georgia ranks 35th in the nation for receiving competitive federal transportation grants despite ranking Number 8 in terms of population and being home to MARTA, one of the top 10 systems by ridership.
The revenue stream approved by the Georgia General Assembly in 2020 imposes a fee of 50 cents per ride or 25 cents per carpooled trip on rideshare operators. That money now flows into the Georgia Transit Trust Fund established by the state legislature last year. The trust fund’s trustee is Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) Commissioner Russell McMurry, who recently authorized transferring $15.75 million to the ATL for metro Atlanta transit projects.
The amount of rideshare revenue is an issue, as estimates of collecting around $40 million a year were dashed by the fee starting in August 2020, the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic’s first year. In that initial year, the fees were disbursed by direct appropriation, not the trust fund. According to the ATL, $7.6 million of first-year collections were appropriated to GDOT, which in turn spent most of it on helping to fund MARTA’s Bankhead Station improvements ($6 million) and Athens-Clarke County Transit ($1 million). But now, the ATL says, rideshare fee revenue is rising.