By David Pendered

MARTA has raised the stakes for passage of the proposed transportation sales tax in DeKalb County.

MARTA’s board of directors did what the Atlanta Regional Roundtable could not muster the votes to do – approve a construction proposal that would create a unified transit system in south DeKalb that would include enhanced bus service along I-20, but more importantly extend heavy rail service from Indian Creek Station to the Mall at Stonecrest.

Talk about a political imbroglio for voters in south DeKalb, some of whom thought their region didn’t get enough from the proposed sales tax for transportation projects in the 10-county metro area.

Harold Buckley, Sr.
MARTA board treasurer Harold Buckley, Sr. submitted the motion with the new routes.

On one hand, the transportation sales tax would pay for the beginning of MARTA’s expansion in south DeKalb – an enhanced bus service, called bus rapid transit, along city streets and I-20 from Downtown Atlanta to Wesley Chapel Road, south of Decatur. Some critics, including the DeKalb chapter of the NAACP, have said this is not enough benefit to cause their region to pay 2 percent in sales tax for transportation – 1 percent for MARTA and 1 percent for the transportation sales tax.

On the other hand, there is no guarantee – none at all – that the heavy rail to Mall at Stonecrest will ever be built. There simply is no money in sight for construction. There’s just the promise that MARTA will seek federal funding for the line – money that would come from a Congress so knotted up over spending that some lawmakers contend the federal government has no role in paying for highways or transit.

The resolution endorsing these routes was submitted by MARTA board treasurer Harold Buckley, Sr., who’s represented DeKalb on the board since 1985. It passed overwhelmingly.

(See a MARTA map at the end of this story.)

Larry Johnson
DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson said he remains undecided about the merits of the sales tax for transportation, despite MARTA's actions.

DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson summed up the consternation he thinks his south DeKalb constituents face as a result of MARTA’s new plan. May has been a vocal critic of the sales tax because, he says, it shortchanges a region that has been promised heavy rail service for a long time and has paid the 1 percent MARTA sales tax since MARTA’s inception.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but we still have to obtain funding, which is in the amount of $2 billion,” Johnson said in a measured comment fter the MARTA board voted April 9 for the plan.

“The figures don’t even add up,” Johnson said. “This plan says BRT will cost $260 million. The sales tax plan says it will cost $225 million. They need to reconcile their figures.”

One carrot the MARTA board included is a promise to work with partners to consider possibly turning the bus route into a light rail service at some point in the future.

The specific language states:

“The MARTA board commits to working with our jurisdictional partners, such as DeKalb County, in a separate study effort, to develop supporting technical analysis to examine potential upgrades of the BRT component of this alternative to a higher capacity fixed guideway transit investment, including the necessary step to convert to a light rail technology that will be regionally adopted and integrated into the regional transit network.”

Click here to see the complete resolution.

The Atlanta Regional Roundtable supported a similar plan to expand service along I-20, once the viability of the route is determined through a BRT system that’s to receive $225 million through the sales tax.

Click here to see a larger version of the map.

MARTA's proposed service in Dekalb County. Credit: MARTA, David Pendered
MARTA's proposed service in Dekalb County. Credit: MARTA, David Pendered

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...

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  1. also heavy rail that goes down 285 from indian creek and then out I-20 is not a very direct route.  Plus dropping people off next to the highway?   It would be better if the indian creek line went along roughly Redan to get to I-20.

    1.  @inatl
       I agree with your very astute observation. 
       A much better, much more practical and much more direct route for a MARTA heavy rail line extension from the Indian Creek Station would be to follow Redan Road east and the CSX/Georgia RR line (where a future high-frequency commuter rail line is slated to run between Five Points in Atlanta and the East Central Georgia resort city of Greensboro via the neighborhoods, cities and towns of Little Five Points, Decatur, Avondale Estates, Scottdale, Clarksdale, Stone Mountain, Redan, Lithonia, Conyers, Covington, Social Circle and Madison) in a southeasterly direction through the historic center of the town of Lithonia where the line could from there run southeast across I-20 directly into the Mall of Stonecrest.
      The I-20 right-of-way would be much more suitable for bus rapid transit or express bus service between Downtown Atlanta and Stonecrest Mall, especially since that very busy and often overstressed section of the I-20 has been tabbed for the eventual implementation of HOT Lanes, with the existing HOV-2 lanes Inside-the-Perimeter between I-75/85 and I-285 East slated to be converted to HOT lanes and new HOT Lanes elevated over the I-20 right-of-way slated to be built Outside-the-Perimeter between I-285 and Conyers.

    2.  @inatl Originally I agreed with you, but after seeing the cost, travel times, and capacities of each potential idea MARTA had for the corridor this seemed liked a clear winner. It was actually lower cost, then any other type of rail technology going directly downtown via a new route and it did well on ridership projections.
      However, I did catch at one point one place in the planning documents that mentioned something very important, this would be MARTA’s first attempt at express trains. The new part of the corridor wouldn’t necessarily stop at every station through central Dekalb to speed the trains up. Of course the whole route is a long-term goal.
      Also, a Redan Rd alignment would be extremely (and disruptive locally) through right out of way acquisition and traveling over/under existing neighborhood streets. A freeway alignment removes significant costs.

      1.  @cwdawg  @inatl
        “Also, a Redan Rd alignment would be extremely (and disruptive locally) through right out of way acquisition and traveling over/under existing neighborhood streets. A freeway alignment removes significant costs.”
        Good point. 
        Maybe a heavy rail transit extension from the MARTA Indian Creek Station to Stonecrest Mall isn’t the best option for that corridor.
        Maybe just utilizing express bus service between the MARTA East Line and Stonecrest Mall or bus rapid transit of some kind between Downtown and the Lithonia/Stonecrest Mall area in the I-20 East Corridor might be a better idea than a very expensive heavy rail extension as heavy rail lines that utilize freeway right-of-ways don’t always work as desired (see the complaints about the D.C. Metrorail Orange line that has heavy rail stations in and runs through the median of I-66 in the Northern Virginia suburbs of D.C. or the complaints about the L.A. Metrorail Green line that has stations in and runs through the median of the I-105 Century Freeway in South Central L.A., complaints about how both of those lines feel detached from the community that the lines are supposed to be serving, how the stations don’t feel like they are all that accessible by foot because the stations are smack dab in the middle of a freeway isolated from the community and surrounded by roadway infrastructure which has also totally discouraged transit and pedustrian-friendly residential and commercial development from popping up around these stations since they are in the middle of a freeway).
        Maybe it might be a better idea if the CSX/Georgia RR line right-of-way that has been tabbed to feature regional commuter rail trains between Five Points in Downtown Atlanta and Greensboro in East Central Georgia also featured light rail service between Five Points and Conyers by way of a very-popular tourist attraction in Stone Mountain and Stonecrest Mall.
        Or, maybe a MARTA heavy rail line could be extended east from the Avondale Station to Conyers by way of Lithonia and Stonecrest Mall using the same CSX/Georgia RR right-of-way that is slated for future regional commuter rail service.
        Whatever the case, I just know that rail transit lines that utilize freeway right-of-ways for an extended distance don’t always workout very well because of their physical detachment and isolation from the community they serve.

        1.  @The Last Democrat in Georgia The problem with Bus service is the example set by the abandonment of the 400 Bus shoulders.   How can it be effective if it is subject to being switched out to give cars more room?  People aren’t going to develop real estate based on a temporary fix
          We’ve used lots of fancy names for bus service in the past but have nothing really to show for it other than 2 lane jumpers on memorial.  I’ve not seen them in action so not sure what they even do.

        2.  @inatl
           The difference between bus service on GA 400 and future bus service on I-20 East is that, in the long-run, buses on I-20 East would have their own dedicated lanes to operate in (with the HOV-2 lanes inside of I-285 that are slated to be converted to HOT/HOV-3 lanes and future HOT/HOV-3 that will be elevated over the I-20 right-of-way Outside-the-Perimeter) while the conversion of the GA 400 shoulders from rush hour bus lanes to lanes that are open to all traffic during rush hour is a desperate act of political expediency by Governor Deal designed to solidify support in a geographical corridor (the Georgia 400/North Fulton/Forsyth Corridor) that is absolutely crucial for him to have if he is to win re-election to a second term on West Paces Ferry.
          Simply put, the conversion of the 400 shoulders is a calculated political move that is in response to years and years of almost complete inaction by the state on transportation and mobility matters in the GA 400 North Corridor which is home to some of the most affluent and politically-infiuential voters in a state whose politics is driven by conservative suburban and exurban voters.

        3.  @inatl
          “People aren’t going to develop real estate based on a temporary fix”
          Rail transit lines that run through the medians of freeways often don’t attract much, if any, meaningful development, especially the walkable transit-friendly type of development that this town and this region so desperately needs to help break its increasingly counterproductive and extremely destructive overdependency on the automobile, because the stations on those types of rail transit lines are usually smack dab in the middle of the ultimate automobile-dominated road corridor (a bi-directional multi-lane freeway that) on a platform that is detached from surrounding development that is often also heavily automobile-oriented with lowered population and development density that is not necessarily all that conducive to sustaining high-ridership numbers on a rail transit line.
          Besides being a rail transit line in an automobile-dominated freeway right-of-way and corridor that is not conducive to encouraging and generating walkable transit-friendly development, I’m not all that crazy about a potential I-20 rail transit line because it looks like nothing more than a misguided attempt to prop-up a shopping mall in the Mall at Stonecrest that is the last of a dying breed of sorts in Stonecrest was the last traditional suburban shopping mall, surrounded by acres and acres of parking in a sea of asphalt and near the junction of two busy highways, to open in Metro Atlanta.
          The Mall of Stonecrest, much like the Mall of Georgia in Buford, Town Center Mall in Kennesaw and Gwinnett Place Mall before it, is the type of development that has been the bane of this region’s existence from a traffic, transportation and mobility standpoint as these traditional shopping mall developments encourage automobile-overdependency and traffic congestion and gridlock with what is basically an automobiles-only format because you have to drive everywhere in the vicinty of these things.
          The trend in development has also shown strong signs of moving away from the Mall of Stonecrest-type of retail and commercial development over the long-run to something that is much more sustainable from a transportation and mobility standpoint because the market is moving more towards and is demanding more transit, walkability and density, something that the sprawling Mall of Stonecrest is the complete opposite of.

        4.  @inatl
           Over the long-run, the auto-dominated commercial development along the I-20 right-of-way does not necessarily look to be all that sustainable while the transit-friendly and walkable development that will be encouraged and generated by the implementation of rail transit (light rail and commuter rail) on the CSX/Georgia RR right-of-way that runs through historic towns with walkable, transit-friendly town centers is extremely sustainable over the long run.  This reality in addition to the coming implementation of HOT lanes in the I-20 right-of-way, makes express commuter bus service a much better option for the I-20 right-of-way over the long-run.

        5.  @The Last Democrat in Georgia  Yes the 400 shoulders and what happens with the bus on I-20 are not the same thing.  But the sentiment the state has towards transit is telling.  
          The fact is if TIA passes we don’t know what Regional Transit System will develop.  Based on history and the current makeup of the legislature its not a bad bet to say a Regional Transit Agency could look more like GRTA.  And thus desperate political acts will prevail over the needs of transit riders.    The bigger the transit agency becomes the less power the riders have.    And I don’t mean bigger in terms of operating budgets, I mean bigger in terms of the region served.   If GRTA cuts bus service its doesn’t have a political effect on any politicians since the only people responsible are statewide officials.
          Likewise a transit agency created with the region will not be controlled by an local officials and thus allowing other uses of a bus lane or even changing the projects will result in less accountability.
          Though despite all that, I do have to question the value of a dedicated busway if there is a HOT lane that provides the buses with congestion free access to downtown.  Alternatively commuter rail has been identified 10 or 15 years ago why we’ve not moved forward on that is most unfortunate.

        6.  @inatl
          “Alternatively commuter rail has been identified 10 or 15 years ago why we’ve not moved forward on that is most unfortunate.”
          If, I’m correct, the pressing need for commuter rail was identified by the state close to 20 years ago with commuter rail on existing rail corridors being mentioned as a need by the state in the early to mid 1990’s.
          Here’s some insight into the State of Georgia’s unwisely hostile and completely ignorant mindset towards rail transit as it relates to the federally-funded Atlanta-Macon (via Lovejoy) and Atlanta-Athens (Brain Train) commuter rail lines with the clincher being former State Transportation Board Chairman Mike Evans (former GDOT and current SRTA big-wig Gina Evans’ husband) asking “What do we need to do to kill it?” when plotting to undermine the Lovejoy line and a state bond package for commuter rail that had been passed during Roy Barnes’ administration:

          Another even larger more significant reason why we’ve not yet moved forward on implementing critically-needed regional commuter rail service is partly due to all of the energy and political capital the state spent trying to build what ultimately proved to be a unpopular exurban Outer Perimeter which was pared down to a Northern Arc during a time of a major population growth spurt in which, in hindsight, the state should have most likely been pursuing a regional commuter rail network instead (and improving and upgrading rail transit service in the urban core where peak-hour mobility is the most difficult), despite the loud anti-transit rhetoric from a very vocal small minority.
          The immense political capital spent on trying to ram through a very-unpopular and politically-unviable Outer Perimeter/Northern Arc highway at the Turn-of-the-Century would have likely been much better put to use pursuing and implementing regional commuter rail service on existing freight rail lines.

        7.  @The Last Democrat in Georgia  I agree and if they do end up expanding the port they will need extra rail freight capacity up the 75 corridor.   

        8.  @inatl
           Good points about riders having less power the bigger a possible regional transit agency becomes.
          In that vein, who says that we absolutely must have a regional transit authority to improve transportation and mobility.
          Sure, it would be nice to have local bus routes run all over the five-county urban core of Metro Atlanta (Gwinnett, Cobb and Clayton in addition to Fulton and DeKalb Counties), but local bus service is not a necessarily a must or all that effective in less-dense suburban and exurban counties like it is in denser urban areas like Fulton and DeKalb.
          I used to think that Metro Atlanta needed a regional approach to local mass transit (local bus and heavy rail transit lines), but after observing the state become more and more inept and incompetent on matters of critically-important infrastructure in recent years especially when it comes to transportation and water, I have arrived at the conclusion that it would probably be much better if our mass transit organizational setup remained as it is, especially seeing the total hatchet job that the state has done on the department (GDOT) that is responsible for the upkeep of the roads that some within the legislature claim to love so dearly.
          If the state can turn the once highly-regarded and nationally-renowned Georgia Department of Transportation into a vegetative brain-dead shell of its former self, then one must assume that they can do even worse when it comes to urban mass transit service.

        9.  @inatl
           Maybe it is a better idea if we just extol GRTA with the power to coordinate individual transit lines between different transit agencies throughout the region so that routes are in-sync, instead of creating yet another regional transit authority with governing power (something that I am pretty sure that GRTA is already capable of doing if need be).
          If might also be a better idea if each regional commuter rail line had its own transit authority under the indirect purview of the state rather than trying to operate multiple rail lines under one large transit authority (like GRTA) who should probably play more of a supervisory role rather than an operational role.
          It might also be a good idea to use (multiple) public-private partnerships to help bring commuter rail into fruition much quicker than is currently planned as opposed to using private-partnerships to develop toll lanes that restrict the utilization of paralleling transit options over the long-term as was originally-planned on the I-75/575 HOT Lane project before the state withdrew from the project at the behest of Governor Deal back in the December.

        10.  @inatl
          “Though despite all that, I do have to question the value of a dedicated busway if there is a HOT lane that provides the buses with congestion free access to downtown.”
          As far as I am aware, there are no plans for a dedicated busway to be built anywhere on the freeway system as all of the plans that I have heard of as of late involve express and commuter buses utilizing both existing HOV Lanes and future elevated HOT Lanes, all of which will have their own exits and entrances that are both separate from and at different locations from the existing exits on the freeway system.
          Though, at one time, there were plans to have a dedicated busway on I-75 North Outside-the-Perimeter along with truck-only lanes as part of the I-75/575 NW Corridor HOT Lane project which has since been pared down dramatically to only two reversible toll lanes (it was a project that had proposed to widen I-75 to as many as 26 lanes at one time which as a result made the project politically-unviable because of how the excessive widening would have taken a huge bite out of the county’s property tax digest and revenues because all of the property that would have taken by the project).

      2.  @cwdawg cwdawg, I had not seen the cost figures. good point, its unfortunate DeKalb didn’t start preserving Right of way back when the extended the line to Indian Creek.  Alternatively I’ve never really understood why they placed the station at Indian Creek, maybe they should have gone south a bit from Kensington to get outside 285. 
        Question becomes does the express rails make up enough time for the greater distance caused by this indirect route to downtown. 

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