Metro Atlanta is riding the wrong bus into the future
By Maria Saporta
What are we doing?
We are in a moment in time when we can transform our region with a world-class transit network thanks in large part to the $1.3 trillion federal infrastructure investment, but for a reason that makes little sense virtually every proposed transit line being proposed for metro Atlanta has switched from being heavy or light rail to “bus rapid transit,” or BRT.
It’s a mode that may sound good — buses that act like rail — but in reality, most BRT projects in the United States are just express buses, often mixing in with traffic while generating harmful emissions.
More importantly, it is well documented that rail lines (streetcars, light rail, heavy rail and commuter rail) change the way land is used. Because of its permanency, rail transforms the development of communities into thriving nodes. Bus routes, on the other hand, do little to change the landscape because developers are less apt to invest around a bus stop rather than a rail stop or station.
This means the decision to switch from rail to bus has far-reaching implications for how our region will grow for decades to come.
Look at the following metro Atlanta transit projects that initially were envisioned to be rail and now appear to be destined to become bus routes:
- Clayton County rail connecting to MARTA
- Campbelton Corridor
- Summerhill link to downtown
- Clifton Corridor connector
- MARTA extension up Georgia 400
- Rail going up the I-75 corridor
- Rail going up the I-85 corridor to Gwinnett
- MARTA rail to Stonecrest
There are even rumblings that the Atlanta BeltLine is at risk of becoming a busway rather than utilizing light rail or streetcars — although a form of rail has been part of the 22-mile corridor since the project’s inception.
Buses certainly can play a role in the regional plan, but rail transit needs to be included in a multi-modal transportation system. Currently, there are no rail projects that have been given a green light in metro Atlanta.
I ask again — What are we doing?
The point really hit home during the LINK trip to Austin earlier this month when 120 leaders from metro Atlanta heard about Austin’s $7.1 billion initiative for transit projects, which is dominated by light rail. Voters overwhelmingly approved the transit plan in November 2020 — largely because of support from Austin’s younger residents who wanted rail.
But Austin is not the only city investing in rail.
Major cities all over the country — cities that compete with metro Atlanta — are busy investing in rail.
All the following cities have either just opened new rail service, are under construction or have a construction start date: Los Angeles, which has the largest rail program under construction; Washington, D.C. with projects in Maryland and Virginia; San Francisco — MUNI and the BART route to San Jose; Santa Ana, Calif.; Seattle; Phoenix; Tempe, Ariz.; Dallas; New York City; Kansas City, Mo.; San Diego; Minneapolis; Boston and Charlotte, N.C.
Somehow, all of those metro areas have been able to develop rail while we in Atlanta repeatedly hit obstacles. Often, it’s the transportation agencies and elected leaders who have had a bias for buses for years. They often site the higher initial costs of building rail and the regulations needed to compete for federal dollars.
One of the most egregious projects has been transit along Georgia 400.
Instead of having the MARTA rail red line extend to Alpharetta, where someone would have been able to ride directly to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport without ever having to change trains or modes of transportation, the decision was made to create busways that would preclude new rail ever being built along Georgia 400 beyond the existing North Springs MARTA station.
Don’t get me started discussing the Summerhill “BRT” line — one that seems too far along to turn back now. In my mind, it should have been a direct streetcar line connecting Summerhill with the Georgia State University MARTA station, Grady Hospital and the Atlanta Streetcar. Instead, the Summerhill bus service has a winding, convoluted route that likely would preclude it from ever being converted to rail.
Metro Atlanta, it’s not too late.
The Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act (IIJA) — prepared by a rail-friendly presidential administration — is setting aside billions of dollars ($36 billion to be exact) for rail transit for intercity rail service. There also are billions of dollars available for carbon reduction programs — rail is the most environmentally-friendly mode of motorized transportation.
Let me give just one example.
Clayton County voted to join MARTA in 2014 with the lure of getting a rail line. The options included Clayton rail service which would have been an extension of the MARTA rail line. There also were ideas of serving Clayton as part of an intercity rail line that would connect Atlanta, Griffin, Macon and eventually Savannah.
Now transportation officials are switching to bus service, saying they had trouble negotiating with Norfolk-Southern on sharing the corridor. Remember, Norfolk-Southern has moved its corporate headquarters to Atlanta. Did we as a community work to convince the railroad to help our region become more multi-modal.
At last week’s Norfolk Southern virtual annual meeting, Alan Shaw (the new president and CEO) was asked about the railroad’s relationship with passenger rail.
“We take our obligation to work with Amtrak seriously,” said Shaw, who added that passenger service is expanding in “a variety of locations” including Virginia and Pennsylvania. Shaw went on to say rail passengers and shippers deserve safe and reliable transportation, and he reminded shareowners that rail is a low-carbon mode of transport.
My question to MARTA, Norfolk Southern and Clayton County is if they have revisited a rail option in light of the passage of IIJA?
I have always envisioned a grand bargain between railroad companies and governments (federal, state and local) to have infrastructure dollars improve our railroad corridors (removing at grade crossings or double-tracking certain lines) with the condition railroad companies would permit more passenger service on their corridors.
Imagine the economic boost towns all along the rail line would get if intercity rail connected them to metro Atlanta.
The Atlanta Regional Commission is taking a deep look at the opportunities presented with the Infrastructure Act, and it is asking metro Atlanta residents to weigh in on the pivotal transportation decisions before us.
We as a region have an opportunity to see our future in a new light.
We have a choice before us. We can shape our city to be an urbanized, walkable center connected with rail. Or we can be a region that will forever be connected with roadways, fostering suburban sprawl and auto-centric developments.
To the transportation and elected leaders as well as residents in the Atlanta region — we can do this. We can build a multi-modal transit system that includes new rail — a move that would benefit our region for decades to come.