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Metro Atlanta is riding the wrong bus into the future

A MARTA Bus.

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.

Here is the “More MARTA” (approved by Atlanta voters in 2016) that the MARTA board adopted in 2018. (Special: MARTA.)

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.

After Clayton voters agreed to join MARTA in 2014, they were able to have bus service restored on March 21, 2015; but plans for rail service never materialized. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

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.

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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18 Comments

  1. J Lawrence Miller May 16, 2022 9:21 pm

    Why isn’t Atlanta doing rail when so many cities are? MARTA hasn’t built any rail in 20 years. They have PROMISED *LIED TO US*! THEY LIE WHEN THEY SAY IT’S A COST ISSUE!! HELL… The City has $3.5 million just sitting there!

    Contact Mayor Dickens at:
    Mayor–Andre Dickens
    (404) 330-6054, adickens@atlantaga.gov

    Contact your City Council member. Councilman Amir R. Farokhi is the Chair of the Transportation Committee

    arfarokhi@atlantaga.gov

    Councilman Antonio Lewis is Vice Chair of the Transportation Committee: anlewis@atlantaga.gov

    Where the hell is the commitment they made to us when they were running for office!!

    As resident the idea that I agreed to increase MY tax burden for something I now probably won’t get and the reason is based on a lie is horribly wrong. The idea that what I see on paper to the Atlanta Regional Commission that says RAIL but MARTA says “oh no the fact it says ‘rail’ is not what we wrote. We wrote ‘rail but hey… it doesn’t matter.”

    What the hell happened to equity? Is it just a buzzword to MARTA? How are they saying transit oriented development but don’t include future proofing by including rail.

    Ugh.Report

    Reply
  2. Joe Toblin May 16, 2022 9:44 pm

    There are major advantages of Bus Rapid Transit to Light Rail, especially on the Beltline. Faster implementaion and lower overall costs are the largest ones. What really matters how it’s engineered and it needs mostly dedicated ROW. MARTA’s studies on Cambellton Road show that there is not a great difference in speed between the two. The key is making sure BRT has dedicated ROW. The big advantage of BRT on the Beltline is at chokepoints like Bill Kennedy Way where the existing bridge can be used. Light Rail would need another bridge, the best transit option is one that is cost efficient and equitable.Report

    Reply
    1. M. Geyer May 16, 2022 11:45 pm

      Mr. Toblin,

      You have a point, but the people of Atlanta, especially young people, want rail. Money has been allocated again and again for rail expansion and Marta just shies away from it. How often did we hear governors of Georgia in the 1980s and 90s say: “It’s time to widen 285.” The city is an embarrassment when it comes to the lack of rail. Heavy rail lines in Atlanta basically form a T or cross: a north south route and an east west route. For six million people? It’s a joke.Report

      Reply
    2. J Lawrence Miller May 17, 2022 3:34 am

      I’m sorry but no. There are zero advantages, and in fact significant disadvantages, to bus of any kind on the Beltline. You mentioned a choke point. MARTA has the brain power and capacity to overcome this single issue along the 22 miles. Are there more choke points? Not enough to deny the residents the promise we were given to cause us to increase our own tax burden!

      Tying together the many neighborhoods with rail is a significant advantage. Creating an equitable fast access toand from neighborhoods who have been “left behind” for decades and access to jobs and amenities not in those neighborhoods is a significant benefit. Atlanta BeltLine, Inc (ABI) ADMITS the concrete path already laid and upcoming trail build-out is already designed for light rail! Time for building? Oh puh-leeeze! Rail was designed from the very beginning! For over 20 years. Read Ryan Gravel’s thesis. Read the legislation that created the Beltline TADS. Read the statements from the Mayor to City Council members.

      Sir, rail on the Beltline,embedded in grass in so much more environmentally friendly. Rail on the Beltline, and other locations is an answer to the significant inequities historically suffered by too many of the residents of our City. Rail is an answer to the build-out of the thousands of new housing units that are coming to Beltline neighborhoods.

      There is no single argument MARTA can make, other than time and the time issue is the fault of MARTA SO DON’T PUNISH THE RESIDENTS FOR THAT! This City is growing and the answer to that growth is rail.Report

      Reply
    3. Helen E Ensign May 29, 2022 9:44 am

      You are shortsighted. As someone who lives near the Campbellton Road corridor, and who commuted from the increasingly congested Moreland Ave corridor to Clayton Co for work for 9 years, just cramming more big empty busses onto the road ls is never gonna fix our traffic problems! We need more rail, with shorter, quicker bus nodes between rail stops. The traffic congestion in the city is ridiculous, but MARTA goes so few places, and takes so long to get there, that in many cases you are almost better off walking. Once upon a time the city had a comprehensive streetcar network. Now we have overcrowded streets that are hazardous for everyone. And where is Marta? Doing another study? Why don’t Marta officials just ride their own system? Wait 45 minutes on a platform in 5points? Try to find a functioning fare machine? Sit and watch the traffic from a bus window? Stand in the rain or the blazing sun, or try to cross Buford Highway or S Moreland to get to a bus stop? Smh. We deserve better.Report

      Reply
  3. Dana Blankenhorn May 17, 2022 9:42 am

    I hate to disagree since I live next to the East Lake MARTA station.

    But the energy savings betweren rail and tires aren’t huge, and computerization means traffic patterns are going to change faster than you can build rail infrastructure to adapt. The present system is a dinosaur.

    We’re looking at a future of electric vans and non-scheduled service. You want to give everyone the same flexibility in moving about. That should be the goal.

    MARTA should learn where and when to offer service, and drop the fixed schedule entirely.. My station’s parking lot is full only when United or the Falcons are playing. Doraville’s parking decks make a good overflow for the Airport. Take some hints from the market.Report

    Reply
    1. Beverly Miller May 17, 2022 10:33 am

      Mr. Blankenhorn, you have just proven the point that Atlanta needs more rail. Why is your parking lot full when Atlanta United or the Falcons play? Because there is a huge demand for getting to the games using rail. People prefer to use rail because it’s fast and efficient. Why is the lot not full at other times? Because MARTA doesn’t currently connect those people to other places they need or want to go. Connectivity is the answer. Construct more rail, including the 22 miles of light rail on the BeltLine. We need rail connections to more locations, as well as connectivity among our existing rail lines.

      Those people going to the games could already call an on-demand ride-share instead. But they know that having all those vehicles on the road causes more congestion and that it takes longer to reach their destination when everyone is caught in traffic in individual vehicles. Unlike rail, cars and vans are not efficient at moving large numbers of people at the same time.
      Plus using ride-share is more expensive.

      For these reasons, I take MARTA whenever I can and often choose to go places where it’s possible to take rail instead of going to other places that would require me to drive or to call a ride-share. That’s one small example of how rail also spurs economic development.Report

      Reply
  4. Gary McKillips May 17, 2022 9:58 am

    Great editorial, Maria! I believe Atlanta gets a bad rap for its traffic now. It isn’t any worse than most other major cities. But if rail transportation is not improved, the myth we live under will become a reality. The answer is not busses chugging along increasingly crowded highways. Rail is a must!Report

    Reply
  5. Steve Berman May 17, 2022 10:14 am

    Thank you Maria for, as usual, bringing our attention to this important matter. Keep up the great work.Report

    Reply
  6. Tom Aderhold May 17, 2022 11:30 am

    Maria:

    As usual, you are right on track with the correct answer on mass transit. The longer we wait for rail the more it costs…

    TEAReport

    Reply
  7. Brian Sumlin May 17, 2022 10:22 pm

    I hope MARTA gets its act together. I knew “all along” that this MoreMARTA program has major descrepanies. They should had never signed that IGA because look what’s happening in real time corridor by corridor and there must be other options to achieve “all” modes on transportation systems in our communities here in Atlanta. When are we as a City going to get it right? Developers prefer light rail more so vs. BRT. Honestly like I said last summer if MARTA is not willing to comply with what the people put on the project list, then there needs to be other repercussions and give other transportation entities a chance who is capable of delivering equitable Transit systems such as rail a chance to participate in establishing light rail systems in our communities.Report

    Reply
  8. Edward May 18, 2022 12:28 am

    An amazing article and i 100% agree with your assessment. It would truly benefit this behemoth of a metro to have rail extensions. It would breathe new life into the region and ensure sustainable growth for generations to come. Hopefully there is reconsideration going on.Report

    Reply
  9. David May 18, 2022 8:15 am

    I agree with your article.. Th MARTA Board need to read the history of MARTA
    There is plenty of history on Marta design, construction, operation, social issues etc.
    1. Complete the original MARTA Act 1970, see plans in archive.
    A. Extend line from the airport to South Fulton cities ,Fairburn, Palmetto
    B. Extend the west line to Fulton Ind Blvd.
    C. Complete line from Candler Park Station to Emory via the RR right of way from turnout from Candler Park station.
    D. Complete East line to Lithonia / Stonecrest Mall via RR right of way.
    E. Complete existing traction power building with acceleration and de-acceleration energy saving system.(the original plans had space reserved at each station in the first phases.)
    F. Coordinate with GA Dot to using existing turnout under WSB TV, north line, to parallel I-75 with rail system.
    Also, during 1998 -2006 see: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-106shrg87176/html/CHRG-106shrg87176.htm
    RAIL PASSENGER SERVICE IN THE STATE OF GEORGIA ———-
    Page
    Hearing held on December 6, 2000…………………………… 1
    Statement of Senator Cleland………………………………. 1
    Witnesses
    Barnes, Hon. Roy, Governor, State of Georgia………………… 35
    Prepared statement……………………………………. 37Report

    Reply
  10. Deb Harris May 18, 2022 11:48 am

    I agree with this article totally! I live in Clayton County and am very disappointed with the MARTA plan to use buses after a promising rail plan. We are already 20 years behind in establishing a real rail system for a sprawling metro area. Can we get elected officials who will commit to something for the future and eliminate the clogged highways.Report

    Reply
  11. Daniel Bryant May 19, 2022 2:13 am

    We are also in an election year.

    Stacey Abrams needs to get on this. She needs to have a real plan to create a state-sponsored metro wide transit agency that has the power to negotiate with CSX and NS and build lines from state tax revenue.

    Democrats have been too afraid to offer solutions and they keep losing elections because they don’t have anything to offer.Report

    Reply
  12. Patrick M May 19, 2022 7:45 am

    MARTA doesn’t want to do rail because they refuse to consider any other way of doing rail outside of their heavy rail trains. They could easily do what dozens of states do for commuter rail, especially down to Clayton County. Use a diesel engine until the line get overhead electrical and use regular commuter rail cars like many other systems use, and build a simple siding station across from Southlake Mall and another one at Clayton State. It only needs to be a place to get on the train and get off. Not a hulking monstrousity like other MARTA stations. East Point station is already setup to be a transfer point. Done. But this simple plan doesn’t provide meat for the usual contract bidders and will not take decades and curry favors for board members looking for their next jobs. Nope. They want their heavy rail that costs a fortune. They are unwilling to consider anything else. And NS saying no is all the excuse they need. See mom? NS said no so that’s that! I used to work next to that NS line and it was empty 90% of the time. Passenger rail would never be a problem.Report

    Reply
  13. Patty May 21, 2022 5:48 am

    I think MARTA board members need to be replaced with people who are rail advocates because Maria’s column is spot on. We’re wasting time and money that should be spent on rail that is being spent on buses.Report

    Reply
  14. Mike Michaels May 23, 2022 7:34 am

    Metro Atlanta is failing on almost all fronts. City departments are non-functioning. Our leaders cannot have a vision and stick to it when the road gets bumpy…Report

    Reply

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