Metro Atlanta has a new agency that’s supposed to make transit smoother — so what’s it going to do?

By Maggie Lee

A new metro Atlanta transit agency is starting work, with the heavy job of networking regional buses and the train into a more reliable and practical system.

“The whole idea of being county-specific is obsolete,” said Michael Thurmond, one of the 16 members of the board of The ATL, the new state-created transit authority that covers 13 counties, several transit operators and something near five million Georgians.

Thurmond is also CEO of DeKalb County — and he’s being the example of how he wants this to work.

The ATL covers 13 counties and is split into 10 districts. Courtesy: The ATL

The ATL covers 13 counties and is split into 10 districts. Courtesy: The ATL

“I want you to emphasize this,” said Thurmond, speaking to SR on Monday: “I’m not on the board  just to represent DeKalb. My district encompasses DeKalb, Gwinnett and Rockdale. My vision and my commitment will be multi-jurisdictional.”

Most of the board members were chosen in the same complex way he was: elected by a delegation of elected officials from each of 10 county-line-crossing “transit districts.

And the job their agency has is to cajole, nudge, advise, inspire and incentivize counties and MARTA to get metro Atlanta’s transit systems working together.

Right now, Atlanta plus three counties (Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton) raise their own transit sales taxes and have cut separate deals with MARTA to run their transit. In March, Gwinnett will vote on similarly raising money and joining MARTA. Other counties run their own systems, some of which are very modest. The state has the Xpress commuter bus that operates across several counties.

And right now, coordination among any set of these is somewhat ad hoc, when it even exists. For example, MARTA talks to its members, and answers if any other counties call. But it’s not in the business of trying to storm counties that don’t want it. So one effect is that links between MARTA and non-MARTA counties aren’t what they might be. Or take Xpress and MARTA: both services have apps and serve some of the same areas, but the two apps don’t show each others’ buses.

Howard Mosby, an ATL board member from Stone Mountain, was among the lawmakers who overwhelmingly voted to create the agency earlier this year. In The ATL, he said, “we have an opportunity to break down a lot of the silos and barriers that MARTA could not do.”

Chris Tomlinson already spends his time trying to get people from one end of metro Atlanta to the other. He’s executive director of the joined pair of Georgia agencies that run Peach Pass, Xpress and more. He’s also temporary director of The ATL. The ATL is still in “formation” phase, as he put it, since the state Legislature authorized its creation earlier this year.

When Tomlinson describes what The ATL has ben up to so far and what he sees it doing, he keeps using the word “seamless.”

No matter who’s operating any given bus or train, “the customer shouldn’t have to figure that out,” Tomlinson said.

It should be, well, “seamless.”

Chris Tomlinson

Chris Tomlinson leads The ATL, as well as two joined state agencies that work on other transit and transportation projects.

One way you might do that is standardizing some things: make ticket machines look the same; make sure apps show the whole system; when mobile ticketing is set up, make sure it works everywhere.

Tomlinson sees that as being one role for The ATL: a voice for technical standards and coordination among the counties and agencies.

Another way is making sure to speak up for looking at projects through a regional lens. For example, he said, a lot of projects have good people looking at that specific project, like the folks planning the north metro bus rapid transit lanes on Ga. 400. But The ATL is already involved in those conversations too, he said, making sure to speak up for seamlessness.

That means things like one look and feel across the system, ticketing uniformity, buses that coordinate their schedules with the trains their customers are taking.

One thing that passengers may notice, however, is a new brand: starting next year, trains and buses will be branded in some way with a new not-yet-designed logo designating them as part of “The ATL.”

ATL staff will also work on some things the public won’t see: like streamlining how counties plan their transit, setting itself up as an agency that can receive federal dollars and so on.

Tomlinson said one criticism of The ATL he hears is that relatively few people transfer from Xpress to MARTA. But he said that’s a bit of vicious cycle.

“If it’s not easy to do, then you’re not going to have a lot of people that do it,” he said.

But he said making it easier to transfer could help get not just more commuters, but also people going to special events like Braves games.

When state lawmakers set up The ATL, they made it clear that counties (and the city of Atlanta) will still decide what, if anything, they want to fund and build. The ATL doesn’t take away that local power.

But there’s a lot of transit momentum at the local level, Tomlinson pointed out. The Aerotropolis area is studying transit, so is Douglas County; Cobb may consider more transit, and DeKalb is working on its transit plan.

Given all those local efforts, Tomlinson said the question is how to connect them across the region.

So the “how” is underway. The “why” has a lot to do with jobs.

Thurmond used to be the state’s labor commissioner. It gives him some serious perspective on what workers need — “workers” isn’t just people coming in from Gwinnett and Cobb down to jobs Downtown.

“There are thousands, and tens of thousands of DeKalb people who work in Gwinnett and vice versa,” Thurmond said. “Any enhancement in Gwinnett will help in DeKalb and vice versa.”

He said it’s his wish and expectation that service will be enhanced for everyone once The ATL is running. The whole region is interconnected, he said, and has to work together to improve economic growth and quality of life. The ATL will be part of the interconnection.

Mosby said the south metro is the greatest growth opportunity in the region — parts have less traffic than the north side, more space, and all of it is convenient to the airport, for example.

But much of the south metro is residential, and parts aren’t so well connected to transit. A company looking to locate a facility in parts of south metro Atlanta knows that a worker from, say, Alpharetta would have a hard time getting there. Equally, folks living in parts of south metro know it would be tough to get to Alpharetta for work every day.

Maybe better connections would mean better outcomes for both sides of town.

“We have an opportunity here to really take a regional look at activity,” Mosby said.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was also elected to The ATL board, at a vote earlier this month. As she made her speech ahead of the vote, she related the story of her grandmother, who relied on the bus for decades to take her from home off MLK to a job at Lenox Square.

What that job meant, said Bottoms, was that her grandmother could help buy clothes and defray tuition for her grandchildren, to help support her household.

“She was able to do that because of transit,” said Bottoms. “Because there was someone in the room like us making decisions on her ability to get from northwest Atlanta to a job in Buckhead.”

She said if elected to the board, she would not take it lightly, and that she would think of her grandmother, all the folks looking for a way to provide for their families.

The ATL’s first board meeting is scheduled for Dec. 14.

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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