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The ATL remains bullish on future of transit despite shocks of COVID-19

By David Pendered

The region’s transit agency sends an important message in its first major report related to the crisis that is the coronavirus pandemic. The ATL remains bullish on transit and its future.

ATL, operators

The nine largest transit operators in metro Atlanta provided more than 100 million trips in the fiscal year that ended June 30. Credit: ATL

The report contains no indication of wavering commitment to transit within the state agency. The Georgia Legislature established the ATL in 2018 to provide a more unified transit system in the 13-county metro area by knitting together the region’s various transit providers.

The ATL’s 2020 Annual Report and Audit provides a 150-page snapshot of the region’s transit programs, to include some of the agencies’ challenges and successes.

The report acknowledges the setback presented by the pandemic and repeatedly cites projects that can move forward, such as electric transit vehicles.

ATL Chairman Charlie Sutlive and Executive Director Chris Tomlinson set the glass-half-full tone in their introductory remarks, which read in part:

ATL job access via transit

Fulton County has the greatest number of jobs in metro Atlanta that can be reached by transit within a 45-minute commute. A dramatic drop in access via transit is noted in surrounding counties. Credit: ATL

  • “It is impossible to ignore that this year’s report includes the first four months of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. While this report covers some of the darkest moments of the pandemic, it also highlights just how vital transit is to the Atlanta region. Transit is the lifeline for frontline workers who stock shelves, keep schools safe and sanitized, and prepare food for the residents of our region….
  • “A robust, coordinated, regional transit system is key to the sustained economic growth of the Atlanta region and the State of Georgia.”

Examples of hope expressed by local transit leaders include:

  • Tye Salters, director of Henry County Transit: “We will continue to find ways to provide uninterrupted and safe service to all residents.”
  • Victoria Huynh, vice president of Center for Pan Asian Community Services: “During the pandemic, CPACS has dedicated some of its transportation resources to delivering critically needed resources like food and medicine to residents living in low-income households.”
  • Greg Powell, Cherokee County’s director of transportation: “’Team’ describes our people and organization at CATS. We have pulled together during the pandemic and served the community with very few complaints. People have known the risks and have done their jobs seamlessly and with a smile on their face.”
ATL annual report, household income

45% of transit riders in metro Atlanta report annual households incomes in the range of $20,000 to $49,999, according to ATL’s annual report. Credit: ATL

The report’s conclusion cites some of the great unknowables about the exact composition of transit. The presumption is that mobility needs will not return to their pre-pandemic shape even if COVID-19 fades as a threat to public health.

The question of where folks will work and reside is among the unknowables. Telecommuting may continue, reducing travel demand to job centers in submarkets in Perimeter, Buckhead, Midtown and Downtown Atlnanta. The ATLs report observes:

  • “Impacts on real estate and land use, which closely relate to the success and planning of transit, are also still evolving. The region will need to monitor the situation on the ground to understand whether short-term responses such as increased pressures on suburban housing markets in some places and reductions in office occupancy will last over the longer term.”

This is one of the sections where the glass-half-full aspects of the report appear, in statements including the following. The boldface text is in the ATL’s report:

  • “At the same time, the pandemic illustrates and even accentuates existing truths about the role of transit in supporting the region and its people and businesses. This includes the imperative to provide affordable mobility and the centrality of transit to achieving equitable access to jobs, healthcare, and essential services. Transit, by supporting these goals, has and will continue to make the region more economically inclusive and competitive.”

The ATL and MARTA are collaborating on initiatives including the BRT route to MARTA’s Five Points Station. Credit: Kelly Jordan


ATL, state bond recommendations

Despite uncertainty related to the pandemic, the ATL board voted in September to send a list of nine projects with a total cost of about $2 billion for consideration of state bond funding. The list went to the Legislature and Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. Credit: ATL


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 for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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