Everyone’s watching Atlanta. No, not the (exemplary) television show, the lively transportation developments that are unfolding in real-time on both the regional and local level.
In a signal that attitudes in Georgia towards transit have shifted remarkably, lawmakers in both the House and Senate are in the final stages of crafting bills that would provide dedicated state funding for MARTA for the first time in its existence. Call it the Keith Parker effect – or the Amazon HQ effect – but suburban legislators are finally recognizing that transit expansion is critical to the Atlanta region’s long-term economic competitiveness, and are applying a sense of urgency. Both versions of the bills would allow the 13 counties surrounding Atlanta to impose sales taxes for transit projects, with voter approval, and to “opt in” to the MARTA network, which currently only covers Fulton, Dekalb, and Clayton County. They also propose new taxes and fees – such as a surcharge on taxis and ridesharing services and goods sold at the Atlanta airport – that would go towards funding transit projects, as well as a potential bond package related to transportation construction.
But the funding wouldn’t come without strings attached. As part of the proposal, lawmakers are considering rebranding MARTA – the name of which some say carries historical baggage – as “The ATL,” and replacing MARTA’s governance structure with a regional transit board, the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Commission.
So far, Atlantans seem generally supportive of the rebrand. However, the merits of transforming MARTA’s governance are a little less clear cut. According to local transit advocate Danielle Elkins of Advance Atlanta, “there’s a sentiment that creating this new transit authority will convince suburban counties that have opposed past MARTA expansion efforts to get on board.” But at what price? Nationally, regional transit governance, of which Denver and Dallas are two prominent examples, often results in resources being redirected from the places where transit is the most likely to succeed – i.e. dense cities – to instead build expensive, low-ridership trains to places where there is political might, but no appropriate land use. The structure of the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Commission board is yet to be determined, but the details will be critical – the Board should be charged with evaluating transit based on key merits like ridership and supportive land-use.
Meanwhile, within the city of Atlanta, useful transit improvements are already materializing, thanks to the ½ cent sales tax approved by voters in 2016. According to Assistant General Manager Ben Limmer, MARTA has added 5,000 new miles of bus service a day. “We’re implementing high frequency, high quality bus service, building the ridership base and transit-supportive land uses for future BRT and light rail,” he explained. While ridership is down on the system overall, it’s up on the new high frequency routes.
MARTA has also partnered with local and state entities to funnel money into streetscape improvements on North Avenue and Cambellton Road, and will begin construction soon on improvements to Capitol Avenue, a future BRT corridor that will have off-board fare payment, dedicated right of way, and transit signal priority. Another aspect of Atlanta transit that’s slated for a major upgrade is the universe of bus stops – of the current 9,000, only 10% have shelters. MARTA has a fully funded plan to construct 1,000 over the next five years, in locations that have high-boardings and compatible surrounding land uses. MARTA will also be replacing and renovating all elevators in its rail system. On the technology side of things, it rolled out WiFi on its trains and buses in January, and will be debuting mobile ticketing in the fall. Regarding land-use, two transit-oriented development projects with a sizeable affordable housing component will open at MARTA stations later this year.
As part of the 2016 referendum, voters approved a “menu” of transportation projects. This summer, MARTA will be coming back to them with more specific questions about which projects they’d like to see prioritized. Elkins of Advance Atlanta cautions that the process may become politicized, particularly because of the unknowns surrounding the new Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom’s transportation priorities. Could the order of projects change? Could a bus-rapid transit corridor become another underperforming streetcar? “There was a huge public outreach process for the referendum itself, and if the projects change significantly it may impact our ability to get voter approval on future referendums,” said Elkins. In Limmer’s view, providing a public service is always infused with politics, but he believes the Mayor’s priorities align with MARTA’s – both would like to see equitable investment of public dollars across a city that is infamous for transportation challenges, especially for its poorest residents. In an emailed statement, Mayor Bottoms said, “I believe the people of Atlanta deserve a comprehensive transit network…I will continue to work with MARTA to expand rail throughout the city, including expansion of light rail into Southwest Atlanta, to create much needed connectivity and balance for the City.” Says Limmer, “the Mayor is aware of the public sentiment for what’s wanted and needed – and we expect she’ll be in tune with what the public desires.”
All eyes on you, ATL.