Mass transit finds new momentum in metro Atlanta


Business leaders are talking up mass transit. Lawmakers are studying it.

But the surest sign that the push for better public transportation is gaining momentum in metro Atlanta is this: Several local governments are preparing to put measures on the ballot.

Fulton and Gwinnett County officials are finishing transit studies with an eye toward seeking voter approval of expansion plans next November. Cobb County also has begun a study that could lead to a future transit vote. MARTA is researching its options for an expansion along I-20 in DeKalb County.

Already, Atlanta and Clayton County have approved new sales taxes to pay for transit expansions. If voters in other counties follow suit, metro Atlanta could soon see the biggest transit building boom since construction on the MARTA system began more than 40 years ago.

“I think voters in this region are ready to embrace transit in a very big way,” said Dave Williams, a vice president at the Metro Atlanta Chamber. “So many signs point toward some good things happening.”

The drumbeat for mass transit is a dramatic turnaround for a region where suburban voters have historically resisted it. Just four years ago, metro Atlanta voters rejected a transportation sales tax that would have raised $7.2 billion for road and transit projects.

Since then, events have led residents and politicians alike to take another look at transit as a tool to ease the region’s traffic and promote economic development.

Atlanta’s world-class road congestion has continued to take a toll on commuters. This year’s collapse of I-85 in Buckhead led tens of thousands of people to give MARTA a try. Though the ridership increase did not last, MARTA officials expect a rebound when gas prices rise.

Economic development concerns also have prompted a new look at transit. In recent years, companies like State Farm and Mercedes-Benz have opted to build new facilities near MARTA lines, opening the eyes of elected officials looking for an economic development edge. The state’s bid for Amazon’s new headquarters also has highlighted the scarcity of transit in Atlanta’s suburbs.

MARTA hired CEO Keith Parker a few months after the transportation sales tax failed. Over the last five years, he’s credited with shoring up the agency’s finances, improving operations and mending relations with state lawmakers. Parker left this month to become CEO of Goodwill of North Georgia, but MARTA leaders expect to hire a top-notch replacement.

Though Georgia fares poorly in rankings of state spending on mass transit, lawmakers approved $75 million in one-time capital funding in 2015. And last spring, House Speaker David Ralston created a commission that could lead to ongoing state funding.

The commission’s chairman, state Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, sees transit funding as the General Assembly’s “next big lift” after it approved nearly $1 billion for road and bridge construction in 2015.

For all the talk by state officials, the actions of local voters and governments may be the biggest sign of transit’s changing fortunes.

Clayton County voters agreed to join MARTA in 2014, and last year Atlanta voters approved a $2.5 billion MARTA expansion. Now other local governments are talking transit.

In December, Fulton County mayors expect to unveil plans to expand MARTA deeper into suburbs north and south of Atlanta. Gwinnett County will unveil its own transit expansion plans early next year. Both counties may take those plans to the ballot next November.

Gwinnett Chairwoman Charlotte Nash believes attitudes about mass transit have changed since county voters last rejected MARTA in 1990.

“There certainly has been a change as our population has grown, as our traffic has gotten worse,” Nash said.

But skepticism remains. David Hancock, chairman of the United Tea Party of Georgia, sees mostly empty Gwinnett County buses driving around and wonders why taxpayers should pay more for transit services.

“I don’t think there’s a conservative that I know of who would be opposed to bus service if it was used. It would get people off the roads. It would be fantastic,” Hancock said. “But that’s not what happens.”

Local officials are pressing ahead, though the details of transit expansions may vary by county. Fulton County, for example, may embrace a mix of MARTA rail extensions and bus rapid transit lines. Gwinnett officials have expressed more interest in bus rapid transit.

If the details are right, some elected officials believe a majority of voters are ready to approve mass transit – even in areas that long resisted it.

“The (traffic) pain level is getting to the point where it’s not just something you complain about at dinner time,” said Cobb Chairman Mike Boyce. “It’s time to do something about it.”

MYAJC.COM: REAL JOURNALISM. REAL LOCAL IMPACT.

The AJC's David Wickert keeps you updated on the latest in what’s happening with transportation in metro Atlanta and Georgia. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

Never miss a minute of what's happening in Atlanta transportation news. Subscribe to myAJC.com.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Another arrest made in shooting at university
Another arrest made in shooting at university

Another person has been arrested in connection with a shooting that injured two people at Albany State University in southwest Georgia, university police said Saturday.  Ronderrious Huntley, 20, was charged with aggravated assault, and he’s being taken to the Dougherty County Jail, according to a news release.  University police still...
Certified recount gives Atlanta City Council post to Bond
Certified recount gives Atlanta City Council post to Bond

After a recount of votes cast in a race for at-large Atlanta City Council seat, Fulton County election authorities officially certified the results that showed incumbent Michael Julian Bond narrowly defeating challenger Courtney English. But the contest may not be over. The Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections’ unanimous vote...
Rain and cooler weather on the way
Rain and cooler weather on the way

Today: Clouds in afternoon. High: 70 Tonight: Wind and rain. Low: 42 Tomorrow: Windy. High: 54 Saturday’s warmth and rain should give way to cooler temperatures Sunday and into the week. Rain should move into metro Atlanta on Saturday by 8 p.m., according to Channel 2 Action News. Sunday’s high is forecast at 54, far below the 70 expected...
Bodies of Atlanta rapper, cousin found
Bodies of Atlanta rapper, cousin found

The bodies of an Atlanta rapper and his cousin have been found in Alabama, according to authorities. The bodies of Edward Reeves, whose stage name is Bambino Gold, and cousin Kendrick Stokes were found in Macon County, Ala., the sheriff confirmed. The bodies were found Friday night and Saturday, according to a report by WTVM, a...
Documents: Montana congressman misled investigators after assaulting reporter
Documents: Montana congressman misled investigators after assaulting reporter

A Montana congressman misled investigators about his assault on a reporter the day before he was elected in May, claiming that “liberal media” were “trying to make a story,” the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported Saturday, citing audio and documents. U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, told an officer in an audio interview...
More Stories