Clayton’s transit future - MARTA rail or high-speed buses?

Resuming local bus service in Clayton County after a five-year hiatus was the relatively easy part in meeting the county’s immediate transportation needs.

Now, as MARTA marks its second anniversary in Clayton this month, county and MARTA officials are turning their attention to creating a high-capacity transit system that meets the county’s future needs.

MARTA is working with an advisory group in Clayton that includes residents, businesses, neighborhood associations and educators.

Clayton must decide whether it wants - and can afford - the fully-loaded high capacity transit package of a high-speed commuter rail that could take at least a dozen years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. Or will it be a more scaled-down transit plan such as a high-speed, aerodynamic bus that travels alongside motorists but at a faster-clip in a designated lane? Or something in between.

The advisory group will help “guide us through a locally preferred alternative for high capacity,” said Don Williams, senior director of transit system planning for MARTA. “They will provide us with input from the community.”

In the meantime, MARTA’s presence and ridership has grown steadily in the last two years. Its nine bus routes resemble a spiderweb of activity in the county. On an average day, there are some 16,200 boardings on MARTA buses in Clayton.

On Friday, the 196 bus, which runs from College Park Station to Southlake Malldeposited Linda Brown-Westermoreland to her job at Chime Solutions at the mall where she’s a call center representative.

“It’s fabulous,” she said as she hurried to her job.”I can always depend on them. When a bus breaks down, there’s another one within 15 minutes.”

Brown-Westmoreland said she has been riding the bus twice-a-day, five-days- a- week from her College Park home to her job since MARTA resumed service in March 2015.

Across town, at the Harold R. Banke Justice Center off Tara Boulevard, several buses waited as a small group assembled to ride the bus.

It was Sharika Coleman’s first day riding and she was trying to decide which bus to take to her new job at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Randy Moon was on his way to do some carpentry work in Lovejoy. The 24-year-old is saving up to buy a car. Until then, MARTA is his transportation. He is happy with the service but he said “it still needs some work.”

He says he’d like to see the transit agency extend its Saturday hours. Moon rides the 800 bus, which goes from the Justice Center to Lovejoy. The 800 runs from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. Other riders have said they’d like to see more bus shelters to help guide against the elements. The county and MARTA have worked to allay fears that the transit system would increase crime. In response, MARTA opened a police precinct in Morrow across from Southlake Mall.

Veteran MARTA bus driver Zedric Tyner has been driving the Clayton 196 route for about a year.

“There’s high ridership, very high demand,” said Tyner who has been with MARTA for 22 years.

Ridership on most Clayton routes are holding steady or increasing, MARTA officials say. For instance, ridership on Route 191, which goes from the airport and makes various stops throughout Clayton en route to the justice center, has increased 48 percent to more than 500 boardings a day. Route 196 continues to be the most heavily-used, with more than 3,700 riders per day. This is up 9 percent from the first year.

The robust ridership serves as a springboard for the agency’s work in trying to bring more types of transportation to the county of 273,000.

MARTA is looking at a number of potential corridors for the new high-capacity system whenever it’s chosen: I-85, the Norfolk Southern rail line, Tara Boulevard and Ga. Hwy 85 in Riverdale.

“There may be others as we go through the planning process,” Williams said.

If the county is leaning toward some sort of rail, negotiations must be worked out with Norfolk Southern, which currently runs freight through the county. A system would like be built using some type of rail that would run alongside the Norfolk Southern line that’s part of the the existing rail right of way, Williams said.

“We’d want to buy some of right-of-way to lay down our own track,” Williams added.

In any case, it’s a patience-building process that involves community as well as federal input for what will be years of planning and tweaking, a top planner at MARTA says.

“We’re evaluating the potential for light rail, commuter rail, heavy rail as well as bus rapid transit,” Williams said. senior director of transit system planning for MARTA.

Here’s what’s likely to be involved in creating Clayton’s MARTA high-capacity system:

- First, Clayton must decide the overall purpose and need of high capacity. In short, will it be a higher-speed bus or some sort of light or heavy rail? Will it need a transit system that ferries people mainly to and from Atlanta or in and around the county?

- Then, the decision must get federal blessing for design work and other studies as well as money to start developing the project.

- Finally, if all goes well Uncle Sam could likely chip in half of the money needed for the project, Depending on what mode of transit is chosen, project construction would begin.

“When you’re talking about actual construction, it could go up to hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on the technology and length of the alignment of the project,” Williams said. “We’re in the early stages now. We’ll be seeing the buses for another 10 to 12 years.”

For more details, read more here.

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