Transit in Metropolitan Atlanta

I stumbled upon an interesting article online at the Saporta Report website, which covers municipal topics in the Greater Atlanta Metropolitan Area, about transit expansion hopes put forth by Keith Parker, General Manager of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA).  He speaks on the fact that MARTA’s rail system was built around the same time that the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART system and Washington DC’s Metro Rail system were built.  According to MARTA’s website, MARTA was created in 1965 but the first part of the recommended 66-mile rail system was opened to the public in 1979.  Since then, MARTA has about two-thirds of its recommended rail system and only in a cross formation (a north and northeast line as well as a east-west line with a spur).

Here’s the link to the article:

Parker appears to be tightening MARTA’s belt, having turned a $33 million deficit into a $9 million surplus in the two years he has headed the agency, all while focusing on the employee and its ridership.  There’s an effort to make MARTA better for customers, in appearance and usability (e.g., the “Breeze” smart card and color-coding subway lines instead of naming them by cardinal direction).

He is also aspiring to expand the MARTA system beyond the City of Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties.  Which is interesting because when the plan was announced in the 1950s to create a regional transit system in the 1960s, all but Fulton and DeKalb counties withdrew at some point.  Clayton County to the south rejected the idea, from what I recall, and Cobb County to the west said absolutely not when we can create our own transit system.  Gwinnett County to the east wanted to be a part of the regional transportation planning commission but withdrew not long ago and formed their own transit system, much like Cobb did.  Good luck to MARTA with that.

Most of the issues in the region stem from all five counties not acting as a region but more as separate fragments, whether it’s road or transit planning.  There are a few differences between counties like Fulton and DeKalb and counties like Cobb and Gwinnett.  On the one hand, Fulton and DeKalb counties appear to have more lower-income and middle-income residents who live in a more urban environment with a need for mass transit or livery access.  Cobb and Gwinnett, on the other hand, are more suburban and sprawl-oriented with most residents having their own car or cars and make more money than those closer to Atlanta.

There appears to be a racial divide as well, since most low-income African-Americans live in Fulton and DeKalb, while more affluent whites live in outer counties.  That is not to say there aren’t any middle-income and upper-income blacks or lower-income whites, but the overtones are the same.  Cobb and Gwinnett will pay for their own services to connect to MARTA versus having MARTA services come to them, in the name of keeping “those people” within “their territory.”  Most of this thinking is derived from the ideas that in well-to-do counties, residents want to keep crime and trouble-making out of their jurisdictions by limiting their reach from areas like Fulton and DeKalb.

It appears that many Cobb and Gwinnett residents do work in Atlanta, but because of the socioeconomic nature of the MARTA service area, many would rather have their taxes pay for their own transit services into Atlanta than to pay an agency which could prioritize Fulton and DeKalb county transit infrastructure for those less well-to-do.  You do have quite the number of people who live in one county and work in another but have to travel through or around Atlanta using either Interstate 20 or Interstate 75/85, which means driving is the only reasonable way to commute.

MARTA isn’t as efficient in cross-regional travel since all rail service is in a cross formation and has to pass through Five Points in Downtown Atlanta and since most MARTA bus service is local and shuttle service.  There are express buses in the region, some operated by outer counties and others operated by the state, but they are mainly peak-hour buses to Atlanta.  For those who need to go from Cobb to Gwinnett or Clayton to Cobb would have to take several MARTA, Cobb, and Gwinnett services, which can take up to three times as long as driving.

The problem with transit in Atlanta isn’t insufficient transit options in Atlanta (quite the contrary with comprehensive though not exactly perfect coverage of DeKalb and Fulton Counties) or even the widespread suburban sprawl and freeway culture much like in Southern California (since most places in the metropolitan area outside of Atlanta is developed for sprawl and most conveniently accessible by car).  The problem is lack of political will in the dozen counties surrounding greater Atlanta to cooperate and discuss transportation and transit needs that would benefit metropolitan Atlanta.

Nothing new, it’s been this way pretty much forever.

Just ask Sam Massell, Buckhead Coalition president.

If MARTA wants to expand into other counties with rail and/or bus service, other counties will have to “suck it up” and work with Fulton and DeKalb counties, not so much the other way around.  The state government can kick in with their word in edgewise,…which they did, and created the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA), which operates the “Xpress” commuter bus system.  However, it’s park-and-ride-based, covers service between Atlanta proper and outer counties (Cobb, Gwinnett, Clayton, Douglass, Cherokee), and primarily operates during weekday rush hour periods.  The GRTA does not address transit concerns from people who commute from suburb to suburb, nor does it adequately address reverse commuters.  It does nothing for people who need to go from MARTA territory to non-MARTA territory.  That is something that can be addressed by getting all involved parties together to create a truly regional system, not one that just includes DeKalb and Fulton counties and connects with separate county services.  That also can apply to the road networks as well, as the nation has seen with the recent snow and ice storms that practically crippled metropolitan Atlanta.  Most of the issues that occurred during and after the storm had nothing to do with lack of experience with snow-fighting or ice remediation.  Instead, it had to do with finger-pointing and blaming each other for mistakes others made.  Yes, Atlanta streets were cleaned and most state and county roads may not have been, but there appeared to be lack of co-operation between the state and the counties bordering metropolitan Atlanta.  Most city roads were cleared, as well as some county and some state roads, but there were many that either didn’t clear enough roads or didn’t prepare enough to warn drivers of imminent dangers and to stay off the road if possible (which is almost impossible since many don’t use transit at all).

Nevertheless, as was the case even 50 years ago, there needs to be a consensus to deal with transportation issues and transit issues as a region, with all five counties surrounding Atlanta (DeKalb, Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett, and Clayton), even if it means involvement from the state level.  No more “white flight” ideologies from the 1950s, no more “our people versus those people” nonsense, and figuring out a steady, predictable funding source to plan for expansion of the reach of transit for those who need to commute across the region.  From solutions like HOV lane expansion to direct-access, park-and-ride, or community express bus service to outlying MARTA stations, even as far as a commuter rail system to serve as a regional rail network, all counties involved need to work with the state or independent of the state to make some of these transit improvements a reality to give commuters options as well as re-prioritize the road network.  Maybe given about 10 years, we would no longer hear about Atlanta’s traffic woes whether in fair weather or foul, about Atlanta versus the suburbs, or about transit measures getting rejected because the main transit system in metropolitan Atlanta can’t get its finances in order.

Maybe Atlanta can take a few notes from Detroit.  Or, the other way around.  Hmm…

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