Transit Takes Giant Step in ATL

By Geoff Smith

After returning from cities like Chicago and New York City, people always ask, “Why can’t we build a rail system like they have up there?”

The answer is simple: It’s insanely expensive.

Depending on who you talk to, expanding MARTA’s rail line costs somewhere between $150 million and $350 million a mile. And that’s not easy for MARTA to raise considering the only funding it gets, other than through ridership fees, is mostly from sales taxes in Fulton, Dekalb and Henry Counties. To make any real progress toward expansion, the agency either needs to expand its presence to more metro counties, or start receiving more capital subsidies from the state. This session under the Gold Dome, it got both.

State Senator Brandon Beach has been working doggedly for years to try to bring together all counties in the metro area in the name of mass transit. He once made a video showing how it took him almost a full day to travel from Cobb, through Fulton and Dekalb, to Gwinnett County using all the various transit options. His hard work paid off with the passage of a bill in the House and Senate that will bring together 13 metro counties and the various transit systems under one umbrella to be branded as “the ATL.” The bill would put all county leaders at the same table and give them the option to bring to a vote an increase in sales tax to fund transit expansion. This is a huge infusion of potential capital fundraising going from three counties to 13 – two of which are Cobb and Gwinnett, although it is unclear to some of the commitment of Cobb.

The re-branding would start to take hold in 2023, which is when you would start to see the name change from MARTA to ATL, and the creation of a new logo. But for now, it allows our planning agencies to start thinking bigger in their planning of where to expand.

It appears that the expansion of any heavy rail line further north up GA400 is however off the table. Fulton County helped facilitate a study that culminated in all the North Fulton mayors coming to the table to weigh options for future expansion of public transit. Many thought expansion of the rail line to Holcomb Bridge Road in Roswell was likely. But according to an article by Patrick Fox at the Herald, Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann said there was only unanimous consent to go with a proposal that would add bus rapid transit service along GA400 and Holcomb Bridge Road, and arterial rapid transit along Old Milton Parkway, Medlock Bridge Road and Roswell Road.

Those civic leaders inside the perimeter seem to be more receptive to rail expansion. Especially since rail stations have become desired locations for corporate headquarters. Just recently State Farm and Mercedes-Benz settled on sites for new regional headquarters largely because of their close proximity to a MARTA station. Other large development projects have begun next to and around other stations throughout the city.

In addition to Beach’s bill in the Senate, Governor Nathan Deal allocated more than $100 million in his budget this year to go toward transit expansion. It may not equate to a mile’s worth of heavy rail expansion, but it is a good sign that the state is more focused on improving the metro area’s traffic problem.