MARTA committee approves plans for Atlanta transit line

Credit: Chris Day

Credit: Chris Day

The MARTA board of directors Thursday took a big step toward finalizing its plans for a new transit line along Campbellton Road in southwest Atlanta.

The board’s planning committee voted to select bus rapid transit — not light rail — as the preferred alternative for the line, a move needed to pursue crucial federal funding. The full board is expected to finalize the decision in July.

MARTA officials said the transit improvements — along with sidewalks, bike lanes and other improvements included in the project — will be a boon to southwest Atlanta.

“This project has the potential to have a lot of impact on that area,” board member Bill Floyd said after Thursday’s vote.

It’s the first in a series of big decisions MARTA faces as it expands and revamps its metro Atlanta transit services. The agency expects to pick a preferred transit mode for its proposed Clifton Corridor line over the next year. It also plans to decide whether to redesign its bus network with more frequent service on fewer routes.

MARTA’s transit network didn’t change much for years after its initial burst of rail construction ended in 2000. But transit referendums in Clayton County and Atlanta in recent years have MARTA poised for expansion.

The agency expanded its local bus service into Clayton in 2015, and it’s planning two high-capacity transit lines (most likely bus rapid transit) in the county in coming years.

In 2018 MARTA announced plans for 29 miles of light rail, 13 miles of bus rapid transit and other improvements in Atlanta. But in recent months the agency’s plans have begun to change.

MARTA began a detailed study of the Campbellton Road Corridor nearly three years ago — the kind of study needed for federal funding. In February, it released its findings, recommending bus rapid transit instead of light rail.

Bus rapid transit differs substantially from regular local bus service. It uses exclusive lanes to keep passengers moving while regular buses are stuck in traffic. Bus rapid transit also includes features that mimic rail lines — including transit stations, pre-boarding fare payment and real-time information signs.

MARTA found rapid buses would cost far less than light rail ($130 million versus $340 million). It also found a rapid bus line could open in 2028 (three years sooner than light rail) and would be almost as fast (18 minutes for the full 6-mile trip) as light rail (16 minutes).

Credit: Courtesy of MARTA

Credit: Courtesy of MARTA

The plan prompted a backlash from many neighborhood residents and some Atlanta City Council members. They feared southwest Atlanta residents would be stuck with buses while wealthier neighborhoods got rail service.

MARTA spent months selling southwest Atlanta residents on bus rapid transit. That effort appears to have mollified some critics.

Neighborhood activist Sherry Williams said many of those who demanded light rail either didn’t live in the area or didn’t use transit. She said she was persuaded that MARTA stands a better chance of getting federal funding with bus rapid transit than with light rail.

MARTA faces other tough choices in the months ahead.

The agency recently announced it will consider rapid buses for the proposed Clifton Corridor line between Lindbergh station and the Emory University/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention area. The Clifton Corridor also was originally planned to be light rail.

MARTA won’t make a final decision on the Clifton Corridor until early next year. But Emory has said it would be fine with rapid buses.

In addition to choosing the type of transit for those two lines, MARTA must decide whether and how to redesign its local bus network.

A consultant recently told MARTA its current bus network skews toward providing less frequent service over a broad area. The consultant said MARTA could increase ridership by providing more frequent service on fewer routes.

Any big changes to local bus service likely will prompt a backlash from residents who no longer have a route within walking distance. MARTA could opt to cover the affected areas with a new on-demand shuttle service. The agency is running a pilot program on the on-demand service in a few neighborhoods.