MARTA signals growing interest in rapid buses on Atlanta’s Clifton Corridor

Credit: MARTA

Credit: MARTA

MARTA is taking another step toward bringing rapid buses — instead of light rail — to one of Atlanta’s largest employment centers.

The agency announced Tuesday that it will schedule a series of public meetings this summer to solicit public comment on bus rapid transit and light rail options for the Clifton Corridor line from Lindbergh station to the Emory University/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention area. Previously, MARTA had said it planned to build light rail on the corridor.

“Following a national trend, MARTA is embracing the benefits of BRT (bus rapid transit) — faster delivery, most cost-efficient use of resources — along with providing a flexible and reliable premium transit service that is like rail,” the agency said.

Tuesday’s announcement is another signal that MARTA may back away from plans to build 29 miles of light rail in Atlanta. The agency announced those plans in 2018, saying it would build rail on the Clifton Corridor, Campbellton Road and the Atlanta Beltline.

Plans for Campbellton Road have already changed. In February, MARTA announced its intent to build bus rapid transit on the route.

That sparked a backlash from some residents and city officials, who fear southwest Atlanta will get a bus line while wealthier parts of the city get rail. MARTA has spent weeks trying to convince residents it plans to build a “gold-standard” transit line on Campbellton Road.

MARTA has not formally backed away from plans for rail on the 22-mile Beltline loop. But a recent study found light rail on a key Beltline segment would cost twice as much as expected, and a MARTA official said the project might be too expensive to compete for crucial federal funding.

In March, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported MARTA was considering bus rapid transit for the Clifton Corridor. Tuesday’s announcement suggests the agency is moving further in that direction.

MARTA said it has had “promising discussions” with CSX railroad about the transit line and sees “the potential for significant federal funding.”

The agency said it recently held a series of meetings with representatives of Atlanta, Decatur and DeKalb County, as well as Emory and the CDC. It laid out 10 possible bus rapid transit and light-rail alternatives.

It plans to seek broader public input on those options in June and July and to select a preferred alternative by October.

Cities such as Denver, Los Angeles and Minneapolis have built bus rapid transit lines, but it’s a type of public transportation that would be new to metro Atlanta. Rapid buses mimic rail lines, with limited stops, exclusive lanes and other features that keep passengers moving. The buses stop at transit stations and passengers pay before they board.

Bus rapid transit costs less and can be built more quickly than rail. On Campbellton Road, for example, MARTA estimates bus rapid transit would cost $130 million to build and $4.8 million annually to operate. Light rail would cost an estimated $340 million to build and $12.5 million annually to operate.

Critics say light rail is more permanent than rapid buses and more likely to spark the kind of economic development associated with successful transit lines.

MARTA plans other rapid bus lines in Atlanta and Clayton County.