MARTA’s choice for new transit line: rail or rapid buses?

A new southwest Atlanta rail line would be faster and more reliable than enhanced bus service on the same route, but it would be more expensive and take longer to build, a MARTA analysis has found.

Rapid bus service would be less expensive than a rail line and could begin operating sooner. But it would be less, well, rapid.

Those are just some of the trade-offs MARTA faces as it determines what kind of transit makes sense along a 6-mile stretch of Campbellton Road. The decision — expected this fall — will affect thousands of southwest Atlanta residents.

The Campbellton Road line is part of the agency’s $2.7 billion Atlanta expansion, made possible when voters approved a half-penny sales tax for transit in 2016. The project list includes light rail, bus rapid transit, station renovations and other improvements across the city.

Projects such as light rail on the Atlanta Beltline and the Clifton Corridor to Emory University have received more attention. But southwest Atlanta residents say the Campbellton Road line is crucial to improving the quality of life of people who depend on transit to get to jobs, medical appointments and other destinations.

The existing Route 83 along Campbellton Road is MARTA’s second-busiest bus route, serving more than 4,500 riders a day before the coronavirus pandemic took its toll on transit ridership.

Local buses get stuck in traffic, like other vehicles. It typically takes 30 to 40 minutes to get from the Barge Road park-and-ride lot to MARTA’s Oakland City station. That doesn’t count time spent getting to the bus and transferring to a train or another bus to reach a final destination.

“If commuting time was decreased significantly, it would be a game changer for their quality of life,” said Sherry Williams, a community activist who lives in southwest Atlanta.

A recent MARTA analysis found both light rail and bus rapid transit would cut commute times.

Light rail uses vehicles that are similar to the Atlanta Streetcar and smaller than MARTA’s existing heavy rail trains. It requires less right of way and costs less to build than heavy rail.

The MARTA analysis found light rail on Campbellton Road would cost $340 million to build and $13 million annually to operate. MARTA would need to acquire 12 acres of property along the route, and 144 driveways would be restricted to right turns only.

MARTA could build light rail in eight to 10 years, the analysis found. A trip along the full 6-mile route would take just 16 minutes.

Bus rapid transit would be almost as fast — 19 minutes from one end of the line to the other.

Bus rapid transit is faster than regular bus service because it uses exclusive lanes and other features to keep passengers moving. It mimics rail service with transit stations, pre-paid boarding and real-time information about arrivals and departures.

It would cost $100 million to build and $5 million annually to operate. MARTA would need to acquire 2 acres of property, and 20 driveways would be restricted.

Both light rail and rapid buses would operate partly in exclusive right of way and partly in traffic, like the streetcar. Trains would run in the center of the road, while the buses would run in outside lanes.

“Either choice, you’re going to have premium service and a big investment,” said Heather Alhadeff, MARTA’s assistant general manager of planning.

Some residents say light rail would be worth the extra cost and construction time.

“If we’ve waited this long, why don’t we get the best, most efficient (transit)?” Williams said.

Others would be happy with bus rapid transit. Nick Hess, chairman of a neighborhood planning council, said MARTA could always come back later and build light rail.

“I just want to see something where we can start seeing the benefits quickly,” Hess said.

MARTA is seeking more public comment and will make a recommendation to its board of directors later this year.


Campbellton Road transit: Have your say

MARTA is seeking public input on its transit plans for Campbellton Road in southwest Atlanta. It will hold an open house from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Fort McPherson Local Redevelopment Authority, 1794 Walker Ave. SW. Another open house will be scheduled in August.

For more information on the project, visit https://www.itsmarta.com/campbellton-corridor.aspx.