Atlanta gambles on MARTA expansion amid declining transit use

Ryan Esslinger (left) of Dunwoody, would love to take MARTA more often. But he finds himself using it less instead. Transit ridership is declining in Atlanta and across the country. ALYSSA POINTER/ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Ryan Esslinger (left) of Dunwoody, would love to take MARTA more often. But he finds himself using it less instead. Transit ridership is declining in Atlanta and across the country. ALYSSA POINTER/ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Ryan Esslinger would love to take MARTA more often. But the Dunwoody resident is using transit less, not more.

He sometimes catches a train to the airport or an Atlanta United game. But he seldom takes MARTA to work in Buckhead anymore. He can drive it in 30 minutes or less. Using MARTA takes 45 minutes, in part because he has to drive two miles to the nearest station.

“I could take the train,” Esslinger said. “But I’m already in the car.”

Esslinger isn’t the only MARTA customer who’s found other ways to get around. Transit use in metro Atlanta and across the country is declining – a phenomenon fueled by the rise of telecommuting,ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft and other factors. The number of passenger trips on MARTA trains and buses fell 22 percent over the last decade, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of federal transit data found.

Even as their customer base shrinks, MARTA and other local transit agencies are planning what critics say is an ill-advised building boom. Critics say it makes no sense to build expensive transit lines when fewer people are using them. Supporters say more transit is needed to address metro Atlanta's awful traffic congestion.

MARTA plans to build 21 miles of light rail and 18 miles of bus rapid transit lines. Gwinnett County may extend MARTA rail service to Norcross. FultonCobb and DeKalb counties also are mulling transit expansions.

Benita Dodd, vice president of the fiscally conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation, said fewer people are using transit because they have more and better options. She said it’s a bad idea to spend billions of dollars on new rail lines when ride-hailing services and autonomous vehicles may transform America’s transportation network in coming decades.

“It’s a huge mistake to take two steps back into 19th-century technology when there’s so much promising technology in front of us,” Dodd said.

Others say traffic congestion will only get worse as the region adds millions of new residents, and roads alone can’t handle them.

“Transportation systems just can’t be structured so that all five million of us can get from Point A to Point B in our preferred way (cars),” said Lee Biola, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit. “It’s physically impossible.”

Experts say declining transit use is a sign that big changes are coming to the industry – including new technology and more private-sector involvement - just as Atlanta is placing a $2.5 billion bet on the traditional model of public transportation.

A changing transit landscape

In 2008, the nation was reeling from the Great Recession, and MARTA’s business was booming.

Gas prices topped $4 a gallon. People who couldn’t afford to drive suddenly found transit a viable option. MARTA ridership soared 8 percent to nearly 159 million trips that year.

A decade later, MARTA faces a very different landscape.

Gas prices, though rising, are well below 2008 levels. The economy is booming, and many people with more cash in their pockets have abandoned buses and trains for cars.

“Transit is just simply not the preferred means of travel” for most people, said Steven Polzin of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.

Beyond cyclical factors like the economy, Polzin said fundamental changes have taken a toll on public transportation.

More people are working at home instead of commuting. They're shopping online instead of traveling to the store. They're hailing an Uber or Lyft or using a shared bike instead of catching a bus.

As a result, transit ridership fell 7.1 percent nationwide over the last three years even as service expanded, according to Polzin’s research.

MARTA ridership peaked in 2008 and has fallen for most of the last decade, the AJC analysis found. It fell 2.6 percent last year to 124.4 million trips despite the collapse of the I-85 bridge, which temporarily sent many commuters scrambling aboard trains and buses.

Transit use fell 4 percent in Gwinnett County last year and 7 percent in Cobb, the analysis found.

Transit officials say some of the decline was caused by reduced service or increased fares. But safety and reliability concerns also discourage some potential riders.

Bobby Mercado of Candler Park used to catch a MARTA train to work in downtown Decatur. But he said late trains sometimes kept him waiting in the scorching heat of summer or the freezing cold of winter.

MARTA says its trains are on time 97 percent of the time. But CEO Jeffrey Parker said occasional problems make an impression on customers.

“When it’s that 3 percent, and it goes really, really bad, I’m going to remember that for a long time,” Parker said.

MARTA buses – which get stuck in traffic like other vehicles – have an on-time rate of 78 percent.

Demands for more service

Some transit customers want more service.

Lakeyia Graham of Jonesboro uses MARTA to get to her job in Sandy Springs. The bus stops outside her apartment complex, but it runs only once an hour. And it takes two hours by bus and train to get to work.

Now she sometimes takes an Uber to work. The trip can cost $25, but she sometimes gets discounted fares. And it takes only 30 to 40 minutes.

Graham said many residents appreciate MARTA's 2015 expansion into Clayton County. But she said more frequent bus service or additional routes would make her commute easier.

“Before they had it, a lot of people were stuck,” she said. “But the buses are always packed. Can we just revamp it a little bit?”

Transit officials say the complaint they hear most is that trains and buses don’t go where people want to go. That’s where expansion plans come in.

In 2016, Atlanta voters approved a half-penny sales tax that’s expected to generate $2.5 billion for transit construction over 40 years.

MARTA recently unveiled its plans for spending that money. The projects include:

*Twenty-one miles of light rail lines, including the Clifton Corridor from Lindbergh Station to the Emory/CDC area and a third of the Atlanta Beltline.

*Eighteen miles of bus rapid transit lines.

*Three arterial rapid transit bus lines.

*Two new bus transfer centers, plus improvements to numerous MARTA stations.

Dodd, of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, said bus rapid transit – cheaper and more flexible than rail – could be a good investment. But she said rail service is too expensive and takes so long to build that Atlanta’s light rail network may be obsolete by the time it’s completed and paid for.

Polzin, the transportation researcher, said 21 miles of new rail “is certainly not out of scale for that community.” But he said rail could be a risky investment, given rapidly changing transportation technology.

An uncertain future

Transit supporters say expansion plans – including rail – make sense.

According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, about 74,000 people use public transportation to get to work in the five largest metro Atlanta counties – about 4.3 percent of workers. That may not sound like much, but it means tens of thousands of fewer cars on the road.

MARTA CEO Parker likened it to difference in traffic many people notice when school is out.

“Removing a little bit of car traffic has a huge impact,” he said.

What’s more, metro Atlanta is expected to add another 2.4 million people by 2040. Supporters say transit must play a big role in keeping traffic manageable.

“What transit is doing is trying to prevent the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Parker said.

Despite declining ridership, Polzin, the transit researcher, also sees a future for public transportation. He said there simply isn’t enough road space to accommodate growing traffic in major metro areas like Atlanta.

Polzin said transit agencies across the country are streamlining bus routes and expanding service on weekends and nights to attract more riders. They’re also improving the quality of service with automated fare payments, apps that provide real-time schedule information and partnerships with ride-hailing services.

MARTA has tried many of those fixes and more in recent years, with mixed results. Ridership rose in 2014-15 before declining again the last two years.

Polzin said transit use nationwide might stabilize in the short term. In the long run, he said public transportation is likely to change dramatically as technology evolves. Exactly how it will change is uncertain, but he said in the future transit services may be provided by a mix of public and private agencies.

Meanwhile, with traffic getting worse, Polzin said transit agencies in places like Atlanta should keep trying to woo riders.

“The pain of congestion is very real,” he said. “These places need strategies and tactics to address it, and transit needs to be a part of that.”

Transit in decline

Experts say a variety of factors has led to a nationwide decline in transit use in recent years. Among the factors:

*Rising car ownership

*Cheap gas

*Ride-hailing services



SOURCE: Congressional Research Service