MINNEAPOLIS – Some DeKalb County residents have waited for decades for MARTA rail to arrive in their communities, all the while paying the penny sales tax that has helped the system expand into other parts of metro Atlanta.
But if they want more public transportation any time soon, they should keep an open mind about rapid buses and other alternatives, some DeKalb County officials said after getting a first-hand look at new transit options in Minneapolis and St. Paul, this week.
More than three dozen DeKalb political and business leaders visited the Twin Cities to see their light rail, bus rapid transit and arterial rapid transit lines. Many came away convinced that transit options that currently don’t exist in metro Atlanta could help address its world-famous traffic problems and spur redevelopment in key areas.
“Expanding rail to every corner of the county is not going to happen,” said Stone Mountain City Councilwoman Chakira Johnson, part of the delegation that traveled to Minnesota. “But we could have better access if we look at the alternatives.”
That’s a hard sell for residents of east and south DeKalb, who have waited as other communities enjoy the benefits of MARTA’s heavy rail service. Some have grown impatient as Gwinnett and Fulton counties and Atlanta announce transit expansion plans.
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“What [transit officials] do is rationalize the fact that we don’t have much,” said John Evans, part of a group of residents who demanded rail service at a recent MARTA Board of Directors meeting. “We’re asking for our share.”
The Twin Cities trip captured the imagination of DeKalb officials as the county drafts its first comprehensive transit plan. The idea is to identify areas for future expansion and determine what type of transit works best for each.
For decades DeKalb’s transit choices have been limited mostly to MARTA heavy rail and local bus service. But transit technology has changed in the decades since MARTA laid its last rail line.
Meanwhile, a new state law allows DeKalb and other metro Atlanta counties to raise sales taxes for transit expansion. With Gwinnett holding a MARTA vote in March and other counties planning expansions, DeKalb officials are eager to get on with their own public transportation future.
Voters likely will have the final say over that future. A significant transit expansion in DeKalb could cost billions of dollars. To afford that, the county would have to ask voters to approve a new sales tax.
Still, this week’s trip to the Twin Cities was something of a transit shopping trip for DeKalb officials. They saw how state and local governments here have built light rail lines (which carry fewer passengers than MARTA’s heavy rail) and several types of rapid bus service that are faster and more dependable than traditional bus routes.
One example: St. Paul’s A Line rapid bus, which opened two years ago. Though it runs in regular traffic, it has fewer stops than a traditional bus line and has priority at traffic signals. It runs every 10 minutes and is on schedule 94 percent of the time. By comparison, MARTA’s local buses are on schedule just 80 percent of the time.
DeKalb officials say they could launch rapid bus service in a fraction and time and cost it would take to, say, extend MARTA heavy rail from Indian Creek to Stonecrest.
“You could do so much more with bus rapid transit,” said Stonecrest City Councilman George Turner, who traveled to the Twin Cities.
MARTA has long planned to extend rail service to Stonecrest. But heavy rail can cost $150 million a mile, and competition for crucial federal funding is stiff. Some DeKalb officials say it could take up to 25 years to complete a heavy rail line to Stonecrest.
So DeKalb’s transit study will take a fresh look at the options. One possibility: Bus rapid transit service that would take advantage of the state’s plans to build express lanes along the Perimeter and – eventually – out I-20. The state already plans such service along Ga. 400.
Some DeKalb residents aren’t interested in buses.
“We don’t want no more excuses,” Waymon Norwood of the DeKalb NAACP told the MARTA Board recently. “We want a train coming down I-20 all the way to Stonecrest, and we want more transit service in south DeKalb.”
County Commissioner Jeff Rader said the elected officials who visited the Twin Cities must convince their constituents that the heavy rail they have long sought isn’t the only good option.
“We can continue to expect something that’s going to be very difficult to deliver, or we can change our expectations,” he said.