NEW DETAILS: MARTA plans commuter rail line for Clayton County

The MARTA Board of Directors next month will consider approving plans for a commuter rail line from East Point Station to Jonesboro and Lovejoy in Clayton County. Diesel-powered “commuter rail” trains - like this one in Seattle - are faster and can carry more passengers than MARTA’s existing electric-powered trains. (PHOTO COURTESY OF SOUND TRANSIT)

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MARTA is close to approving a passenger rail line through Clayton County that supporters hope will transform commuting and economic development south of Atlanta.

The 22-mile line would connect MARTA’s East Point station to Jonesboro and Lovejoy along the existing Norfolk Southern railroad right of way. The diesel-powered trains could be bigger and faster than MARTA’s existing electric rail vehicles and comparable to commuter railroads found in cities like Chicago, Boston, New York and Seattle.

MARTA also may upgrade bus service on a busy Clayton County route.

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The transit plans – to be considered by the MARTA Board of Directors next month – could give thousands of commuters quicker access to major job centers like downtown Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

And after decades of stagnation, the moves are another sign that MARTA is preparing for a major expansion deep into the region's suburbs – in part by offering new types of transitCobbDeKalbFulton and Gwinnett counties and Atlanta are all planning transit expansions.

“This is a new day in terms of services we can provide,” said MARTA General Manager Jeffrey Parker. “It builds upon the good things we already have.”

MARTA's latest expansion plans have been in the works for years. In 2014 Clayton County voters overwhelmingly approved plans to join MARTA and pay a penny sales tax for transit service. Half the money raised pays for bus service, with the remainder set aside for a future high-capacity transit line.

Since the referendum, MARTA has solicited public comment and studied its options for that line. Now the agency’s staff is recommending “commuter rail” – a type of transit new to Atlanta.

The diesel-powered commuter trains would differ from MARTA’s existing “heavy rail” electric trains. Commuter trains can seat up to 1,000 passengers, compared to 500 for MARTA’s existing trains. Commuter trains average 35 to 45 mph, vs. 30 to 35 mph for the existing ones.

The new line would parallel the Norfolk Southern tracks, using the same right of way. Parker said that would reduce construction costs, which have not been determined.

MARTA must still negotiate an agreement with Norfolk Southern to use the right of way - the railroad declined to comment. And the project must go through an environmental review before it can qualify for crucial federal funding.

But if all goes well, construction could begin in 2023, with the first passengers boarding in 2027.

In addition to the new rail line, MARTA may upgrade bus Route 196 from Southlake Mall to College Park Station, which carries some 3,800 passengers on an average weekday. The agency may upgrade it to a bus rapid transit line with an exclusive lane or priority for buses at stoplights, which would mean speedier and more reliable service.

Parker said the transit improvements will shape economic development in Clayton County and give residents faster access to Atlanta and other employment centers.

“MARTA is committed to making an investment throughout Clayton County,” he said.

A game changer

Commuter rail could usher in an economic boon for Clayton County, Morrow Mayor Jeffrey DeTar said. Because rail is more convenient for commuters, it makes locating near train stops more attractive because it creates a consistent clientele. And businesses congregate in areas where they know the money will flow.

“It is an economic driver,” he said of MARTA. “Everywhere they put in a station, development spurs immediately around that station.”

Before the transit referendum, it wasn’t uncommon for businesses to overlook the county because it didn’t have transit, said Jeff Turner, chairman of the Clayton County Commission. That effectively cut the county off from the some of the high-paying jobs that went north, despite arguments leaders tried to make that Clayton was the perfect location for business travelers because it’s home to Hartsfield-Jackson.

The business climate has improved since MARTA launched bus service, but it’s full potential lies in rail, he said.

“Having rail in the county would be a game changer,” he said. “Most companies want to see that in any master plan you have for development.”

County officials say the specific type of passenger rail matters less than making sure it happens.

“We want to see transit happen in our county,” Ricky Clark, chairman of the Clayton Development Authority, said at last Tuesday’s Clayton County Commission meeting. “We’ve waited long enough.”

Incoming Clayton Commissioner DeMont Davis said commuter rail could work. But he also wants MARTA to think of rail as an economic development tool for Clayton. He said MARTA has been a blessing to the community, but too often it’s used to transport Clayton residents to job centers in Fulton.

“I don’t want to spend $1 on rail [in Clayton] if it puts $20 in Fulton County’s pockets,” he said. “If we are going to build rail, we need to build it to where it begins to attract businesses that are going to pay strong wages in Clayton.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners expressed concerns that MARTA is taking too long to develop its rail plans for Clayton and a fear that the county could be forced to take a back seat to projects such as light rail to Emory University if leaders didn’t push the agency.

“Rail needs to be phased in as we can afford it, don’t wait forever ‘til we’re all gone,” said Commissioner Michael Edmonds.

A new kind of passenger rail

MARTA is proposing a “commuter rail” line from East Point station to Lovejoy. Though cities like New York, Boston Chicago and Seattle have commuter rail, it would be a new type of mass transit for metro Atlanta. Here’s how commuter rail trains stack up against MARTA’s existing “heavy rail” trains.

MARTA heavy rail

Power: Electric

Seats: 500 passengers per train

Service range: Up to 30 miles

Average speed: 30-35 mph

Stations: Spaced greater than one mile apart

Commuter rail

Power: Diesel

Seats: 250 to 1,000 passengers per train

Service range: Up to 50 miles

Average speed: 35-45 mph

Stations: Spaced two to four miles apart