The drumbeat for mass transit is a dramatic turnaround for a region where suburban voters have historically resisted it. Just four years ago, metro Atlanta voters rejected a transportation sales tax that would have raised $7.2 billion for road and transit projects.
Since then, events have led residents and politicians alike to take another look at transit as a tool to ease the region's traffic and promote economic development.
Atlanta's world-class road congestion has continued to take a toll on commuters. This year's collapse of I-85 in Buckhead led tens of thousands of people to give MARTA a try. Though the ridership increase did not last, MARTA officials expect a rebound when gas prices rise.
Economic development concerns also have prompted a new look at transit. In recent years, companies like State Farm and Mercedes-Benz have opted to build new facilities near MARTA lines, opening the eyes of elected officials looking for an economic development edge. The state's bid for Amazon's new headquarters also has highlighted the scarcity of transit in Atlanta's suburbs.
MARTA hired CEO Keith Parker a few months after the transportation sales tax failed. Over the last five years, he's credited with shoring up the agency's finances, improving operations and mending relations with state lawmakers. Parker left this month to become CEO of Goodwill of North Georgia, but MARTA leaders expect to hire a top-notch replacement.
Though Georgia fares poorly in rankings of state spending on mass transit, lawmakers approved $75 million in one-time capital funding in 2015. And last spring, House Speaker David Ralston created a commission that could lead to ongoing state funding.
The commission's chairman, state Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, sees transit funding as the General Assembly's "next big lift" after it approved nearly $1 billion for road and bridge construction in 2015.
For all the talk by state officials, the actions of local voters and governments may be the biggest sign of transit’s changing fortunes.
Clayton County voters agreed to join MARTA in 2014, and last year Atlanta voters approved a $2.5 billion MARTA expansion. Now other local governments are talking transit.
In December, Fulton County mayors expect to unveil plans to expand MARTA deeper into suburbs north and south of Atlanta. Gwinnett County will unveil its own transit expansion plans early next year. Both counties may take those plans to the ballot next November.
Gwinnett Chairwoman Charlotte Nash believes attitudes about mass transit have changed since county voters last rejected MARTA in 1990.
“There certainly has been a change as our population has grown, as our traffic has gotten worse,” Nash said.
But skepticism remains. David Hancock, chairman of the United Tea Party of Georgia, sees mostly empty Gwinnett County buses driving around and wonders why taxpayers should pay more for transit services.
“I don’t think there’s a conservative that I know of who would be opposed to bus service if it was used. It would get people off the roads. It would be fantastic,” Hancock said. “But that’s not what happens.”
Local officials are pressing ahead, though the details of transit expansions may vary by county. Fulton County, for example, may embrace a mix of MARTA rail extensions and bus rapid transit lines. Gwinnett officials have expressed more interest in bus rapid transit.
If the details are right, some elected officials believe a majority of voters are ready to approve mass transit – even in areas that long resisted it.
“The (traffic) pain level is getting to the point where it’s not just something you complain about at dinner time,” said Cobb Chairman Mike Boyce. “It’s time to do something about it.”
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