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New transit options coming to metro Atlanta

MINNEAPOLIS – For decades, mass transit has mostly meant one of two things across metro Atlanta: heavy rail that serves only a fraction of the region; or local bus service that, depending on where you live, is either unreliable or nonexistent.

But thanks to new technology and a potential windfall of funding, the region is embracing new forms of public transportation that could transform commuting in the economic capital of the South.

Someday, light rail may snake through Atlanta from Emory University in the east to Greenbriar Mall in the southwest. Bus rapid transit lines could run deep into suburbs that traditionally have been hostile to public transportation. Arterial rapid buses that can pre-empt traffic signals may keep commuters rolling even on crowded city and suburban streets.

None of these exist in metro Atlanta today. But local officials are developing plans for all of them. While heavy rail lines could take decades to build, the cheaper alternatives they’re embracing might transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of commuters in the next few years.

“It’s a new day now,” said Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary. “We’ve got some other options.”

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Some metro Atlantans aren’t sold. They say they’ve waited decades for MARTA’s heavy rail to reach their communities, and they’re not willing to settle for less.

“We are not interested in them starting us off with … bus rapid transit,” said Waymon Norwood of the DeKalb County NAACP. “We’re not going to be pushed off on that.”

Lary was one of more than three dozen DeKalb political and business leaders who traveled to Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, earlier this month to catch a glimpse of what they believe is metro Atlanta’s transit future.

There, light rail lines link such regional destinations as the Mall of America, the airport and the two cities’ downtowns. The trains are smaller and carry fewer passengers than MARTA’s heavy rail. But getting them up and operating usually costs less – $150 million to $250 million a mile versus $250 million to $300 million for heavy rail.

Bus rapid transit lines like this one in Minneapolis operate in special bus lanes or in express lanes to keep them out of regular traffic. Bus rapid transit could be coming to Atlanta and its suburbs in coming years. DAVID WICKERT/AJC (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The Twin Cities also have rapid bus lines that feature fewer stops than traditional local bus service and mimic many of the qualities of rail service. For example, passengers board at stations and pay at kiosks before getting on the bus.

Bus rapid transit vehicles operate in their own lanes, allowing them to avoid heavy traffic. Arterial rapid transit buses operate in regular traffic, but get priority at stoplights and use other tricks to keep moving.

The Twin Cities’ A Line, which operates on busy commercial thoroughfares, 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 who toured the transit lines said they could work in metro Atlanta.

“I’m loving what I see,” said Lary, the Stonecrest mayor.

Though the Atlanta region has far fewer options right now, a new state law could spark a transit-building binge. It allows 13 metro counties to raise sales taxes for mass transit, and local officials are responding.

Currently, MARTA’s heavy rail operates in Atlanta and parts of Fulton and DeKalb counties. But the system hasn’t expanded since the agency finished the Red Line to North Springs in 2000.

The state operates commuter buses across metro Atlanta. And MARTA and other agencies operate traditional local bus service, though service is limited in many suburbs.

DeKalb and Cobb County officials are preparing transit plans with an eye toward future expansions.

In March Gwinnett County residents will consider a 1 percent sales tax that – among other things – would allow the county to extend MARTA heavy rail to Norcross and build a system of rapid bus lines. Fulton County officials also are considering a referendum to build bus rapid transit lines along Ga. 400 and South Fulton Parkway.

In Atlanta, MARTA is finalizing plans for a $2.5 billion transit expansion that features 21 miles of light rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit, four arterial rapid transit lines and other improvements.

Light rail, like this line in Minneapolis, carries fewer passengers than MARTA-style heavy rail, but generally costs less to build. MARTA has proposed 21 miles of light rail lines in Atlanta. DAVID WICKERT/AJC (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Experts say the car-centric region needs to diversify its transportation network to give commuters more options as its population continues to boom. Catherine Ross, a transportation systems planning expert at Georgia Tech, said the mix of transit in Atlanta’s plan “points us in the right direction, toward the kind of integrated transportation system we need.”

Lee Biola, president of the advocacy group Citizens for Progressive Transit, understands those who are wedded to the idea of heavy rail service. He called MARTA’s heavy rail system the “gold standard” for transit – it can carry more passengers more efficiently than other modes of transportation.

But Biola said there’s a reason the system hasn’t expanded in nearly two decades.

“We can’t afford any more of it, unfortunately,” he said. “It’s gotten much more expensive to build, and there’s much less money now to build it than there was when we built (MARTA) in the ’70s.”

Competition for crucial federal funding is stiff. And some local officials say the new, cheaper transit options will allow them to stretch local dollars further and open transit lines faster.

For example, DeKalb Commissioner Jeff Rader said it could take 25 years to get heavy rail out I-20 east to Stonecrest, as originally envisioned. But with the state planning to build express lanes on the Perimeter and I-20, bus rapid transit could be operating within a few years.

“The truth is, people are certainly entitled to keep waiting for heavy rail,” Rader said. “But we’d like to have (transit) sooner.”

Metro Atlanta transit expansion

Previously: Gov. Nathan Deal signed a new law that lets 13 metro Atlanta counties raise sales taxes for mass transit, with voter approval.

What’s new: Atlanta and several counties are finalizing transit expansion plans.

What’s next: Gwinnett County voters will consider joining MARTA in March.

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