Opinion: Atlanta’s light is at the end of a MARTA tunnel

During the height of rush hour on March 30, thick black smoke swelled above Atlanta. First responders sprung to action to tame the massive fire roaring beneath I-85 in Atlanta. As we all watched the news unfold, our hearts stopped when the bridge collapsed before our eyes. This breathtaking moment was a shock to our system – a shock our city sorely needed.

The I-85 bridge collapse forced thousands to consider new forms of commuting. Surface streets flooded with cars. Commute times doubled. Many turned to public transit, and they saw that the light was at the end of a MARTA tunnel.

Six years ago, I sold my house in East Cobb and moved to a condo in Midtown Atlanta, where our car almost always stays parked. I walk to work and use MARTA regularly to move around town. Since the bridge collapse, I have seen so many new faces on the train. My friend Conor Sen with Brookhaven’s Planning Commission was among those who were forced to consider MARTA as the alternative (Brookhaven ridership is up 67 percent since the collapse). In a recent email describing his experience, he noted a substantial number of MARTA riders exiting in Midtown. Conor said, “Midtown is our region’s Manhattan. Almost everyone in metro Atlanta is going to want to get to Midtown for one reason or another, and MARTA is how you get there.”

At the intersection of Peachtree and 14th Streets in Midtown (about 3 miles from the bridge collapse), our team at Colony Square has seen a noticeable change in commuting habits. And because connectivity is paramount, we’ve taken major steps to enhance mobility including: a new bike valet; a mobility concierge dedicated to identifying commuting alternatives; 24/7 TransitScreens detailing schedules of MARTA, Uber and Relay Bikes; and a redevelopment plan to enhance walkability, bikeability and overall connectedness between Colony Square and its surroundings. According to our mobility concierge, orders for transit pass programs, which provide a 20 percent discount on MARTA pass purchases, have doubled over the last month.

At our property in Alpharetta, Avalon, it’s a different story. Because of the 40-year suburban pushback on MARTA, the train is not easily accessible. What we have in global connectivity through the world’s busiest airport, we lack in local transit options. And with 2.5 million new residents expected to join metro Atlanta over the next 25 years, it’s time for us all to seriously commit to local connectivity.

Surface streets and interstates were less congested Monday morning.

Over my last 37 years in Atlanta, I have worked with the North American Properties team to create meaningful places that add value to their communities. At all of our places, we see connectivity as the most important amenity. Residents, retailers, office tenants and hotel guests seek it. So does the pool of top talent. It’s why MARTA is easily accessible to State Farm’s new headquarters. And NCR’s. And Mercedes-Benz’s. Bottom line, a strong network of transit service is key to Atlanta’s ability to compete globally for new business, new jobs and maintain and connect our talented workforce with opportunities.

The I-85 bridge collapse has the opportunity to be a pivotal point in Atlanta history. It served as the wake-up call that caused MARTA ridership to spike. And before that needle retreats back to where we were before, I challenge you, Atlanta, to really commit to public transit and embrace MARTA for your daily commute. And beyond that, I challenge you to see the light and advocate for MARTA and its expansion.

Our future depends on it.

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Mark Toro is managing partner of North American Properties.

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