MARTA General Manager/CEO Jeffrey Parker boards a train at the Five Points station next to a map of the rail lines and stops during a behind the scenes tour on Thursday, March 7, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Opinion: More MARTA’s projects will be mobility gamechanger

MARTA has been successful during the past 40 years by providing safe, convenient, and affordable transit service to all who needed it. As we work toward becoming a world-class system that continues serving our ever-evolving region, we’re implementing a host of timely and financially sustainable transit choices that will improve mobility, promote connectivity and spur economic development.

The $3 billion More MARTA Atlanta program, funded by an additional half-cent City of Atlanta sales tax, will help us reach those goals with a list of 17 game-changing projects based on robust and ongoing input from the public, elected officials, and other partners.

MARTA’s board this month approved a sequencing plan for building these projects which will ultimately transform the way residents and visitors move around the city, and throughout the Atlanta region, for the next several decades. After much deliberation and extensive planning efforts, the project schedule takes into account project readiness, network connectivity and geographical equity. Also of considerable import is available funding. In years past, rail construction was supported by federal dollars at a rate of about 80 percent. Now, the cost burden rests largely – approximately 60 percent – on local funds, making the need for a financially constrained plan even more critical.

The More MARTA Atlanta program has garnered broad and deep support, and with good reason. The plan includes fiscally prudent transit technologies that we expect to deliver on time, and on budget, including light-rail (LRT), bus-rapid transit (BRT), and arterial rapid-transit (ART). Most important, key components of the program will either be up and running or under construction within the next six years.

For example, BRT vehicles running in dedicated lanes, represent 21 percent of the city’s pending transit expansion, or about 14 miles. BRT is considerably less expensive than light or heavy-rail and is the nation’s fastest growing transit mode. It’s cost-effective, efficient, and can employ technology that gives it priority over other vehicles at traffic lights in busy intersections.

By 2025, we expect to be running BRT service on Capitol Avenue and the first phase of the North Avenue line. During that same period, 22 miles of ART projects – similar to BRT and representing 34 percent of the total expansion – are scheduled for completion on Metropolitan Avenue, Peachtree Street and Cleveland Avenue. They will complement major rail station upgrades planned for Five Points and Bankhead. The plan also includes $7 million in annual spending to improve local bus service, which is the core of our transit system.

The program’s early investment in bus-based transit modes has strong and compelling precedents that should not be overlooked or minimized.

In Cleveland, the HealthLine BRT system replaced 108 bus stops with 36 carefully planned stations and vehicles arriving in 10-minutes intervals during rush hour. It has reduced travel time by 30 percent and increased ridership by 48 percent in one year, exceeding the ridership of the bus route it replaced by about 60 percent. The Healthline delivered $9.5 billion in economic development along its route, which connects the region’s two largest employment centers. The return on investment is estimated at $190 to $1.

Likewise, Eugene, Oregon’s Emerald Express and Connecticut’s CTfasttrak also feature BRT’s hallmark elements and have increased ridership and reduced travel times. LA Metro’s Orange Line BRT, a 16-mile route that carries approximately 25,000 riders per day, is a relevant model for Atlanta’s proposed 14-mile system.

Light-rail transit, which represents about 44 percent of the More MARTA expansion, is planned for an eastward extension of the Streetcar by 2025 and, eventually, along Campbellton Road, the Clifton Corridor and the northeast and southwest segments of the Beltline. The Beltline and Clifton Corridor projects are exciting projects, to be sure. The 30 miles of LRT have longer timelines since they’re more complex and require innovative funding solutions to construct.

Bear in mind that More MARTA Atlanta is a 40-year program and likely will be modified as a result of project constructability, market conditions and funding commitments. The project sequencing is a roadmap to help us provide high-quality transit for each corridor and every community in Atlanta. As MARTA marks its 40th anniversary of combined bus and rail service on June 30, the substantial progress we’ve made on the More MARTA Atlanta program is a milestone worth celebrating.

Jeffrey A. Parker is general manager and CEO of MARTA.

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