MARTA one step closer to $2.5 B transit expansion plan

On Nov. 8, Atlanta voters will have a chance to give their transit system what proponents call an opportunity that comes along once in a generation.

The Atlanta City Council on Monday unanimously approved a list of projects — including a light-rail system, revamped bus routes and new transit stations — that are part of a plan to add about 200 miles to MARTA’s transit options. MARTA board chairman, Robbie Ashe, said the improvements and expansions have a chance to connect and transform Atlanta.

“This is the most important vote MARTA’s faced in 40 years,” Ashe said.

Now city residents will have to decide in November if the plans are worth a half-penny rise in sales tax, which would result in a projected revenue of $2.5 billion through 2057. The list of projects will not appear on the ballot when citizens vote on the sales tax increase.

The added tax would also add to an existing 1 percent MARTA sales tax city residents already pay, raising their overall sales tax from 8 percent to 8.5 percent.

One of the largest potential improvements is a light-rail system connecting the Beltline loop as well as Midtown, Southwest Atlanta and downtown. MARTA also proposes extending the heavy-rail Blue Line westward.

The plan calls for the building of rail stations at Murphy Crossing, Boone and Armour. Meanwhile, existing stations would receive rehabilitation, maintenance and additional signage.

The focus with bus transportation is to add rapid transit routes while also increasing frequency for local routes.

Bus services would include on Cascade Road, Campbellton Road, Metropolitan Parkway and Peachtree Road. Transit centers where drivers can park buses could also be added at Greenbriar Mall and Moores Mill.

Ashe said the proposed projects are more a menu of options than a definite list. While some of the choices are more crucial than others, Ashe said he and other MARTA officials will work with the public to see what they want.

Getting the MARTA expansion plan to this point has taken a lot of compromise since its initial debut in the legislature this past session.

It started as an $8 billion proposal by Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, however it faced opposition with lawmakers who wanted to see more studies about its viability or didn’t think it was right for their communities.

“This train needs to be slowed down,” Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said in February. “We are asking for regionalization. We are asking for the (Atlanta Regional Commission) to come up with a regional plan, and for work on a study committee.”

The result was a much smaller version of the ambitious plan.

If voters pass the half-penny sales tax in November, Ashe said they can expect changes in bus routes first. Aside from running more frequently to increase circulation, Ashe said MARTA wants to use smaller buses in some areas to provide more flexibility and longer buses in others to carry more passengers.

Other projects such as the light-rail system could take five to 10 years to complete.

These changes would have a huge affect on Atlanta, said Kari Watkins, an assistant professor in Transportation Systems Engineering at Georgia Tech.

“A lot of the problems we’ve had in Atlanta are because you only have one choice and when that option fails there are no other options,” Watkins said.

She said what other cities offer and what Atlanta lacks is variety. If someone can’t use the train, the alternatives are to either sit in traffic in a car or in a bus as there are currently no priority lanes.

With this expansion, not only will people have more options but those options will get them where they want to go faster and to more places than ever before, Watkins said.

She added that MARTA’s limited transit systems turns off rising generations looking for a place to live and work because unlike their parents, they’d rather spend the commute on their phone than behind the wheel.

These people also want to be more mobile without relying on a car, she said. Having alternative transportation whether it’s a bus, train, bike or otherwise factors into some people’s expectations when choosing a place to live.

Although nothing is guaranteed, Ashe said he’s confident the people of Atlanta want to see MARTA expand because if there’s one complaint he hears the most about MARTA’s services, it’s that there’s not enough.

“Atlanta is a place where the public wants more transit and they want it now,” Ashe said.

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