MARTA sees metro Atlanta’s transit future in Indianapolis

INDIANAPOLIS — For years, MARTA has promoted plans for a major rail expansion in Atlanta and Clayton County.

But the high cost of rail and other factors have led the agency to reconsider some of those plans. Now MARTA officials say they have seen the future of transit in cities such as Indianapolis, and it’s riding on rubber tires.

Bus rapid transit is designed to mimic rail lines. It’s faster than regular local bus service. And though it’s not as fast as rail, it’s cheaper to build.

It doesn’t exist yet in Atlanta, but it has proliferated across the country in recent years. Metro Atlanta political and business leaders have traveled to places such as Los Angeles and Minneapolis-St. Paul to observe rapid bus lines in action.

This week, MARTA is leading a Clayton County delegation to Indianapolis, which the transit agency says offers the kind of rapid bus service metro Atlanta residents can expect. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution visited the city last month to assess the service.

Transit supporters in Indianapolis say its 3-year-old Red Line has been a boon to the community. Abigail Wittenmyer, a University of Indianapolis student, rides the bus a couple of times a week. It took her just 30 minutes to get to an internship this summer.

“It would have been an hour driving because of traffic,” she said on a recent afternoon.

But the transit line has had setbacks that have disrupted service. And critics say it has hindered motorists driving along the route.

In Atlanta, Deputy Manager Josh Rowan said MARTA officials are keeping an open mind about whether light rail or rapid buses make sense for a variety of transit projects. But the momentum appears to be with bus rapid transit. And not everyone likes the idea.

MARTA recently picked rapid buses over light rail for its Campbellton Road line in southwest Atlanta. The decision didn’t sit well with some residents, who fear they’ll be stuck with buses while wealthier areas get trains.

MARTA planned to build a commuter rail line in Clayton County. But after the Norfolk Southern railroad said it would not allow passenger trains in its corridor, MARTA is promoting bus rapid transit as an alternative — a key reason for this week’s Indianapolis trip.

The agency has long planned to build rail on the Clifton Corridor to the Emory University area. Now it’s signaling a growing interest in rapid buses for the line.

MARTA has even cast doubt on long-sought plans for rail on the Atlanta Beltline after a study showed one segment could cost twice as much as expected.

Some transit supporters say rail is the best choice in the long run. They say it’s more reliable than bus rapid transit and more likely to spark the kind of dense urban development Atlanta needs as it adds hundreds of thousands of residents in coming years.

“These are intergenerational infrastructure investments,” said Matthew Rao, chair of the advocacy group Beltline Rail Now. “It’s important that we get them right.”

Transit officials and some transportation experts say bus rapid transit, if done well, provides the benefits of rail at a discount price. Even if MARTA builds some new rail lines, bus rapid transit will be a big part of metro Atlanta’s transit future.

A look at Indianapolis’ bus rapid transit service shows what that future might look like.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

A train on tires?

“Public transportation” in metro Atlanta has traditionally meant either local bus routes or MARTA rail service.

MARTA buses stop frequently as they crisscross the region. Often, the stops are little more than signposts. The buses get stuck in traffic. They run as often as every 10 minutes or as little as once an hour — if they’re on time.

MARTA trains are more reliable than buses. They don’t get stuck in traffic, and they stop less frequently.

But rail lines serve a limited area and are expensive to build. MARTA says it could cost $500 million per mile to extend its current heavy rail lines.

Light rail is less expensive but not cheap. In 2020, MARTA estimated light rail costs up to $125 million a mile. It could cost substantially more today, given inflation.

MARTA officials say bus rapid transit can offer many features of rail without the expense — like a train on tires.

Passengers board at stations with amenities such as benches, payment machines and real-time information about arrivals. Buses offer “level boarding” instead of stairs, making it easier for people with bikes or wheelchairs to board. And they operate in bus-only lanes for much of their routes.

Those exclusive lanes allow buses to bypass other vehicles stuck in the regular lanes. MARTA’s proposed Summerhill line along Capitol Avenue will operate in bus-only lanes for 85% of its route. The Campbellton line will run in exclusive lanes for 92% of its route.

Rapid bus lines are relatively inexpensive, in part because they often operate on existing roads and require less right of way. MARTA estimates it will cost $130 million to build a rapid bus line on Campbellton Road, versus $340 million for light rail.

MARTA says rapid buses would travel the 6-mile Campbellton Corridor in 18 minutes — just two minutes slower than rail. And the bus line could open in 2028 — three years sooner than rail.

Comparisons like that have led MARTA to reconsider expansion plans made possible by voter referendums in Clayton County in 2014 and Atlanta in 2016.

In Atlanta, MARTA opted for rapid buses instead of rail on Campbellton Road. It’s also considering them for the Clifton Corridor. And it will build the region’s first bus rapid transit line — the Summerhill line — along Hank Aaron Drive/Capitol Avenue.

MARTA is moving ahead with a streetcar expansion that includes the first stretch of rail on the Atlanta Beltline. But a recent study found another Beltline rail segment could cost twice as much as expected, and a MARTA official has said the project might be too expensive to compete for crucial federal funding.

In Clayton County, MARTA may scrap plans for commuter rail from East Point to Lovejoy because the Norfolk Southern railroad won’t allow passenger trains in its corridor. Bus rapid transit is a possible alternative. The agency also plans to build a rapid bus line from College Park to Southlake Mall.

Other potential rapid bus projects are planned for the top end of the Perimeter and Ga. 400. Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties also could build bus rapid transit lines in coming years. Eventually, the region’s rapid bus network could surpass MARTA’s existing 48-mile rail network.

Joseph Hacker, a transportation planning expert at Georgia State University, said bus rapid transit is a better choice than rail, if done right.

“It’s considerably cheaper than any type of rail. It’s also faster to implement,” he said. “If we’re talking about extending certain types of rail, it may not happen in my lifetime.”

But “done right” — with the full menu of raillike features — is an important caveat, Hacker said. For example, if the buses spend a significant amount of time in regular traffic, he said that “completely undoes the benefit.”

Rising costs have already prompted MARTA to cut two stations from the Summerhill line to save money. And MARTA recently revealed it has spent more than half the proceeds from its Atlanta transit expansion sales tax on enhanced local bus service and other operations — a move critics fear will hinder the development of new transit lines.

But MARTA has pledged to build “gold standard” bus rapid lines, and it’s using Indianapolis as an example of what that means.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

‘A great option’

Like Atlanta, Indianapolis held a successful transit expansion referendum in 2016. One result is the Red Line bus rapid transit service.

The 13-mile line has 28 stations and serves such destinations as downtown, the University of Indianapolis and neighborhoods such as Fountain Square and Broad Ripple.

Red Line stations have many of the features MARTA plans to implement in Atlanta, including level boarding, pre-boarding fare payment and electronic information signs. They also have security cameras and emergency call buttons.

The line’s 60-foot electric buses run every 15 minutes — more frequently than most regular buses. And 60% of the route is in dedicated bus lanes.

On a recent trip, passengers came and went as the bus made its way north from downtown to the Broad Ripple neighborhood. They sat in cushioned seats or clutched handrails. If it wasn’t quite like a MARTA rail car, it was roomier than a typical bus.

And for the most part, the bus kept moving. Once, a truck blocked the bus lane, and the driver had to maneuver around it. But it got back in the bus lane and sped on its way.

“We’ve taken all the best features of light rail,” said Inez Evans, president of IndyGo, the city’s transit service.

Matt Impink catches the bus about once a week, when he’s not riding his bike. It’s a three-minute walk from his home to the station and a 15-minute ride to work downtown.

Between the bus and his bike, Impink and his wife, Allissa, get by with one car.

“When it gets cold I end up riding the bus a lot more,” Impink said. “It’s a great option when it’s raining or I just feel like taking it.”

IndyGo says the Red Line has sparked $350 million of development. One example: A staffing company is building a $22 million headquarters near the Broad Ripple station.

“We’re starting to see the Red Line pay off for the kinds of investments we needed,” said Michael McKillip, executive director of the community development group Midtown Indy.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Repairs and delays

But there have been problems as well as successes.

During cold weather, the batteries on some of IndyGo’s electric buses didn’t hold a charge long enough to allow the buses to complete their routes. The manufacturer installed new charging equipment to address the problem.

More recently, IndyGo began more than $5 million in repairs and enhancements to its stations and bus lanes.

At the stations, it’s adding “rub rails” that allow buses to touch the platforms. That prevents damage to the bus and the platform, and it eliminates gaps that can be difficult for people with wheelchairs to cross.

The agency is also replacing pavement in the bus lanes at most of its stations. After only three years, some of the pavement is laced with cracks and potholes.

IndyGo officials attributed the problem to poor soil conditions and to the constant braking and accelerating of the buses at the stations. To address the problem, they’re installing thicker concrete.

But the work has required the agency to temporarily close some stations and detour buses. That means the buses are sometimes stuck in traffic. The wait between buses was 39 minutes at one station during a recent rush hour.

“With the road construction, the routes are all messed up,” Indianapolis resident Russell Rood said while waiting for a bus at IndyGo’s University station.

IndyGo plans to finish the work next year.

Critics cite other problems with the Red Line. State Sen. Aaron Freeman, an Indianapolis Republican, said it hinders motorists along its route because a lane of traffic is now open only to buses.

“I really think they’re doing this on purpose,” Freeman said. “This is an effort to force people to ride the bus.”

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

A national model?

MARTA also plans to close some existing lanes to regular traffic on its Summerhill and Campbellton lines. And the cost of replacing pavement along the Summerhill line contributed to a recent 49% cost increase for the project.

It may not be the last time. The electric buses MARTA plans to use are heavier than regular buses and will run more frequently, taking a greater toll on local roads.

“I suspect, in most cases, we’ll have to rebuild major sections of roads” on rapid bus lines, said Rowan, the MARTA official.

Rao, the Beltline rail advocate, has ridden the IndyGo Red Line and liked it. But he thinks Atlanta can do better.

“If you just want to have 6,000 people a day ride from Greenbriar Mall (in southwest Atlanta) and back, then bus rapid transit may be the way to go,” Rao said. “If you are trying to increase the density of the corridor for retail and employment, you need rail.”

Such arguments have not dampened the enthusiasm of bus rapid transit supporters. Hacker, the Georgia State professor, believes Atlanta’s rapid bus system could become a national model — if it’s done right.

“I could really see it working,” he said. “We could be the American poster child for bus rapid transit.”

Rowan said MARTA will do rapid buses right, with exclusive lanes that keep passengers moving. He said passengers won’t notice much difference between buses and trains once they’re on the vehicle. And he believes metro Atlanta will benefit as rapid bus lines proliferate.

“We’re going to get good at these kinds of projects,” he said. “It’s a commitment over a long term. We’re not going to get there over two or three years. We have to keep the long game in mind.”


MARTA’s bus rapid transit plans

  • Summerhill line in Atlanta: Opens 2025
  • Southlake line in Clayton County: Opens 2026
  • Campbellton Road line in Atlanta: Opens 2028
  • Bus rapid transit also may come to the Clifton Corridor in Atlanta, an East Point-to-Lovejoy line in Clayton County, Ga. 400 in Fulton County, and the top end of the Perimeter.