More metro Atlanta counties explore transit options

Forsyth County is one of several metro Atlanta counties that are developing transit plans. (Photo courtesy of Forsyth County)
Forsyth County is one of several metro Atlanta counties that are developing transit plans. (Photo courtesy of Forsyth County)

Credit: Forsyth County

Credit: Forsyth County

Transit expansions have stalled in some of metro Atlanta’s largest counties amid failed referendums and squabbling among elected officials.

But some smaller suburban counties are taking tentative steps to embrace a bigger role for public transportation. Forsyth and Henry counties are wrapping up transit master plans that could lead to expanded services. Rockdale County may be next. Further out, Newton and Spalding counties have launched their own transit studies.

The counties’ interest in transit comes as Georgia officials have shown a new willingness to spend state money on transit construction. And it comes as the Biden administration has proposed spending tens of billions of dollars more on transit as part of a larger infrastructure package.

“We want to receive at least our fair share,” said Chris Tomlinson, executive director of the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority, which is assisting with some of the transit plans.

Tomlinson’s agency, known as the ATL Board, is itself a product of state officials’ new appreciation for public transportation. For years, the Republican-controlled General Assembly paid little attention to transit, except when it blasted MARTA as a boondoggle.

That began to change in recent years as metro Atlanta’s traffic problems worsened and as companies such as State Farm and Mercedes-Benz built major facilities near MARTA stations.

Three years ago, the General Assembly approved legislation that allows 13 metro Atlanta counties to raise sales taxes for transit expansion with voters’ approval. The law also created the ATL Board to oversee transit planning in the metro area, with the goal of creating a more seamless public transportation system.

To date the law has borne limited fruit. Gwinnett County sought to be the first county to capitalize on its local funding provisions. But county voters have rejected transit referendums twice in the past two years, most recently in November.

Fulton County has developed a transit plan, but county officials and local mayors can’t agree on how to pay for it. Cobb and DeKalb counties also developed plans, but they have not asked voters to pay for them.

Still, state lawmakers recently approved $6 million for the renovation of MARTA’s Bankhead station — the first time the General Assembly has approved a budget item specifically for the regional transit agency. And later this year the ATL Board is expected to recommend a list of projects for federal funding under the latest round of COVID-19 relief for transit agencies.

Meanwhile, some suburban counties are moving ahead with their own transit studies.

Forsyth’s study is focused mainly on improving its existing senior transportation and dial-a-ride services, which allow residents to catch rides to medical appointments and other destinations. But it also may recommend ways to improve commuting for some 80,000 Forsyth residents who work in other counties.

One long-range option: bus rapid transit service along the express lanes planned for Ga. 400 in Fulton and Forsyth.

“That’s the beauty of the study, which is to look at every mode of transportation that’s offered and see what benefits people the most,” Forsyth County Commission Chair Cindy Jones Mills said.

Forsyth recently joined the Atlanta Regional Commission, a planning agency and conduit for federal transportation funds. Mills said the move will expand Forsyth’s eligibility for funding and allow it to work more closely with adjoining counties.

“Close to 70% of the residents who live in our county travel outside our county to go to work,” Mills said. “It just makes sense that you work in cooperation with the counties you’re traveling through.”

Henry County Commission Chair Carlotta Harrell also wants to improve the lives of commuters. She said rail service could be a long-term solution, though bus rapid transit could be an intermediate step.

“As Henry County continues to grow, we have to do a better job of moving people around and giving people different transportation options,” Harrell said.

Both counties’ transit plans are expected to produce recommendations by the end of the summer.

Forsyth (population 244,252 in 2019) and Henry (population 234,561) are on opposite ends of metro Atlanta. But they’re both fast-growing counties that are rapidly urbanizing.

That trend is likely to continue as metro Atlanta adds a projected 2.9 million new residents by 2050.

“We have farms. We have people that want that agricultural environment to stay,” Harrell said. “We’re trying to be mindful of that.”

The ATL Board also is working with Rockdale County to develop a transit plan. Some counties outside the ATL Board’s jurisdiction — including Newton and Spalding — also are taking a fresh look at transit options. And Douglas County launched fixed-route bus service two years ago in in response to growing urbanization.

Tomlinson said suburban counties have recognized that growth is coming. “They want to manage that growth and really be a part of shaping what that means,” he said.

Of course, planning transit service and paying to implement it are two different things, as Gwinnett officials have learned. Ample federal funding would help. But voters in suburban counties likely will decide whether they want to embrace transit.

“What do we do with these plans? Do you have the funding?” Tomlinson said. “That’s the next phase.”

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