A plan to make MARTA work?

Bus-friendly stoplights, better shelters advocated

Only between 3 percent and 4 percent of the people within MARTA's service area actually use the transit system.

There are no bus shelters, just poles sticking up out of sidewalks with little orange, yellow and blue MARTA signs.

With a few exceptions, it's fair to say that the only Atlantans who take MARTA buses are the people who don't have cars.

A new plan commissioned by MARTA could actually change that. But it's anybody's guess if MARTA — the region's unwanted stepchild when it comes to transportation — can garner enough political support to implement the plan's recommendations.

URS, a transportation consulting firm hired by MARTA, just finished a preliminary study that identifies several road corridors ripe for "enhanced bus routes," a term for different methods of making bus service more reliable, more convenient.

For example, the study recommends installing equipment on buses and traffic lights that would ensure MARTA bus riders wouldn't get stopped at a red light. The equipment on the bus would trigger the light to turn green.

The plan also says some roads should be retrofitted with bus-only lanes. That would keep the buses moving when other traffic gets clogged. Both of these tweaks to the system would reduce travel time.

Another proposal is to install new bus stations sporting a tracking system that keeps up with where buses are along a route. A monitor screen or electronic sign could provide riders with real-time information on when the next bus would be coming along.

The study named seven corridors that were prime for the cheaper, quick fixes: Memorial Drive, Roswell Road, Covington Highway, Peachtree Street, Buford Highway, Metropolitan Parkway/Northside Drive/West Paces Ferry and Camp Creek Parkway.

It also identified five corridors — the top end of I-285, I-20 East, Ga. 400, the eastern section of I-285 and I-75/I-85 — that would benefit from long-term, more expensive improvements, including express buses, light rail and heavy rail connections into the already existing MARTA system.

In conjunction with the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce's proposal to use flex trolleys — buses that have their own dedicated lanes — and with City Council President Cathy Woolard's idea of putting light rail train cars on a ring of already existing rail that circles the city, the enhanced bus tricks could actually give the urban core of Atlanta a public transit system worthy of a world-class city.

But the plan to spruce up MARTA's buses is still in its infancy. The study hasn't been presented to MARTA's board yet, but MARTA Board Chairman William Moseley Jr. (DeKalb) says the board already favors the concept of the plan.

That leaves even bigger hurdles, namely Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, the Atlanta Regional Commission and the Georgia Department of Transportation. Each of these agencies has a say in how the region's transportation money gets spent.

To get the necessary funding, the bus enhancement projects would have to be included in GRTA's transportation plan or in the Atlanta Regional Commission's transportation plan.

Getting the enhanced bus projects in either of those plans may not seem like a long shot since the benefits seem obvious, but MARTA is increasingly left out of the rest of the region's transportation planning.

"It's going to be necessary to push hard for [the bus enhancement plan] because the bigger trick is how to make these things a priority in the ARC and GRTA," says GRTA board member Eric Hovdesven. "We're not going to have transportation choices for the bulk of people in this region in our lifetime unless we start doing stuff like this."

Twelve other major metro areas in the country already have enhanced bus service.

After the transit system in Los Angeles spent about $10 million for new bus stations and a bus-to-traffic light signaling system, travel times were reduced between 15 percent and 40 percent. Ridership went up on some corridors by 30 percent during the first 30 days. Ridership on the overall system eventually went up 30 percent.

Transit experts here hope for similar results, especially as MARTA's ridership declines and funding dries up.??