Atlanta transit tax projects must connect with existing network to succeed

Plus, please don’t overlook the buses

06e4ec Eastside Trail Ponce Station 06 03 2014 Websized
Photo credit: Atlanta Beltline Inc.
One potential line would include light rail along the Atlanta Beltline's Eastside Trail

Simon J. Berrebi, a Ph.D. candidate at Georgia Tech and executive director of the MARTA Army, says the Atlanta City Council need to make sure that transit projects that could be funded by a November sales tax will link up with other modes. 

The next few weeks will decide the direction that Atlanta will take for generations to come. The Atlanta City Council has until July 31st to determine what transit projects should be funded by a .5-percent sales tax that voters will decide to approve or reject in a November referendum.

On Tuesday, MARTA and Atlanta Beltline Inc. presented a comprehensive list of projects that includes regional heavy rail, light rail on the Beltline, pedestrian and bike access, and enhanced bus service. Unfortunately, the expected $2.3 billion in funding that would be raised over 40 years will not be sufficient for all these projects. Atlanta City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms and others expressed concerns with concentrating so much of potential transit funding on the Beltline.

Atlanta suffers from severe sprawl, causing traffic congestion, pollution, health issues, and aggravating the highest income inequality in the country. Public transportation can solve many of these ills by allowing many people to travel in a small space, while providing access to affordable housing and jobs for people who need it the most.

We are facing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a world-class transportation network and have a responsibility to do it right. The funding should be spent towards fulfilling public transit ‘s primary purpose: providing mobility. The best way to accomplish citywide mobility is to connect existing and new infrastructure with the entire city.

Since September, the MARTA Army, a grassroots transit advocacy group of which I am a part, has recruited more than 300 volunteers to adopt bus stops and install laminated signs with route and schedule information. We are now working on a crowd-funding initiative for local residents, associations, and businesses to buy benches at bus stops.

Through these programs, we found that people across Atlanta were willing to spend their time and energy to help improve the MARTA service in their own neighborhoods. These efforts indicate that there is a real desire for enhanced transit throughout the region, beyond the urban core.

We need world-class infrastructures to be a world-class city, but simply building these projects is not enough. If they are not properly connected to the existing transit network, they will only be accessible by car. Soon, this infrastructure would be surrounded with sprawling parking lost, choking our city in the process.

Rather than creating isolated facilities, we should strengthen the existing MARTA network and maximize connections bike facilities, safe streetscapes, and buses. If we make expansion projects accessible to all neighborhoods in Atlanta by bicycling, walking, and transit, it will generate positive development throughout the city.

Since MARTA’s service cuts of 2009 and 2010, the bus-hours operated by the transit agency has dropped by almost 17 percent.

With increased funding and strategic thinking, the bus network could become a pillar of transportation in Atlanta. Dedicated bus lanes provide an excellent service to passengers at low cost. The City of Atlanta has a unique opportunity to simultaneously raise funding and transfer existing roadway capacity for Bus Rapid Transit.

We can attract new riders to the system by improving the bus service. It worked when MARTA increased train frequencies under the leadership of CEO and General Manager Keith Parker. Now new generations of transit riders are emerging as millennials move into the city and the senior population grows.

Large infrastructure projects will take years or decades to be fully implemented. By including a large component of enhanced bus service in the project list, the city can assure Atlantans that they will start immediately seeing and feeling the benefits.

With a short time-line, there will be little opportunity for public outreach. This is why residents need to voice their opinions and concerns now. There will also be public city meetings for each quadrant on May 25th and 26th and June 1st and 2nd (time and place to be announced). If you cannot attend one of these meetings, you can contact your city council representative. You can also stay informed by following the MARTA Army on Twitter and Facebook or join our mailing list.