The Atlanta Suburbs May Finally Be on Board for Transit

Gwinnett County lawmakers approve a tax-hike referendum for the March ballot.

Photo:  Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The times — and maybe even the suburbs! — are a-changin: Lawmakers in Georgia’s historically anti-transit Gwinnett County on Tuesday approved a ballot initiative for a one-cent sales tax hike to bring heavy rail and bus rapid transit to the fast-growing traffic-choked county northwest of Atlanta.

If approved in March, the “once unimaginable” tax hike — in the words of the Atlanta Journal Constitution — would raise $5 billion over 30 years and fund construction of heavy rail that would connect the most-populated areas of the county to the larger metro Atlanta transit system, MARTA.

The current “Connect Gwinnett” plan [PDF] calls for trains to run every 10 minutes and serve as a hub for vastly expanded surface service, including more local buses and three bus rapid transit lines serving major county destinations. Eventually the county wants to run 17 bus lines that operate at 30-minute headways on weekdays.

According to the AJC, there has been no organized opposition to the levy proposal. Even public meetings on the topic were mostly devoid of critics.

Just a few years ago, this would not have been possible. In May, after years of lobbying, the Georgia Legislature gave counties permission to raise local taxes to fund transit — and the state, which has historically underfunded mass transit, even threw in $100 million.

The change in policy prompted Atlanta’s counties to consider more mass transit. Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb counties, with 2.5 million residents total, are in various stages of devising ways to fund mass transit, the AJC reports. Atlanta voters approved a tax hike in 2016 to fund mass transit. Struggling Clayton County, to the south, also approved a one-cent tax hike in 2014 to fund its own rail and bus links to the MARTA system.

In total, the Atlanta region seems to be on a different path than Nashville, where voters rejected a $5-billion transit levy in May.

Hot ‘Lanta and its suburbs are warming up to mass transit partly because of the improving reputation of MARTA, which was led from 2012-2017 by former director Keith Parker, a career transit administrator. During his years at MARTA, Parker shored up the agency’s finances and helped ingratiate it to state leadership. He left the agency last year to head up the Atlanta area Goodwill.

  • J

    Very cool, and they’re linking transit expansion to compact, mixed-use development. Granted, they have a LONG way to go, considering the low-density, car oriented sprawl that basically covers the entire county.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Could this be the Amazon HQ2 effect?

    Transit and traffic are why I predicted HQ2 would go to Philadelphia rather than Atlanta.

  • The big problem is that you’re dealing with an existing hub/spoke transit system which is outdated in 2018 versus when it was first built. A lot of folks commute suburb to suburb today. The other issue is sprawl. Much of the development going on in the burbs isn’t conducive to transit ridership…office parks, cul de sacs, strip malls, etc….all feed into the car culture. Granted, you can build a commuter rail-like station, like the BART system in the Bay Area, but these are surrounded by huge parking structures. Which is the lesser of two evils, though? People driving a few miles to a station and parking or driving the entire length of their trip and clogging already clogged roadways? The former really isn’t a “win” situation. What needs to be done before a shovel of dirt is overturned is examining the relationship between transit and development. It’s clear the suburban sprawl tactic doesn’t work.

  • rohmen

    It’s not that I disagree, but I always question the “park and ride is not a real win” argument. Even if you see stations built surrounded by solely housing with no parking, you haven’t made a dent in the sprawl that’s already there, unless you design busing or something else to get people from the sprawl to the station. Building something that allows people in the sprawl to drive only 3 miles rather than 25 is a win in my book, as you’re removing 22 miles of car use. The sprawl that’s there isn’t going anywhere, and while we want it to end, you have to do something to fix how the sprawl works as well.

    It’s like a dog born in a puppy mill. Sure, you don’t want puppy mills to exist, and you crack down and change anything you can to shut them down and make sure they don’t start up again, but someone’s got to adopt the dog. You can’t just ignore it once it’s there.

  • Bob 1401

    Los Angeles thinks it has a very good chance of getting Amazon HQ-2.

  • newtonmarunner

    Except that’s not the way park ‘n rides work. People just decide to live further and further out from the station, and drive more and more miles to the station before taking the subway. DC is the best example of this. With DC’s population growth in the favored quarter, people now drive from Chantilly, Centerville, Loudoun County, and even West Virginia to the Vienna and West Falls Church Stations, and park in one of the 8,000+ parking spaces there. The result is more and more sprawl.

    Park ‘n rides are a waste. For one thing, Park ‘n ride subway riders are peaky, leading to high operating costs. But more, for the same amount of space as a parking lot, you can get considerably more ridership with housing, grocery stores, CVSes, etc. that you can with park ‘n ride. That’s why we shouldn’t create any more park ‘n ride subway stops, and make all new stations transit-oriented.

  • Tom Marchwinski

    How wrong you are. Actually what works best is a parking garage to accommodate the 2 to 10 mile drive to commuter WITH higher density development of housing with some retail, and in a few places office development. Those DC Metro stations are at the end of the line, which is where you do need park and ride. Until Silver Line reaches Loudon, only then can you cut back on parking on Orange Line. Even the 1500 or so housing units you place on top of parking will not generate enough riders. I would ban Close in park-rides, ie within 5 miles of the core as those areas do not need parking and have the density to support walk, bike, feeder bus. Close in you need spaces for drop-off/pick up/Uber etc. Getting rid of those spaces would cost thousands of trips and millions per year. Actually, having been involved in planning for NJ Transit rail, bus, LRT, outer suburban ridership to the urban cores has been stagnet. IT is the areas within about 20-25 miles of the core that have been increasing transit ridership. You need a balance of parking, development, and core/intermediate and off-peak ridership.
    Actually DC has been growing in population as much as the suburban areas. Also, commuter rail (VRE/MARC) can handle the outer commuter needs.

  • Anon

    I agree with your general point.

    Regarding NJT, part of that has to be the limited service and awful runtimes provided on the outer ends of many NJT lines.

    It’d be interesting to see what demand in those outer suburbs would be like if NJT could actually manage to provide reasonable frequencies and better runtimes (express services or other improvements, like EMUs).

  • Tom Marchwinski

    Actually there has been a general decline in commuting from the outer suburbs to Manhattan throughout the NY region. Not just NJT but Metro North and long distance bus services. People went further out for cheaper housing but commutes became intolerable and as baby boomers retire, younger workers are less willing as of now to live in outer suburbs and are settling in in more urban areas (Brooklyn, Hudson County NJ) or close in suburbs which are more urban. Both NJT And Metro North have seen ridership increase within 25 miles of their terminals, and decline or show slow growth beyond about 20-30 miles. NJT actually has 20 minute express service on the Northeast Corridor (Princeton/Trenton) and one or two other lines. Rest are slower or only limited express service. NJT is planning on buying Bi Level EMU’s to replace the 1970″s Arrow EMU’s. Otherwise they are sticking with long, 10-12 car Bi Levels Electric or Dual Mode hauled. They only want two equipment types by EMU make more sense on some of their other lines. Need bilevel due to PEnn Station capacity issue (20-21 NJT trains per hour )

  • newtonmarunner

    Except it’s still more cost-effective to build by overcrowded subway/bus lines (where capacity is a problem) going to the CBD — or better, improve the scheduling such that more trains go to the CBD.

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