An Atlanta Press Club panel discussion on metro Atlanta’s transportation future covered some familiar ground, and concluded that connectivity was more important than specific transportation modes or transit operators in encouraging more people to use public transportation. Participants in the panel discussion included Heather Alhadeff, president of Center Forward, inc.; Becky Katz, Chief Bicycle Officer of the city of Atlanta; Atlanta Beltline CEO Paul Morris; MARTA CEO Keith Parker; and Chris Tomlinson, Executive Director of the State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA). The discussion was moderated by Maria Saporta of the Saporta Report.
The panelists were optimistic about the current state of transportation and transit in the metro area, and how groups with traditionally different views on transportation are starting to come together. Millennials and seniors are looking to transit as an alternative, said Center Forward’s Aldaheff, and that is causing leaders to take notice. Rather than the traditional dichotomy of urban vs. suburban transportation needs, she said, leaders should be looking at transit options for both dense and less dense areas of the region.
MARTA CEO Parker contrasted the state of the transit system three years ago, when it was predicted to go bankrupt, with the situation now, with the system having a $200 million rainy day fund and steady ridership. The topic of MARTA and transit, he contended, has gone from something no one in the development community mentioned to a positive reason to locate in Atlanta. Tomlinson, whose position as director of separate agencies, one directed towards roads and the other towards transit, said that multiple modes need to be considered in concert in order to solve the region’s transportation needs:
There’s also, I think, an evolution in everyone’s approach and thinking. We used to talk about transportation generally in terms of these very different modes. Are we talking roads and bridges? Are we talking public transit? In public transit, are we talking bus or are we talking rail? And then eventually maybe somebody would start to talk about pedestrians.
Now, it is a lot of connectivity. It is a connected ecosystem in the broadest sense. It’s not about roads and bridges or public transit. It’s about the connections between the two.
If, as the panelists insisted, the prospects for transportation and transit have improved greatly since the failure of the Atlanta region to pass the $8 billion TSPLOST in 2012, they were asked what can be done to create a regional transit system. Part of the solution, Tomlinson said, was to look at transit or the lack of it from the customer’s point of view. He pointed out that potential transit riders don’t care who is providing the service if they can get to where they want to go with a minimum of difficulty. To make that work, he said, will require a more seamless method of transferring between different systems, perhaps by modifying the way the Breeze Card system works.
Center Forward’s Heeather Alhadeff agreed that a customer focus was important. She pointed out that differing parts of the region have different transportation needs and trip types. While much attention has been paid to weekday commuting, many are beginning to realize that congestion relief is necessary on weekends, when types of trips are much different than on weekdays. Focusing on the customer’s transportation needs and the types of trips they want to take, she said, is better than focusing on the mode of transportation, such as light rail over heavy rail.
MARTA’s Parker said that the days of his agency’s going to Cobb and Gwinnett counties, begging them to join the system are over. Instead, the MARTA will work to improve the level and quality of service service it provides within its area in the hope that it can attract more partnerships with other jurisdictions. “We think we are a formidable and good business partner and a good investment,” Parker said. “And if you don’t think the same, then, we’ll wait until you change your mind, or we will go elsewhere.”
2015’s passage of House Bill 170 provided almost $1 billion annually to pay for construction and maintenance of the state’s roads and bridges. Yet, except for a one-time $75 million bond issue to pay for statewide transit infrastructure, transit was left out of the picture. Tomlinson said that legislators want to see how that funding is put to use. He also pointed out that transit is not synonymous with MARTA. There are over 120 transit agencies in Georgia, and legislators must be concerned with each one’s needs. The state budget contains tens of millions of dollars that support transporting people, from non emergency medical transportation to the GRTA system itself.
Saporta asked each of the participants how long they thought it would take before Cobb and Gwinnett counties would expand their transit systems to include rail, whether by joining MARTA or some other way. The consensus response was five years. BeltLine CEO Paul Morris admitted it was a complex question, but insisted that before voters will approve expanding transit, there must be improvements in credibility, confidence and trust. “As those things evolve, people make different choices,” Morris explained. “I don’t think there actually is resistance to having multi-modal transportation. I think there’s resistance to turning over to entities that the politicians and public at large don’t trust; don’t have confidence in; don’t believe is credible.”
City of Atlanta voters will have the opportunity to decide if they want to add a half of one percent sales tax that would last until 2057. It would raise around $2.5 billion for transit projects in the city. While the project list won’t be finalized until this summer, many predict that much of it will go to fund light rail along the BeltLine. Yet, Parker told panel attendees that he expected to use the funds to improve the quality of bus service rather than to add what he called “the glamorous, shiny new subway extensions or pretty light rail components.”
While much of Tuesday’s discussion revolved around what it would take to improve transit options region wide, just within the city of Atlanta, there’s disagreement. On the way out, I rode down the elevator with Ryan Gravel, who originally came up with the BeltLine concept, and who has been a major proponent ever since. I asked him what he thought should be included in the project list the sales tax would fund. He told me the proceeds should fund the BeltLine light rail. Otherwise, he said, the November referendum won’t pass.