September 2, 2016 12:09 PM
The House and Senate Regional Transit Study Committees met on Thursday, and heard from several speakers who described the role of transit and alternatives in metro Atlanta. Senators and Representatives heard from Nick Juliano representing the ride share service Uber, which has entered into an informal partnership with MARTA in order to determine how ride sharing can benefit rail transit, and vice versa.
The results of an eight month study by Uber conducted this year shows that the service has tripled the number of rides to and from MARTA stations from 2015. The new users include MARTA riders who are using Uber for “last mile” transportation to and from their rail station, and Uber riders who use MARTA to reduce the cost of their trip. While Juliano estimated that a typical Uber trip in Atlanta might cost $8-10, that cost can be reduced to around $2 by sharing the Uber ride with another passenger. Juliano expects to see future growth in the number of Uber and transit linked trips, noting that ride sharing and mass transit are transportation modes favored by millennials, businesses, and other communities.
Also addressing the committees was Chris Tomlinson, the director of both GRTA, which operates 33 Xpress bus routes and 30 park and ride lots in a dozen metro counties, and SRTA, which operates the managed lane system in Gwinnett County, and is in the process of constructing managed lanes on I-75 north and south of the perimeter. While some think of MARTA as the region’s transit provider, GRTA buses carry over 2 million passengers each year, who come from as many as 40 different counties. Tomlinson stated that in metro Atlanta, 2% of vehicles on the freeway system are express buses, but they carry 26% of all commuters.
The passage of House Bill 170 in 2015 means that there will be around $9 billion invested in new and improved highways in metro Atlanta, including the rebuilding of the Georgia 400 and I-285 interchange near Perimeter Center. Comparing the potential for traffic nightmares during the reconstruction of major commuter routes to the predicted traffic spike during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Tomlinson hoped that teleworking and the use of mass transit will have much the same result as when these solutions were used during the Olympics, when traffic congestion was actuallu less than normal.
In a first step towards addressing potential traffic issues will be unveiled on Tuesday, when GRTA rolls out additional bus service in what is called its Horizon 1 service plan. This new service includes buses running at a greater frequency than before, along with new service, including from Gwinnett and Cobb counties to Perimeter Center. Longer range plans, dubbed Horizons 2 and 3 include rehabbing and eventually replacing the bus fleet, some of which has been in use since the Xpress service started in 2004, expanding service on the managed lanes along I-75 north and south, and adding service to the Atlanta airport, which would be a boon both to airline passengers who don’t want to drive to the airport, as well as airport workers.
While no decisions regarding state funding or regional control were made at the meeting, committee members seemed pleased at the progress that had been made so far. The House study committee will next meet on September 20th, while no date has been set for the Senate study committee.
As the last speaker for Thursday’s session, State Rep. Calvin Smyre summed up the study committee’s challenges. “Transit and transportation is a major component of economic development and job creation, and quality of life,” he said. The Dean of the House pointed out that he has been a member of many legislative conference committees regarding transportation over the years, and in many cases little was done to resolve issues with the transportation network. He pointed out that transportation, including transit, has finally taken its rightful place in the legislature, and that people understand transportation is part of the three legged stool that includes economic development. Without transportation, Smyre said, the stool will not stand up.
“The more we can be innovative, the more solutions we can craft, the more we dismiss our political differences and interests, and get to the juggernaut of what we are trying to do, and do it in a comprehensive and regional fashion,” Smyre said, the better off the result will be. He went on to insist that it was necessary to involve the entire region in crafting a regional transit solution, going as far as holding hearings in Gwinnett, Cobb, and other suburban counties to engage with residents and find out what they want, as opposed to what politicians want.
Smyre wrapped up his thoughts. “There’s no question in my mind, we’ve come a long long long way when it comes to transit and transportation in this state. We ought to applaud that. Because I saw the political equation last election, it lets me know the people are ready. Are we ready?”