In 1965, the Georgia State legislature clearly understood that phenomenal growth was inevitable in the Atlanta region. They knew that without a greater investment in transit the mounting traffic conditions would hinder state and regional development. To meet this growing need, the state of Georgia passed the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) Act paving the way for investment in a high-capacity transit system that would help to sustain the quality of life in the region while accommodating the anticipated growth.
Fast forward to June 30, 1979, the initial segment of MARTA’s East-West Line opened for revenue operation. With plans for the rail system ranging from 60 to more than 100 miles, covering five counties, the MARTA system, with significant federal investment, began serving the two most populous counties in Georgia at the time, Fulton and DeKalb.
Along with San Francisco and Washington, D.C., the Atlanta region was hailed to lead a renaissance in the development of public transportation to address growth and mobility concerns. After successfully hosting the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, the last extension to the MARTA rail system opened for revenue service in December 2000, amounting to approximately 48 miles of heavy rail service serving 38 stations. While important strides were made to create the existing MARTA system, it has turned out to be significantly smaller than its counterparts in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., even though Atlanta’s urbanized area growth rate since 1980 was significantly higher than these two cities.
Today, the Atlanta region is served by MARTA’s rail system and 131 local bus routes, three county bus systems with local and express services, and a regional express bus service providing direct transit access from 11 metro area counties to regional activity centers, including downtown Atlanta. Despite the foresight of the visionaries of 1965, Atlanta has a serious transportation problem. An icon of urban sprawl, the region ranks among the worst in terms of traffic congestion and air quality with years of development being driven by roadway investment. Although Atlanta is home to MARTA, the ninth largest transit system in the country, the region has fallen years behind other regions in addressing mobility needs via transit. Because of this, the region’s quality of life and global competitiveness are suffering.
Amid these mounting challenges, leaders throughout our region have joined together to develop a plan that will put us back on the right track. In the fall of 2004, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), which serves as the MPO for Atlanta, initiated a study to evaluate the institutional framework required to implement a seamless, regional transit system to address the congestion, poor air quality and deteriorating quality of life in the region. The result was the development of the Transit Planning Board (TPB), supported by the partnership of ARC, MARTA and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA). The TPB convened in 2006 with a two-year timeline to develop a regional transit vision, propose a method to fund the construction, operation and maintenance of the system, and discuss a framework of governance for the system. The TPB recently completed the first of its objectives, developing a regional transit plan, which has received consensus from local and regional leaders. The plan, called Concept 3, serves as a major accomplishment for the region as the initial efforts of the TPB come to a close.
The vision cast by the TPB is a bold, multimodal one, stretching over 14 counties, representing an ambitious but necessary expansion of service coverage. With unprecedented state and regional support for this transit plan, regional coordination is expected to continue through its implementation. The components of the plan include small extensions to the rail system to better leverage the existing infrastructure, an introduction of fixed-guideway applications such as commuter rail, light rail and streetcar applications, and the addition of arterial rapid bus service. The multimodal composition will create a transit system of first choice that will sustain and improve lifeline mobility needs, as well as offer viable transit options for the lifestyle commuter. Successful implementation of the plan will also require an immediate investment to optimize the existing core transit network, including a 25 percent increase in local and community bus service to serve existing needs, improved and expanded amenities such as sidewalks and bicycle facilities, and a focus on transit supportive land use and zoning policies. Most critical to advancing the vision is the need for an aggressive phasing strategy for construction that will require various methods of project delivery and innovative funding sources, primarily from local channels.
Concept 3 is the Atlanta region’s bold transit plan representing an effort to recapture, in theory, what was envisioned more than 40 years ago. MARTA looks forward to continuing its work with the region to establish a funding mechanism and governance framework that will bring this new transit vision into reality.
Johnny Dunning is MARTA’s senior director of Transit System Planning.