ULI Atlanta Blog

Atlanta’s Changing Transportation Ecosystem

Atlanta’s traffic woes are a well-known story. Despite having the nation’s 9th largest transit system, we are still an auto-centric city and region, rife with congestion along our main corridors.

The lesser known story, perhaps, is the remarkable level of investment and coordination currently underway among our state and regional agencies to make significant changes in how Atlantans move around and through the region. The momentum began in earnest in 2015 when House Bill 170 passed, providing additional, dedicated, cost adjusted funding for transportation investment across the state of Georgia. In 2016, residents of the City of Atlanta voted to tax themselves for “More MARTA” which will inject $2.5 billion unleveraged into City of Atlanta transit and mobility projects. In 2018, we expect to see more such referenda where residents have the option to tax themselves for specific local transportation investments.

As land use professionals, ULI members are keenly interested in how these investments will improve our urban cores, create more walkable and transit-supported communities, and improve mobility in the region more broadly. We all read about new projects but it is hard to understand which ones are real and which are conceptual and how these seemingly disparate investments by MARTA, GDOT, GRTA, CIDs, and local municipalities will work together to make a difference. Today’s reality is that “the level of coordination happening among Georgia’s transportation agencies is unlike anything I’ve seen in my entire career,” observed Joe Carpenter at GDOT.

That was also the consensus of other with transportation leaders across the metro area, including Faye DiMassimo with the City of Atlanta, Chris Tomlinson with GRTA/SRTA, Amanda Rhein with MARTA, and Ann Hanlon with the Perimeter CIDs, who convened for a ULI Atlanta sponsored panel discussion on how to provide transit linkages and more options to increase connectivity and mobility across the region. Doug Hooker, President of the Atlanta Regional Commission, served as moderator.

“When we say transportation, it’s not just roads and bridges anymore. There’s an ’and.’ Transit is a connected ecosystem,” said Chris Tomlinson, the Executive Director of SRTA/GRTA. One of his primary roles is to collaborate with GDOT to create mobility solutions that connect people to jobs and their communities.

Contrary to widespread belief, that does not mean building more roads. “GDOT has built as many lanes as we can build,” said Joe Carpenter, the Director of P3 at Georgia Department of Transportation. We need to leverage other types of mobility like managed express lanes, express buses, bus rapid transit (BRT) and collaborations with MARTA.

“If you build stations for BRT right off managed lanes, make it accessible like heavy or light rail. Make the service reliable. One bus pulls 50 vehicles off the road,” said Joe.

An image that shows a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) station.

Amanda Rhein at MARTA discussed some of the agencies major capital investments, which included heavy rail, light rail, and BRT. As the head of transit-oriented development at MARTA, she is tasked with working with developers to do land use planning and development around existing stations, which in turn improves access to the stations, and helps build communities in place.

On observation Amanda made was about the difference between heavy rail and BRT as a viable alternative option. She said, “real estate is attracted to the permanency of light rail and heavy rail and developers are hesitant to make that capital investment without that, but we need to just make that connection with BRT that it is permanent.”

There is also the capital investment and economic angle. BRT is a fraction of the cost of heavy rail with a hefty price tag of roughly $150M per mile. If the public is being asked to vote on a transit tax, how much are they willing to give?

Ann Hanlon agreed that there needs to be continued education on the cost of these systems. What does a penny tax or ½ penny tax buy us as the user? “Sometimes we must ask ourselves is heavy-rail worth a penny tax for everything I buy for the next 30 years?” asked Ann.  As head of the Perimeter CIDs, one of her major roles is to coordinate amongst the business-lead self-taxing district to accelerate infrastructure and design investments to move people through the Perimeter. The Perimeter CIDs’ district includes 3 heavy rail stations, the managed lane project on the top end of I-285, and the I-285 – GA 400 interchange. In total, it’s roughly a $5B investment being made to that area.

Outside of the hard capital investments being made, Faye DiMassimo with the City of Atlanta talked about some of the soft ones too. She noted that our greatest currency is trust, which has been demonstrated by the unprecedented collaboration between the City, State, and MARTA after the I-85 bridge collapse. The panelists agreed that trust is continually earned by their agencies doing what they say they are going to do, an area where agencies in Georgia have excelled.

Faye also highlighted a few forward thinking and innovative projects coming soon, like the Smart Corridor project on North Ave. In late Spring, it will become the first autonomous shuttle deployment in the state (and one of the few in the country) providing service from Ponce City Market to North Avenue MARTA station. This project demonstrates Atlanta’s commitment to move more people in more ways across the city.

When asked, all panelists agreed that there is still work to be done to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists in transportation planning, particularly in our dense urban cores and corridors. All noted the improvements being made on this front, ranging from our extensive regional trail network to GDOT’s adoption of ‘complete streets’. Groups such as the Perimeter CIDs work at the ‘hyper local’ level to fill in gaps in sidewalks and at the regional level to ensure major investments such as GA 400 at I-285 are done with projects such as the extension of PATH 400 in mind.

To close, the panel acknowledged the new regional transit bills that passed the Georgia House and Senate last week. Under both bills a new regional entity chaired by the Governor would be created and county-level funding would need to be voted on by the 13 counties who are currently members of GRTA. Doug Hooker noted that the authors of both bills wanted to enhance ongoing projects and collaborations which could be huge. He added “It would put a lot of state money into transit.”

A theme that ran throughout the panel discussion was how transportation is an ecosystem. At the end of the day, their missions are all about moving people through the metro region, whether that is by car, bus, rail, two feet, or two wheels.  To help everyone have a better sense of all the near-term investments, ULI Atlanta’s Programs Committee developed a graphic highlighting the key projects impacting our transportation future over the next ten years. Download the map here.

For more detail and to stay informed of these and other mobility priorities, the panelists offered the following resources:

This event is part of a quarterly series hosted by ULI Atlanta which gives special attention to ULI’s core mission to provide leadership on the responsible use of land and create sustaining and thriving communities here in the metro Atlanta region. To stay abreast of upcoming events, please visit: atlanta.uli.org/events

By:  Sarah Kirsch, Executive Director, ULI Atlanta & Daphne Bond-Godfrey, Director, ULI Atlanta

 

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