GWINNETT COUNTY, GA (CBS46) Right now, Gwinnett County voters are being asked to decide whether or not to approve a proposed MARTA expansion.
CBS46 is taking a deeper dive into the issue and what the outcome of the vote means not only for Gwinnett County but for the region. Can Atlanta be a world class city, reaching for world class events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics, bidding for deals like the Amazon HQ2, without having a world class mass transit system for our residents and visitors? Is Atlanta on the right track?
“Widening roads to reduce congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.” It’s what an urban planner who doesn’t call Atlanta home said when discussing the problem of our traffic and the upcoming vote to expand MARTA service into the suburbs of Gwinnett County. She said she’s seen it happen time and time again: more pavement just means more traffic.
If paving more lanes isn't the answer, what is?
A lot of cities are providing commuters with a better way to get to work, school or retail centers on busses. And they are popular. But they aren’t your ordinary busses. It’s bus rapid transit, or BRT. And it’s exactly what MARTA is talking about doing in Gwinnett County.
MARTA’s proposed routes show the bus rapid transit routes in purple. The idea is to quickly get folks from all over the county right to the proposed transit hub that will be built in Norcross. Sixty percent of people in Gwinnett County commute to jobs in other counties.
“Right now, thousands, literally thousands of Gwinnettians get in their car every day and drive to the Doraville or Chamblee MARTA stations. Having to get on the road, take up space there, and fight congestion before they can even get on the rail. This will alleviate a lot of that,” according to Brian Robinson of Go Gwinnett.
CBS46 took a closer look at BRT and why it has already convinced thousands of drivers to park their cars and go along for the ride.
At its most basic level, BRT is bus service that gets passengers through traffic with the same efficiency as rail service can, but without the expense of building a rail system. It includes features that mean the busses don’t get stuck in the same traffic as all the cars. That’s the big advantage over just driving yourself.
The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy says there are five essential features that define BRT. When a system has all five in place, the result is a significantly faster and more reliable ride. Those five features are: bus-only lanes; a bus-only corridor that keeps buses away from the curbside where cars are parking and turning; fare payment at the station instead of on the bus, the way fares are collected for our MARTA trains; special intersections that prohibit traffic from turning in front of the bus; and platform-level boarding, which also makes it fully accessible for wheelchairs and strollers to roll on.
Of course, meeting every single one of these criteria is a nearly impossible bar to reach. But many cities do hit the mark on many.
When you think of bumper-to-bumper traffic, Los Angeles often comes to mind. But its 18-mile BRT line has done the impossible: it’s gotten car-obsessed Angelinos to ride the bus. In 2017, the LA Metro’s Orange Line had 25,000 daily riders, ahead of the projected 22,000 daily riders by 2020. Not bad.
Seattle is another city notorious for its traffic. Now, about 1 in 5 people sit back and let bus drivers get them to work each day. Bus drivers say it boils down to this: when buses get priority, riders prioritize the bus.
MARTA has said in Gwinnett County, they will use a dedicated bus lane and traffic signals, which would speed up the commute.
But it didn’t even take BRT lanes for MARTA to see great success with its expansion four years ago into Clayton County, after voters there agreed to have MARTA come in. It was MARTA’s first expansion.
Roberta Abdul-Salaam, a MARTA board member and Clayton County resident for 30 years, talked to CBS46 about having MARTA in her community. She told us just two of the bus lines in Clayton County have some of the biggest riderships in all of MARTA.
“It has made a difference in the personal lives of thousands of people. It makes a difference in terms of what jobs people can access. I think there will be more economic growth in the county,” Abdul-Salaam told us.
She said people were worried at first about crime coming to the county along with the buses, but that wasn’t what happened.
Don Williams is MARTA’s Director of Short Reach Planning. He helped roll out the first light rail lines in Dallas. He’s seen first-hand how people resist a new transit system, then embrace it once they get to experience it. “At first, people were really resistant, but once they had the opportunity to see it, feel it, touch it, they really fell in love with it. And I really feel the same thing will happen with Gwinnett.”
Jodie Pierce was invited to ride today on a MARTA bus, because she’s checking it out as an alternative to her drive from Lawrenceville to downtown Atlanta. That can take half an hour, or two hours, depending on the traffic. She told us she could see how the new MARTA routes could work.
Not everyone in Gwinnett County thinks the one-cent sales tax would be money well spent. Republican activist Julianne Thompson told us: “I don’t think the heavy rail portion is going to do anything to alleviate traffic. In fact, I think it’s going to make it worse.”
On Tuesday, voters in Gwinnett County decide who they think is on the right track.