Makeover for MARTA bus

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

In today’s column, I talked with MARTA executives and discuss the virtues and faults of MARTA’s bus system, a service the agency is now analyzing and looking to revamp. With ridership creeping up, it’s a good time to capitalize on the coverage the bus system provides. Part of the solution lies in smaller vehicles, more consistent rides and better frequencies. In our second column, a transit activist writes about the mood in Clayton County as MARTA prepares to introduce service there next month.

Driving to rebrand the bus

By Tom Sabulis

MARTA doesn’t go anywhere. If you’ve spent any time in Atlanta, you’ve probably heard some variation of that complaint about our local transit service.

After 24 years riding the system, I can vouch for the legitimacy, and inaccuracy, of that criticism. The truth hits home when talking about MARTA’s rail service. Rail serves only 38 stations on essentially two lines — north-south and east-west. A lot of people in Fulton and DeKalb counties — the original freight-paying MARTA jurisdictions — don’t live conveniently near those stations. Many residents like myself often drive and park at stations (where parking’s available) to access the train.

But many who sing the MARTA-goes-nowhere blues don’t consider the other side of the equation: the bus.

When you factor in bus service, MARTA can reach many destinations. There are 8,860 bus stops on 94 routes in Fulton and DeKalb, according to the transit agency.

As MARTA looks to expansion, it’s analyzing those routes and ramping up efforts to get people to try the bus. That’s a good thing. The potential for improved and expanded transit service may be realized a lot faster on roads than it can on rails. Once MARTA fixed train frequencies last year, ridership went up. If the agency can figure out bus service, the potential for growth seems great. (At the time of this writing, bus ridership in fiscal year 2015 was at 32,774,795; train ridership was at 38,212,764. That was an increase of 7.1 percent for bus and 7.7 percent for rail over 2014. Bus expenses, including maintenance, cost MARTA $154.8 million in FY 2014, with rail costing $57.8 million. )

Beginning March 21, MARTA will add 140 bus stops in Clayton County; residents there voted in November to increase their sales tax to join the system. The first three Clayton bus routes will connect to MARTA trains at the Decatur, Five Points and College Park stations. When Clayton’s service is fully operational, it will have close to 800 stops, a spokeswoman said.

In Fulton and DeKalb, MARTA’s bus improvement ideas include increasing frequencies, adding east-west routes and instituting express service with limited stops on busy corridors such as Buford Highway, Northside Drive, Old National Highway and Roswell Road. It’s also introducing new vehicles, including smaller shuttle-type buses.

The transit agency currently has about 534 buses. One-third are new vehicles costing about $500,000 each. MARTA plans to add the shuttle buses to work as circulator vehicles in some areas. For example, Sandy Springs is looking to add more “last mile” and “first mile” connectivity to train stations because of the growing need for transportation options, says Edward L. Johnson, MARTA’s chief administrative officer.

The big-picture goal is developing a tiered level of service for the bus that attracts “choice” riders — people with cars who choose to ride transit — while continuing to serve dependent riders.

“Certain lifestyles need certain types of transit services,” Johnson says. “A part of that is we’re going to start using more smaller vehicles that will go into smaller communities where larger buses cannot fit or are desired. The idea is that those circulator buses then become near and dear to that community. (They) will tie back into your fixed-route alignment or to your rail operations.”

Changing perceptions about the bus won’t be easy. “There is a stigma about the bus for one reason or another,” Johnson says. “That is recognized throughout the country. Choice riders are more likely to ride rail.”

Yes, the bus fights stereotypes like, “It’s only for poor people.” But there’s also this: The bus can be uncomfortable and tough to handle if you’re standing. It gets stuck in traffic. And sometimes the ride is too stop-and-go. Take the No. 12 bus down 10th Street in rush hour; it feels like it stops every block to let one person on or off.

Then again, the bus can take you just about anywhere you want to go — if you have the patience to wait. MARTA’s “On the Go” real-time app helps, showing you vehicles’ status on the route. Traditionally, bus frequencies, which can vary widely, are less convenient than the train, though there have been rush-hour improvements here as well. (Rail service was scheduled to improve by 19 percent in MARTA’s 2015 budget and, to be sure, the faster service is noticeable.)

The only thing preventing me from being a regular bus rider is a wait time that can extend to 25 minutes outside the rush hours. If MARTA can make a dent in that, I’d be happy to leave my car at home. In that case, to paraphrase the songmakers of my youth, I’d be more than happy to find my coat, grab my hat and make the bus in seconds flat.

Tom Sabulis is an opinion page editor at the AJC.

Transit rebirth for Clayton

By Roberta Abdul-Salaam

For many Clayton County residents, 2015 holds great promise. MARTA buses will begin rolling here next month. What are residents, advocates and students thinking as we get closer to realizing the dream of much-needed public transit system?

In talking with neighbors and people in the community, I find cautious optimism. A church deacon at Watch Night service on New Year’s Eve asked me, “Do you really think the buses are coming back?” Another church member chimed, in saying, “Oh yeah, they’re coming this time. It’s a done deal.”

Despite media coverage, some people still don’t know the MARTA referendum passed and transit is about to become reality. For those who are aware, most have a sense of pride that something good is happening in our community. Cordelia Stewart, a cashier at a local Family Dollar, is excited because she will be able to work more hours, not having to leave when her “ride” leaves at 6 p.m.

“Oh my God, I can’t wait,” she squealed with joy. When Cordelia moved to Clayton 18 months ago, she had a car. A few months later, that car was stolen. She found herself in need of transportation to and from work. At one point, she was paying as much as $20 a day for a taxi ride to and from her job. She now looks forward to being on the first bus to roll down Riverdale Road. Her store manager also is grateful; he said at least 10 of his friends and family have lost jobs or quit school due to the lack of transportation.

Additionally, MARTA will bring people from other areas of metro Atlanta into Clayton for employment, shopping, education, worship and entertainment.

Students at Clayton State University were early supporters of bringing in MARTA. From the beginning, the lack of public transportation has hampered many students here — as well as students from DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett and elsewhere — from continuing their education. Clayton State is one of more than 10 colleges in the county. .

Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Dixon and Lovejoy Mayor Bobby Cartwright look forward to greater economic opportunities for their municipalities. Residents will have greater access to jobs, and the county will attract more businesses because the workforce will have reliable public transportation.

Partnering with elected officials and the community, MARTA has already held several job fairs here, looking to hire several hundred new employees as the agency prepares to provide bus service.

County Chairman Jeff Turner has said he believes transit will go a long way to reduce Clayton’s unemployment rate. MARTA makes the county more attractive to businesses, such as the new call center being opened at Southlake Mall and the Kroger to open at the Ft. Gillem development.

Clayton’s transit effort has brought people together from all walks of life and crossed socio-economic lines to benefit the entire community, region and state.

Not one person I encountered while scouting feedback for this column has complained about the one-cent increase in the sales tax. In fact, most have the same sentiment as Jack Lucas, a senior citizens advocate. “What is one penny?,” he asked. “I’d be willing to pay even if it cost one dollar, if it means we have public transportation. Seniors want their independence.”

With MARTA, businesses will come. Industry will grow. Unemployment will be reduced. Students can get to college. Senior citizens can be independent. Property values will increase. Transit means meangingful change and positive growth for all of Clayton County. We are ready.

Former state Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam is founder and president of Friends of Clayton Transit.

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