by: Aaron Diamant Updated:
ATLANTA - The collapse of a portion of Interstate 85 in March put a spotlight on the big gaps in transportation in metro Atlanta.
Channel 2's Aaron Diamant talked with area leaders about how to improve one of the biggest complaints across the city.
"I think there's definitely some changes needed," commuter Patrick Crawford told Channel 2 Action News.
The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce agrees.
"Well, I think one thing is clear. We really need more options and choices," said Dave Williams, the chamber’s vice president of infrastructure on government affairs.
A recent study commissioned by the chamber suggests Atlanta needs to improve transit. It argues an $8 billion expansion of Marta's heavy rail system along the Clifton Corridor, up Georgia 400 and out I-20 East, would have a far larger local economic impact over time. But, he says, it's more complex than just expanding heavy rail.
"It's not just one. It's not just rail, or bus rapid transit, or local bus. It's what makes sense in context," Williams told Diamant.
Despite its size, metro Atlanta's sprawl lacks the density of other major U.S. cities.
A competing plan by the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, calls expanding rail a waste of time.
Instead it said, "policy makers should refocus MARTA on maintaining and improving its existing network, and then invest in the construction of cost-effective bus lines."
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The CEO of MARTA has shorter term priorities that include a mix of upgrading the current rail system with new trains and technology, designing more efficient bus routes, plus what he calls "local motion service."
"This is a very innovative new service where we're moving away from just the one size fits all of the bigger buses, and into smaller vehicles that can navigate in and out of neighborhoods much quicker," MARTA CEO Keith Parker told Channel 2 Action News.
But he adds, "The greatest legitimate weakness that people pointed out during the 85 bridge collapse regarding public transit is that we simply don't go enough places, and our reach is not as far as it needs to be to be effective."
Historically, the biggest roadblock to any significant expansion is cost.
Last fall, Atlanta voters approved a sales tax increase expected to generate $2.5 billion over 40 years. Also, surrounding counties and the state Legislature have recently warmed up to the idea of mass transit. It could all add up to a more compelling case to compete for federal dollars.
But Georgia State University transportation researcher Joseph Hacker says: "The greater Atlanta region is not going to get smaller. We're projecting a million and a half more people. If they start getting this coordination and this skin in the game going, then it becomes possible for the kinds of expansion that people talk about. Those things become reality, I think."
According to the Atlanta Regional Commission, only 3 percent of area commuters take public transportation regularly.
Hacker says regional transit agencies, especially MARTA, need to get to a point where they can make a legitimate public case that transit is a convenient option for anyone in the areas they serve.
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