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Linking downtown to the southside, city’s first bus rapid transit project moves forward

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The potentially $96 million, three-mile circuit would connect the heart of the city to the Beltline’s Southside Trail

A map shows a proposed route and an alternative option for the turnaround for the planned BRT route.
How MARTA would turn its buses around is still up for discussion, officials say.

Imagine: Cars, about a block to your west, crawling up and down the Interstate 75/85 Connector, their drivers slogging to and from work, or home, or maybe a Georgia State Panthers football game.

You, however, are cruising comfortable, whizzing by the car-choked highway in a lane of your own—with a few dozen other people, that is—on Hank Aaron Drive.

That vision—today, perhaps a pipe dream—would be reality if MARTA’s plan for a roughly three-mile bus rapid transit (BRT) line is ushered to fruition. The service would link downtown to the Beltline’s Southside Trail, and buses would use dedicated lanes free of other traffic.

On Thursday, the BRT concept inched closer to reality.

The transit agency’s board of directors elected to file plans with the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) that outline an updated vision for what could become Atlanta’s first BRT route.

Last year, MARTA was awarded a $12.6 million TIGER grant from the Feds for a BRT project that would have connected Summerhill’s Georgia State Stadium to Midtown’s Arts Center train station.

But after months of meetings with stakeholders, MARTA officials redrew their blueprints, opting for a route that runs farther south—through Summerhill, into Peoplestown, and ending at the Beltline—and avoids what transit officials considered redundancies with their heavy rail system in northern downtown and Midtown.

“The route before sort of paralleled a lot of the rail line [leading from downtown to the Arts Center stop],” said MARTA’s assistant general manager of planning, Heather Alhadeff, in an interview with Curbed Atlanta.

A map shows how the BRT line is planned for Capitol Avenue and Hank Aaron Drive.
The main corridor of the proposed route ends at the Beltline’s Southside Trail.

Thursday’s vote essentially means MARTA wants to ensure the FTA agrees with the agency’s tweaked plans—and is still willing to grant funding for a project that could ultimately cost nearly $100 million to implement.

Should the federal government okay MARTA’s newly proposed route, Alhadeff said, design efforts and environmental analyses will be cleared to move forward.

The revised plan—the “Locally Preferred Alternative”—calls for a BRT route that runs from the Southside Trail north along Hank Aaron Drive, which turns into Capitol Avenue as it nears the Georgia State Capitol.

Once the line reaches South Downtown, though, turning around becomes a challenge, thanks to the neighborhood’s many one-way roads.

MARTA’s current drawings suggest using Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, and then Mitchell Street, to loop back to the route’s main north-south corridor. That choice would land northbound riders about a block from the Five Points rail station. (Stakeholders said they wanted the option to move east-west or north-south when buses near heavy rail.)

But it’s too soon to say which direction MARTA might pick. If the Georgia Legislature, for instance, wants to shut down roads surrounding the Gold Dome during the winter legislative session—as it is wont to do—that could throw a wrench in plans for that turnaround option, said Alhadeff.

The alternative would be a route that shoots northeast on Piedmont Avenue, turns around at Coca-Cola Place, and heads back toward the main corridor by way of Jesse Hill Jr. Drive.

“All of this design and all of these questions need to be figured out very, very soon,” Alhadeff said. “The clock is ticking.”

MARTA needs to have its ducks in a row (design-wise) and obligate funds for the project by September 2020 in order to secure federal funding, she said.

If everything goes to plan, Alhadeff added, the route could be operational by September 2024.

A rendering of an apartment development in Summerhill.
Plans for an apartment project at 565 Hank Aaron Drive.

That’s not the only reason there’s a sense of urgency with this project, though.

Summerhill and its environs are witnessing a development boom that’s expected to bolster the demand for an expanded transit network in the area, and MARTA leaders say they want to be proactive in accommodating the anticipated influx of people.

“Think of Memorial Drive and all the development that’s happening east of [the proposed BRT line],” MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker told Curbed, nodding to the densification of communities such as Reynoldstown and Grant Park.

“We’re putting the stake in the ground around better transit in this corridor as development happens around it,” rather than being reactive, he continued.

The exterior of the brewery on Georgia Avenue has “Halfway Crooks” in bold blue letters.
One of the many new establishments planned to line Summerhill’s budding restaurant and retail strip, Georgia Avenue.
Ryan Vizzions

It’s not yet clear where exactly bus stops might go, but Parker suggested they’d be “spaced farther apart than a local bus service.”

The purpose of BRT is to cover more distance, and faster than a conventional bus route, which explains the promise of dedicated lanes along the line. That means, of course, the project is slated to consume some automobile lanes in exchange for bus-only ones.

“There is zero appetite for this thing to be stuck in traffic," Alhadeff said.

In other MARTA-related news, the agency’s board of directors on Thursday approved a $646 million contract with Swizerland-based train manufacturer Stadler Rail for the purchase of 254 new railcars.

The agreement—the single largest deal for either organization—also allows for the acquisition of another 100 railcars in the future.