Big picture on rapid transit discussed in Rockdale

CONYERS - According to the Transit Planning Board, there will be a day when it will be possible to ride a rapid transit bus from Conyers to downtown Atlanta, or light rail from Douglasville to Lawrenceville.

The agency has just two big hurdles to make mass transit a reality in Georgia - figure out how to pay for it and convince people that it's a good thing.

The Transit Planning Board was formed in 2006 by the Atlanta Regional Commission, Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and MARTA to coordinate transportation plans of the three groups into one, called Concept 3. The three is also representative of the board's goal to meet the transportation needs of residents in the year 2030.

During a public hearing at Rockdale County's Parker Road facility on Thursday, TPB Executive Director Cheryl King explained Concept 3 as a "big view" approach to developing a plan to move people across the region by bus, light and heavy rail, freeway bus rapid transit and suburban bus routes.

For Conyers, the plan is to have bus rapid transit and regional bus service. Commuter rail is proposed for service from Athens to Douglasville and Griffin to Alpharetta with existing MARTA line.

TPB also used the public hearing, one of several being held this month, to present a survey of registered area voters. Of the 4,100 people interviewed last month, about one-third said traffic congestion was "very serious" in metro Atlanta. The same survey also showed that 90 percent of respondents drive alone to and from work, mostly into Fulton County.

Therein lies the rub, King said. Mass transit has to be sold to people who have been attached to driving alone to work. She said she believes people will be convinced to get out of their cars when they see it working in other areas.

"You have to give people options, and once they see that it works elsewhere, then maybe they will want it in their communities, too," she said.

However, the Concept 3 effort remains a plan for the future with funding yet to be determined. Commuters are dealing with congestion problems today, and with gasoline prices nearing $4 a gallon, they are not getting much help from state leaders.

Georgia lawmakers ended the legislative session earlier this month after rejecting Gov. Sonny Perdue's 2009 budget request for the $13.3 million needed to add 28 coaches to the Xpress fleet of 127 buses.

The Xpress bus service, operated by GRTA, serves Rockdale County with two stops at Sigman Road at Chambers Drive and at the Church in the Now parking lot. With direct bus service to downtown Atlanta and MARTA stations, the buses here are near capacity, as are the other 26 Xpress bus routes across metro Atlanta.

"The role the state plays in mass transit remains to be determined," King said. "In other cities, it's a partnership of different groups and governments to make it work. We can't depend heavily on a single entity, and, more important, we have to make it work."

King pointed to Charlotte, N.C., as a good example of partnering to develop mass transit. The transit system there receives a half-cent sales tax dedicated to public transportation and received 25 percent state support for capital improvements and 10 percent in general funding.

Charlotte has its own 2030 transit plan and is on track to build four miles of bus rapid transit with dedicated lanes, 21 miles of light rail, 16 miles of streetcar lines and 25 miles of commuter rail, TPB officials said.

Jay Jones can be reached at jay.jones@rockdalecitizen.com.