Cobb County transit plan has a lot to like but also potential problems

Cobb County has a complicated relationship with transit.

Having voted to reject joining the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) several times, the county is not part of that system. But rather than stage another MARTA referendum, be part of a regional transit plan, or introduce rail to the county, they are trying a lower-cost approach. County Commissioners recently gave their approval to a 30-year, $11 billion bus-based plan that adds 108 miles of fixed-route service. Political leaders and transit advocacy groups will now spend most of 2024 persuading voters to approve a one-cent sales tax to expand Cobb’s transit network. 

The county is not exactly a transit desert. Currently, local transit agency CobbLinc operates 11 local bus routes (buses operating on fixed-route with stops every 1/8 mile or less) and one limited-stop route (buses operating on a fixed-route with stops placed one mile or more) within the county. The statewide transit agency Georgia Regional Transit Authority (GRTA) operates seven express bus routes between suburban locations in the county and Midtown and Downtown Atlanta. However, for a county with more than 700,000 residents and three major employment centers, transit service is relatively limited. 

A poll by a pro-business group of 1,320 Cobb residents indicates 63% support the bus-based approach to expanding transit with only 28% opposed. However, fewer than half would commit to voting for the proposal. 

To help undecided voters make up their minds, I examine what types of projects are in the referendum and then evaluate their strengths and weaknesses before providing some overall analysis.

The plan proposes to fund 18 different services/features. These are detailed in Table 1, along with their estimated costs. 

Table 1: Cobb County Transit Plan Modes 

Type of Technology Number of Routes 30-Year Costs 
Bus Rapid Transit 7$5.1 billion
Arterial Rapid Transit 3$895 million
Local Bus 12$1.9 billion
Rapid Bus 3$446 million
Commuter Bus 3$350 million
Paratransit Where fixed route service operates$418 million
Circulator Shuttles Undetermined$20 million
Microtransit On-DemandOutside areas with fixed route transit$2.0 billion
Transportation VouchersAs needed, countywide$13 million
Vehicles Maintenance As needed $1.3 billion
Facilities Maintenance $104 million
Transit Centers$240 million
Local Bus UpgradesMultiple $298 million
Transit System Improvements As Needed $211 million
Vanpool Multiple $13 million
TrailsMultiple $500 million
Transit Supportive AccessibilityMultiple $500 million
Operating Reserves and System State of Good RepairMultiple $489 million

The biggest line item in the plan is the construction of six new bus rapid transit (BRT) lines. BRT is a technology more similar to MARTA heavy rail than to existing bus service. Typically, BRT lines have six features that traditional bus services do not have: priority in travel lanes, unique station design, larger vehicles, off-board fare collection, intelligent transportation systems, and more frequent service. 

Cobb’s proposed BRT has all of these features, including frequencies of every 15-20 minutes, but it uses BRT heavy (BRT with dedicated lanes) instead of BRT lite (sharing lanes with other traffic). Parts of these routes function as freeway BRT where they share space with automobiles on existing managed lanes networks. Justified lanes for freeway BRT services make sense. But the plan proposes new dedicated bus-only lanes on surface streets, which seems a poor use of limited funding and roadway capacity. Instead, surface street BRT should operate as BRT lite using queue jumps that provide buses a priority green signal at traffic lights and allows buses to go straight in right-turn lanes. BRT lite provides most of the benefits as BRT heavy at only 10-30% of the costs. Unless buses arrive at least every three minutes, there is no justification for BRT heavy. The county is also planning three arterial rapid transit (ART) lines. These ART lines function similarly to the BRT lines except they have a smaller percentage of dedicated lanes. 

An additional concern beyond the overuse of BRT heavy is the overall cost. BRT costs $717 million per line and the ART costs $300 million per line, an extremely high cost for bus-based transit. BRT heavy should not cost more than $50 million per mile, yet some of these lines cost almost $100 million per mile. Assuming the BRT heavy services required constructing all new right-of-way these high costs might be justified. But many of these BRT heavy lines are operating on existing or planned express toll lanes built with other funding sources. The exact details of the BRT and ART lines are unclear, but the high costs are concerning. 

Beyond BRT, an additional $2 billion would fund new local bus route operations. This includes safety, maintenance, fare collection, and service planning. This is a good use of resources as funding existing operations should be the top priority, before new lines are constructed. Approximately $500 million will fund the county’s rapid routes. These rapid routes are limited-stop service with fewer stops than local bus routes resulting in faster travel times. 

The county is also planning to add microtransit, which is flexible, on-demand transit that operates in areas of the county that don’t have the density for fixed-route service. In a relatively low-density suburban county such as Cobb, microtransit is an important part of the solution. However, microzones all over the county may be too extensive, particularly in Northeastern and Western low-density areas. Further, the plan includes almost no details on the level of service. Given the $2 billion expenditure on microtransit, county leaders need to provide more details.  

The proposal includes $1.3 billion for transit vehicles. While expensive, this seems like a reasonable cost. Buses are subject to Buy America requirements, which require the use of U.S.-built buses absent a federal waiver. Given the limited number of domestic manufacturers particularly for bus rapid transit vehicles, and the difficulty in obtaining waivers, transit agencies must pay more than the global competitive price to procure buses.  

Perhaps the worst use of funding is $500 million for transit-supportive accessibility improvements. These programs, including multi-use trails, sidewalks, and bicycle facilities, may have community benefits. However, most are not used for transportation but rather recreational purposes. 

There are multiple other modes that would be funded, which include:

– Almost $350 million is dedicated to maintaining the existing express bus service.

– A little over $400 million will fund paratransit service for the disabled. The federal government requires transit agencies to fund paratransit service in the same areas in which they operate fixed-route transit service.

– A total of $20 million will fund a circulator shuttle. It’s unclear if the shuttle is for new or existing service. 

– A total of $300 million to upgrade benches, lighting, and shelter at various local bus stops. Since local bus service is the backbone of the network, these improvements make sense.

– A total of $211 million on technology such as Wi-Fi, signal priority, and fare collection. This type of technology is a growing low-cost way to improve transit service.

– The plan includes $490 million for operating reserves and a system state of good repair.

– $500 million funds operational improvements, such as signalization, roadway realignment, and grade separation. Buses travel on roadways, so improving roadways reduces bus travel times and improves reliability. 

In addition to these particulars, I also have several systematic concerns about this proposal. First, most of the analysis conducted to determine this transit service level dates from 2019, or before the COVID-induced travel changes. Overall demand for bus service in Metro Atlanta is at 80% of 2019 level. However, travel patterns have changed dramatically in five years. Demand is lower in areas with high remote work such as East Cobb, and many commuters travel to the office three days per week. Using 2019 numbers is extremely risky.

Second, the plans include a lot of new service. In 2019, the entire system had 9,500 daily boardings. This plan adds BRT and microtransit for the first time. The expansion may be too much, too fast. 

Third, the proposal does not clarify who will operate most of the service. Cobb has managed to keep transit operating costs significantly lower than MARTA, by contracting with private providers to operate the service. It’s not clear if this practice will continue. 

Finally, too much of the transit service focuses on choice riders instead of transit-dependent riders. Choice riders have ready access to a vehicle, and are less likely to use transit, than dependent riders who don’t have access. Yet, to build political constituencies and try (unsuccessfully) to induce new ridership, many systems have chased choice riders. Given actual demographics, the highest per capita ridership would be expected in Marietta and South Cobb yet some of the largest capital investments are in East Cobb and North Cobb. BRT is an important service. But it is used mainly by choice riders. Adding more local bus service might better serve the community by targeting those with the fewest transportation options. 

In a nutshell, there is a lot to like about this proposal. Cobb leaders have abandoned their quest for inflexible, costly rail for a bus-based system. Microtransit is a great fit for the county’s density. Further, by including operational improvements and technology, it is clear that county leaders are thinking about operations, unlike past proposals that focused exclusively on new capital projects. 

However, there are simply too many unanswered questions about the high costs of BRT, how microtransit would work, why there is so much focus on transit-choice customers, who will operate the service, and why ridership projections use 2019 numbers. If transit leaders want voters to support the proposal, they need to answer each of these questions. 

« Previous Next »