State’s highway express lane project eases stress on long-haul commuters

A Georgia Regional Transportation Authority Xpress bus leaves downtown Atlanta at afternoon rush hour Nov. 7, carrying commuters on a 40-mile trip to Dacula. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Sherry Genthner says her husband noticed her demeanor change once she started riding Xpress buses from McDonough to Atlanta in 2013.

Genthner says she’s less stressed now that she is not driving from her home in Griffin into Atlanta after spending 25 years doing so to get to her jobs as a banker. The 59-year-old fits the mold of the typical Xpress rider who owns a car but prefers the convenience of public transit to get back and forth from work.

Banker Sherry Genthner arrives on an Xpress bus in downtown Atlanta during a recent morning rush hour. She regularly commutes on the state-run coaches. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

“Someone talked me into (riding Xpress) and said, ‘you’ll never want to drive again,’” Genthner said. “It’s true. I get home so relaxed instead of sitting in traffic all knotted up.”

With 1.8 million passenger trips per year and riders who live in 40-plus counties, Xpress buses are a linchpin for a mass transit plan that stretches well beyond the Atlanta suburbs. 

Twenty-seven bus routes originate at park-and-ride lots that stretch to the outer edges of the Atlanta region and provide a half-hour respite for workers commuting to downtown from far beyond.

The allure of riding an Xpress that converts car drivers into bus riders includes free Wi-Fi and the ability to transfer for free to other transit systems in the Atlanta region, including MARTA, CobbLinc and Gwinnett County Transit.

The state-run Xpress buses are more limited in some ways than Georgia’s local transit systems, as they only operate during rush hours and make fewer stops. Most of the trips of 25 miles or so are on interstates and many of the highway miles are in dedicated carpool lanes.

“People like the fact that they don’t have to have a car to get downtown from some of the outlying suburbs,” Georgia Regional Transit Authority Chief Transit Officer Gail Franklin said. “People really like the vehicle type. It’s not your standard bus, it’s a nice on-the-road coach.”

Express lanes let public transit buses and paying Peach Pass commuters bypass traffic along some of the state’s busiest corridors like stretches of I-75 north of McDonough and Ga. 400 south of Cumming.  

The Georgia Department of Transportation’s $11 billion mobility program includes funding to build more metro toll lanes that transit and planning officials say reduce congestion. The Atlanta Regional Commission estimates the Atlanta region will add 3 million people by 2050, making investments in new transit options especially important.

The average Xpress bus rider tends to be different than the typical transit rider with a commute closer to urban job centers. They tend to be suburbanites and exurbanites who earn higher incomes and own cars. Many riders on Georgia’s local transit systems don’t have another transportation option.

But there can be tradeoffs in exchange for the freedom that comes with riding buses instead of gritting your teeth while sitting in traffic behind the wheel. You might, for example, have to explain to your boss why you were late to work when your bus doesn’t arrive on time.

The Xpress buses are on schedule about 87% of the time, and 90% of the delays are caused by traffic, state officials say. Of course, solo drivers get stuck in the same traffic.

“The times that there have been issues with traffic or the expressway shutting down due to an accident, my job has been very understanding,” said Xpress rider Paulette Neal-Parham of Locust Grove, who began taking the service in June after a medical problem kept her from driving downtown. “They like the fact that I do commute on public transit.”

It’s not easy to find critics of the state’s primary mass transit operation. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is a frequent critic of mass transit plans when the emphasis is rail, but commuter buses running in toll lanes are a different story.

The Xpress bus service needs to be expanded to get more cars off the road, but the priority for mass transit should be on those who can only afford public transportation. Those are the two sometimes competing missions of public transportation – getting car-less people to work versus getting cars off the road.

“It’s great that people have an alternative, but it’s crucial that people without transportation have access to that need,” said Benita Dodd, vice president of the foundation. 

When the toll Express Lanes are built out, perhaps in the next decade, they are projected to connect the largest managed lane network in the nation and in a cost-effective way, Atlanta Regional Commission spokesman Paul Donsky said.

“You have to figure out a way to keep moving those people to their jobs, doctors’ appointments, wherever they need to get,” Donksy said.

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.