City DopeNews

GDOT Offers Grant Money for Bus From Athens to Metro Atlanta

An initial proposal would connect Athens to the Doraville MARTA station by bus. Credit: Michael Barera

It’s not a Brain Train, but Athens could be getting a Brain Bus.

The Georgia Department of Transportation is offering Athens-Clarke County almost $600,000 to explore a partnership with Gwinnett County on regional transit and a potential bus connection to MARTA’s Doraville station. 

Many Athens residents have been longing for a rail connection to Atlanta since at least the early 1990s, when the idea was floated prior to the 1996 Olympics. In the 2000s, backers rebranded it as a “Brain Train” connecting UGA to universities in Atlanta. However, it’s never come to fruition, mainly due to rural and Republican opposition to passenger rail at the state level. That’s changing, though, as in recent years GDOT and the state legislature have begun funding transit for the first time, albeit at levels dwarfed by highway construction.

The ACC Commission approved the grant unanimously at a called meeting May 16, although some commissioners expressed skepticism about the idea. “Is there any flexibility available to us?” said Commissioner Mike Hamby, who would prefer more frequent service in Athens or a route to the Caterpillar plant in Bogart. “Are there other routes that were considered for this grant within the county?”

Athens Transit doesn’t have enough staff to start offering more services, Manager Blaine Williams said, but the commission could decide to reapply to GDOT with another proposal.

As currently proposed, the grant would fund a feasibility study, then a pilot project running a bus between Athens and some point in metro Atlanta in conjunction with Gwinnett County. The application mentions four buses a day—leaving Athens at 5:45 and 7:45 a.m., and returning to Athens at 7:45 and 9:45 p.m.—but county officials emphasized that the schedule isn’t set in stone.

It’s also not set in stone that the route would end in Doraville. “The goal is to get Athens residents a connection to MARTA,” Assistant Manager Josh Edwards said.

The grant also includes $30,000 for software that would help Athens Transit count its ridership, which became very difficult when the system went fare-free in 2020. Another $30,000 would go toward hiring a consultant to help ACC and UGA Campus Transit do a better job of coordinating.

Two commissioners doubted that people would use the new bus service. “I will need to be convinced that we can market a two-hour drive just to get to MARTA, and a two-hour drive back from that workday,” Allison Wright said. She also worried that the bus connection would make it easier for Atlanta residents to come take jobs in Athens.

Tiffany Taylor brought up Megabus, a private company that once offered trips from Athens to Atlanta but no longer does. “I want us to be mindful of things we tried in the past that really didn’t work,” Taylor said.

Commissioner Carol Myers was among those who spoke in favor of the study and of regional transit, along with commissioners Jesse Houle, Patrick Davenport and Melissa Link. “People’s transportation needs don’t stop at county lines,” Myers said.

Davenport said it would alleviate traffic on Highway 316, both from Athens residents who work in Atlanta and Atlanta residents who visit Athens for football games or other reasons. About 40,000 people leave Athens for work every day, and another 40,000 come into the city, according to Mayor Kelly Girtz. In addition, about 20,000 UGA students hail from metro Atlanta, and a bus would make it easier for them to live without a car, Girtz said.