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A matter of trust, equity: ARC weighs fate of Atlanta BeltLine rail as deadline looms

Jason Marshall
Bush Mountain, Oakland City, Fort McPherson, commercial

By Guest Columnist FRED O. SMITH JR., a founding member of BeltLine Rail Now

Trust is a strange thing. It is easy to lose. And once lost, it is difficult to regain. When it comes to transit in this city, an imminent decision by the Atlanta Regional Commission and MARTA officials will help determine whether they retain the citizens’ trust, or squander it. If it is squandered, this could negatively impact transportation in this city for generations. The draft of the 2020 Atlanta Region’s Plan Regional Transportation Plan is in its final public comment phase at the Atlanta Regional Commission, and it will not be revised again for another four years.

Fred O. Smith, Jr.

Fred O. Smith, Jr.

Under the current draft, transit on the vast majority of the BeltLine would not happen for decades. Transit on the Southeast corridor, home to neighborhoods that include Pittsburgh and Summerhill, is slated to be built by 2050 – the same as never. On Southwest Atlanta’s Westside, transit between the Westview and Bankhead neighborhoods is scheduled that same mythical year.

The deadline for public comment to the ARC is midnight on Dec. 13. Contact information is provided at the conclusion of this column.

ARC’s long-range transportation plan incorporates the project list and priorities adopted earlier this year by MARTA. Under this schedule, t, some of the most transit-dependent neighborhoods in Atlanta will be among the last to receive service. Transit on most of the Eastside Trail wouldn’t be completed until 2040. The only section of the BeltLine the plan prioritizes for completion before 2030 is a small sliver connecting the Atlanta Streetcar to Ponce City Market.

In 2016, we Atlantans voted to raise our sales tax 0.5 percent in order to pay for transit within the Atlanta city limits. This More MARTA tax is expected to raise around $2.5 billion dollars. And with that money, we need to deliver service in the most equitable way to city residents, and that means bringing transit to people in the most underserved areas of the city so that they can access jobs, healthcare, recreation, education, commerce, and their religious and cultural lives. We should also prioritize More MARTA funds for projects that were actually in the city limits when we voted to tax ourselves.

BeltLine income map copy

The ARC’s current plan calls for the lower-income communities in Atlanta’s southern neighborhoods to be among the last served by transit to be built along the Atlanta BeltLine, by 2050. This heat map shows cooler blue colors related to lower incomes and hotter shades of red representing higher incomes. The numbers relate to planned transit projects. File/Credit: Yonah Freemark

The More MARTA tax is a regressive tax, which is tax that is applied uniformly, taking a larger percentage of income from low-income earners than from high-income earners. One of MARTA’s top priorities for the timing of its program is to build the $1.8 billion dollar, 4-mile Clifton Corridor to Emory University – which was not in the city at the time of the More MARTA sales tax vote. To be clear, a line to Emory and the CDC should happen. As someone who works as a professor at Emory Law School, I would personally benefit from MARTA’s Clifton corridor rail project. MARTA promised that regional partners for this project would bear a great portion of the cost, but no partners have stepped forward to do so.

What we should do is prioritize projects, such as the 22-mile BeltLine transit loop, that were actually in the city limits when we voted to tax ourselves and that directly benefit most the taxpayers paying the More MARTA tax. To do otherwise is a breach of the basic trust in government that caused the 2012 regional transportation tax to fail, because, as media reported at the time, the voters did not trust their elected officials to deliver on the promises they were making.

The promise of the BeltLine rail project is to connect 45 Atlanta neighborhoods and the diversity that is contained with them. Over a million new residents in the city are projected by 2050. Can we handle a million new cars? Compared to other projects, BeltLine transit carries with it the unique potential to connect most of those residents to their entire lives, not only to their jobs, making car-free living a choice for those who want it, and a true life option for those who have no other choice. We must build it now. Every day that we wait to build transit within the city of Atlanta as promised in 2016, the greater the risk becomes that officials lose the public trust, and that these projects will never become the reality we need them to be.

Notes to readers:

Fred O. Smith, Jr. is a professor at Emory Law School where he teaches local government and constitutional law. He is also a community advocate, and a founding member of BeltLine Rail Now.

Friday, Dec. 13 is the deadline for public comment on the proposed 2020 Atlanta Region’s Plan Regional Transportation Plan. Comments can be sent by email to [email protected] and by mail to John Orr; Manager, Transportation Access & Mobility Group; Atlanta Regional Commission; 229 Peachtree St., NE; Atlanta, GA  30303.

 

Bush Mountain, Oakland City, Fort McPherson, commercial

By 2050, this building and the rest of the Oakland City community is to be served by the rail component of the Atlanta BeltLine. Credit: David Pendered (October)

 

Bush Mountain, Oakland City, Fort McPherson

By 2050, the Bush Mountain neighborhood, near Oakland City, is to be served by rail along the Atlanta BeltLine. Credit: David Pendered (January)

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5 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Brett Walker December 9, 2019 11:07 am

    Will the quickly arriving, point to point convenience of self driving cars and shuttles reduce the value of fixed rail transit?

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    Sally Flocks December 9, 2019 3:02 pm

    Expansion of the existing rail system receives far more attention than investing in better operations of the infrastructure we already have. More frequent bus service needs to be a top priority for use of More MARTA tax dollars, especially if we want the funds to be spent equitably.

    As someone who rides buses frequently, I’d love to make 15-minute headways the standard, not the exception. We also need more transit-only lanes and signal timing changes that give buses the priority at intersections. Many people live in parts of Atlanta far beyond the BeltLine, and we have an enormous mismatch between how badly people who rely on transit need good bus service and how committed community activists and government leaders are to investing in it.

    Like Fred, I don’t want to wait decades for better transit. And that’s another reason for making better bus service an investment priority. Unlike rail, better bus service can be implemented quickly. Don’t get me wrong. I recognize the value of rail and am a frequent user, especially of MARTA’s red and gold lines. But we must not forget the opportunity costs that will result from directing most of the More MARTA dollars to rail expansion.

    Many of you know me from the 23+ years I led PEDS, an advocacy organization dedicated to making our streets and sidewalks safe and accessible to everyone who walks. Atlanta desperately needs to fix broken sidewalks, but the fact that doing so isn’t “sexy” is a big reason the backlog of broken sidewalks in the city exceeds $1 billion. Providing better bus service isn’t sexy either, but it’s essential to our quality of life.

    Bus service and rail are not either/or decisions. But we must ensure that operating and improving our bus network receives a fare share of funding.

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    Ted Vigodsky December 9, 2019 4:25 pm

    Ms. Flocks makes a compelling argument. A more efficiently integrated bus system with shorter headways, etc. now while we plan for and build out rail which will take far longer to do. At the rate Atlanta is growing, we can’t wait a couple more generations to get people moving place to place quickly and on time. We need somebody again with the hands-on, take charge leadership of an Alan Kiepper in the mix. Sadly no one has done it better at MARTA since he was here. And that’s been a long, long time. Knowing Alan, I suspect he’s looking down on us and wondering, what the heck has been going on here all these years.

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    Basil Berchekas Jr December 10, 2019 9:54 am

    Fred D. Smith Jr. is right. Considering that Atlanta is under the gun for air pollution, the need to build more rapid transit is even more crucial (as is the need to foster more localized bus service from rapid transit stations). Heavily transit dependent neighborhoods should receive this service first, not last, and 20 years hence for the whole network is just too far out.Infrastructure just isn’t taken as seriously as it needs to be, even for roads and streets, let alone transit.

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  5. Avatar
    Steve Saenz December 10, 2019 12:55 pm

    I’m all in favor of getting LRT on the Beltline ASAP. I just wonder if it is going to deliver on the promise of ‘equity’ that many are hoping for. A lucid argument could me made that it will exacerbate the income gap and make housing even less affordable in Atlanta, especially in Beltline neighborhoods.

    Imagine this scenario: The decision-makers at the ARC and MARTA reverse course and move light rail transit along the entire 22-mile Beltline corridor to the top of the priority list. They announce this in early 2020. Questions:

    1. How long will it take for this new transit system to become functionally operational? That is, where riders can access the transit stops effectively, transfer to the MARTA heavy rail system at the four compass points, etc. [Transit planners say this would take 10-15 years, best case scenario]

    2. What happens to property values along the Beltline once they announce this new transit system and the ensuing 10-15 years? [According to ABI the Beltline Redevelopment Plan has generated over $5 billion in economic development to date. Commercial and residential property values in the surrounding neighborhoods have skyrocketed during this period of time. This is without any transit.]

    3. How will riders access the new LRT system once it becomes operational? [These are likely to be “hop on/off” platforms like the ones built for the Atlanta Streetcar. There is no such thing as “Park & Ride” on the Beltline. Riders will have to either walk, bike or be dropped off near one of these transit stops to access the system.]

    4. What types of jobs will be created along the Beltline as economic development moves to the south and west sides of Atlanta? Who will be filling those jobs and where will those people live? [Atlanta is booming today largely because of technology and other “innovation economy” jobs. These highly-skilled and highly-paid workers are likely to purchase homes close to where they work.]

    As a point of clarification, sales tax is a consumption tax. It is only paid if and when you buy something that is subject to sales tax. The more you consume the more you pay. It should also be noted that everyone who eats, shops, plays or stays in Atlanta is helping to fund the T- SPLOST. This includes 53 million people who visit Atlanta every year as well as all of the residents of the metro area who come into the city every day to work, have lunch / dinner, drink a beer and/or go to a sporting event. In other words, a significant amount of this funding source is being paid by people who do not live in the City of Atlanta.

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