By Maria Saporta
Key Atlanta leaders remain fully committed to building rail on the Atlanta BeltLine.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, in a brief interview, restated his commitment to BeltLine rail at the opening of a PATH Foundation tunnel under Northside Drive at Atlanta Memorial Park on Saturday.
“I’m definitely committed to make sure we move forward with having rail on the BeltLine,” Dickens said unequivocally.
Clyde Higgs, president and CEO of Atlanta BeltLine Inc., made a similar statement in a telephone interview.
“From our perspective, rail transit is part of our DNA,” Higgs said. “Until we hear a compelling reason to go in another direction, that’s our position. Our original promise to the community was rail transit.”
So why are their statements important at this moment in history?
Movement to build rail transit on the BeltLine has been painstakingly slow. City of Atlanta voters approved giving MARTA an extra half-penny sales tax in 2016 to implement the More MARTA program, which included rail on the BeltLine. That tax is generating about $70 million a year — meaning there should be at least $400 million available to invest in the More MARTA projects.
That means money is available to start the final design and construction for rail along portions of the BeltLine.
To the surprise of several in the community, MARTA released a study in February saying light rail on the BeltLine could be twice the original estimate.
Manjeet Ranu, MARTA’s chief of capital programs, was quoted in February as saying the agency needs to do further study over the next two years on whether to pursue light rail or bus transit.
The problem is that the longer MARTA takes to study the issue — which has been studied and restudied countless times, the more expensive rail transit will become.
In 2019, the Atlanta BeltLine Inc. Transit Task Force submitted its final report, which was not widely released, that clearly recommended streetcar transit as the preferred mode.
“ABI has reaffirmed that streetcar should remain the preferred technology for transit on the Atlanta BeltLine,” the executive summary stated.
The task force, chaired by former MARTA general manager Keith Parker — now president and CEO of Goodwill of North Georgia — included major stakeholders.
The report studied three modes of transportation before reaching its recommendation: light rail transit (LRT), streetcar and bus rapid transit (BRT).
The task force concluded that streetcar transit was the most appropriate for the BeltLine corridor because streetcar stations usually are about one-half mile apart, they operate with a high level of frequency — every 5 to 10 minutes — from morning to night, “and have development impact that tends to be corridor focused rather than station-area focused.”
MARTA did not respond to questions submitted in writing for this column. “MARTA and the Atlanta BeltLine are currently working on submitting Mega Grants and will not have an opportunity to review your questions and provide information before your deadline,” MARTA spokeswoman Stephany Fisher wrote in an email.
One of the questions to MARTA was whether it has submitted to the City of Atlanta and Atlanta BeltLine Inc. a 30 percent engineering package on the proposed extension of the Atlanta Streetcar to the BeltLine and up to Ponce City Market.
Both Mayor Dickens and ABI’s Higgs confirmed the engineering package recently was delivered.
“It’s a milestone,” Higgs said.
So, why wouldn’t MARTA want to brag it was actually doing something to advance the More MARTA projects that were promised to voters?
Dickens said that if the Atlanta Streetcar was extended to the BeltLine and up to Ponce City Market, it would help lock in the streetcar as the transit mode along the 22-mile corridor.
“That’s what I’m hoping for and pushing for,” said Dickens, who added he had discussed BeltLine transit with Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Given the Infrastructure Investment Job Act and the “mega grants” now available to communities, the opportunity for federal rail transit funding is more readily available.
Even Ranu acknowledged that during a briefing to a joint meeting of the Atlanta Regional Commission Board and the Transportation and Air Quality Committee.
“There’s a 64 percent increase in the amount of federal funding for transit MARTA is trying to take advantage of it,” said Ranu, but then he expressed great interest in BRT.
Sadly, MARTA seems to have gotten out of the rail business. The last two rail station expansions were done more than 20 years ago.
The City of Atlanta’s More MARTA program did outline several rail projects, and according to the Intergovernmental Agreement between the city, the Atlanta BeltLine and MARTA, any changes to the project list must first be approved by the three City of Atlanta representatives on MARTA’s board — Robbie Ashe, Rod Mullice and Reginald Synder.
Now that Dickens and Higgs have reaffirmed their commitment to rail on the BeltLine, that should send a message to the city’s three board members.
Dickens did say there are people who want the BeltLine to remain a walking and biking trail, but he added that the original vision was to connect neighborhoods with transit.
There also are people who question whether it’s safe to have a streetcar in the same corridor as a multi-use trail, but Higgs said other cities have shown it’s possible for both to co-exist.
Lastly, both Dickens and Higgs acknowledged buses might be cheaper than rail, but that the value of having a streetcar along the BeltLine would outweigh the cost savings.
Matthew Rao, chair of the grassroots advocacy group BeltLine Rail Now, said he was delighted with Mayor Dickens’ commitment to having rail on the BeltLine, but he expressed disappointment in MARTA’s apparent lack of interest to advance any of the rail projects listed in the More MARTA program.
“There is more federal funding than ever for rail, and many other cities are using it to build world-class transit,” Rao wrote in an email. “Atlanta taxpayers have put up hundreds of millions of dollars for new transit since 2016, and that money is waiting to be paired with the right federal dollars.”
Rao continued: “If MARTA can’t break out of its analysis paralysis, Mayor Dickens and the City Council must jump-start the program. We’re glad to see the Mayor recognizes this and sounds willing to do whatever it takes to get things moving.”
This column is a follow-up to last week’s column: “Metro Atlanta riding the wrong bus into the future”