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Atlanta leaders committed to fulfilling promise of rail on the BeltLine

Tram 3 in Paris shows how rails and trails might safely co-exist along the Atlanta BeltLine. (Photo by Mason Hicks.)

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.”

Here is the “More MARTA” (approved by Atlanta voters in 2016) that the MARTA board adopted in 2018. (Special: MARTA.)

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.

Projected ridership on major Atlanta transit projects. (Compiled by BeltLine Rail Now based on MARTA estimates.)

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.”

Cover of the Atlanta BeltLine Inc. Transit Task Force report published in 2019 strongly recommended streetcars on the BeltLine.

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.

A poster at a recent post-card signing event of BeltLine Rail Now. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

“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.

Mason Hicks (left) joins other transit advocates in sighing postcards in support of rail on the BeltLine. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

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.

BeltLine Rail Now Chair Matthew Rao mails postcards to elected elected leaders urging ongoing support for rail on the BeltLine. (Courtesy of Matthew Rao)

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”

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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10 Comments

  1. J Lawrence Miller May 23, 2022 8:51 pm

    As a member of the Board of Directors of Beltline Rail Now I cannot tell any of you how excited I am. MARTA was an instrument used to divide this City’s neighborhoods… to make it difficult. Beltline Rail brings to life the One Atlanta plan like no other project! Those of us who are physically disabled can use it to get to places we could not go without a car (many neighborhood streets are far too narrow for buses). Beltline Rail brings equity to neighborhoods long left out of the growth of our city. Rail connects us in ways not seen before (as Seattle, Portland, Phoenix, and other mid size cities can attest too).

    For years BRN has been advocating for this. Covid brought to light the critical importance of this type of infrastructure development. All Atlantean’s should be shouting outloud to MARTA to build more trains. Extend to Clayton County, as was promised. Do it on Campbellton Rd, as promised. The money needed, in MARTA’s own plan, says they are different pots so building one takes nothing away from any of the others.

    Ok. MARTA. You have over $365 MILLION to build the extention to Ponce City Market. The Mayor of Atlanta has called for it. New City Council Members were elected with a MANDATE to support it. The residents of Atlanta want and in 2016 authorized you to build it. If someone, anyone on the Executive Team at MARTA pushes busses then it’s time for that person to go!.Report

    Reply
  2. brian sumlin May 23, 2022 10:18 pm

    Very nice article. I hope we can get moving quicker on delivery of light rail transportation. Thank you mayor Dickens and Atlanta for keeping the light rail dream alive. We must deliver. Can’t wait for what’s next steps. I hope MARTA is listening. If they are not, step aside let someone else deliver light rail to us in our communities. Time and time again, it is proven that developers prefer light rail because we are moving forward Atlanta.. this is a “no brainer” our corridors need this we deserve this …Report

    Reply
  3. Kay Stephenson May 24, 2022 9:55 am

    Thank you Maria for keeping after this issue. We’ve all been at this for over 20 years and have yet to see one mile of track. As I’ve said before to city council, I’d really like to see light rail on the BeltLine in my lifetime. That possibility dims if MARTA sticks to their current estimates to deliver in 2035 or 2040.Report

    Reply
  4. Judy Keenan May 24, 2022 10:07 am

    Much as I would like to see light rail on the BeltLine, we first need to find a way to keep it safe from all the motorized vehicles that already take up too much space on the BeltLine. Rail would be great if and when we can ban all the electric scooters and motorized bikes and even the gas guzzling go cart I have seen racing up and down the East side on a crowded day. When I enter the BeltLine in my neighborhood, I often feel like I am merging onto the connector.Report

    Reply
    1. J Lawrence Miller May 24, 2022 11:11 am

      Part of that comment resonates with smart everyone. Motorized vehicles. Creating rail has nothing to do with motorized vehicles *excepting those for the disabled* are prohibited. The fact they are still there is the responsibility of APD and lack of enforcement.

      Rail must not be contingent on enforcement. Enforcement must happen no matter what.Report

      Reply
  5. mike dobbins May 24, 2022 6:00 pm

    Your BeltLine light rail piece is poignant but irrelevant. A lot has changed in the 30 years since the rail idea was first advanced as a possible Olympics access system. Travel technologies and travel behaviors are dramatically shifting, thankfully, to bike, ped, scooter, uber/lyft, and other options.
    One thing that has not changed, though, is that to be successful transit must connect people from where they are to where they’re going. From home to where destinations are concentrated, like work places, schools, shopping, health facilities, and sporting and cultural events. Building ridership is what boosts transit feasibility. Filling the access needs of lower income and other people who lack cars is especially vital.
    Except for the link from the Downtown Streetcar to Ponce, the BeltLine loop doesn’t and can’t provide the logical nexus between origin and destination. While fostering modest development here and there around its circle, the BeltLine destinations pale in comparison with the Downtown, Midtown, Buckhead, and now West Midtown concentrations, none of which are served by the loop.
    To feed where concentrations exist, we need robust bus-based transit along our major travel corridors. Through a successions of bus options from arterial to bus rapid transit to existing MARTA rail, we can strengthen access and build ridership. Indeed MARTA is doing so, enhancing what we have. As it proceeds, it needs to:
    • provide shelters at every stop and crosswalks at all of those locations;
    • improve frequency of service and install reliable real time information
    • design and build a distinctive streetscape program – sidewalks, trees, lights, and cameras
    • expand the new on-demand network to feed theses corridors
    Such improvements can begin now, with ultimate system costs and timeframes a fraction of any rail-based system, which would take four times as long and cost four times as much. Use MARTA’s streetcar extension to Ponce as your measure: it’s about two miles long, a third on the BeltLine, scheduled to open within seven years (2028), and cost about $200 million. The benefit is that the streetcar connection on day one would run from empty to packed. But multiply those numbers by ten to complete the 22 mile loop, and then wait……….and wait………….Report

    Reply
  6. Baker May 26, 2022 1:22 am

    “Until we hear a compelling reason to go in another direction”

    I can think of like several hundred million. Buses cost a fraction of rail and are equally as effective. Rail may be cooler than buses but it doesn’t make sense to spend the money or destroy the park like atmosphere that, whether we like it or not, the Beltline has clearly become. Buy cool buses. They dont have to be the same type of bus MARTA currently uses and wouldnt necessarily require the right of way that rail definitely would. The Beltline sadly just aint that wide.Report

    Reply
  7. john May 28, 2022 3:44 am

    Seems odd to differentiate between streetcar and light rail. A streetcar running on the Beltline right-of-way is effectively light rail, no?

    in re buses: unfortunately they suffer from poor rep here in Atl. many more people will ride a train than will ever step foot on a bus. sad but true.Report

    Reply
  8. Alex June 13, 2022 3:28 pm

    MARTA has been incapable of improving the image and usefulness of buses within the city. MARTA rail is therefore the first choice of many, particularly white-collar workers who simply do not want to deal with riding buses that stop every two blocks and involve long hot or cold waits in the elements. Atlanta needs to take advantage of the many rail opportunities it currently has. We’re paying for MARTA’s promises to build more rail transit, and they need to deliver on those promises ASAP or voters will start delivering at the ballot box.Report

    Reply

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