Atlanta shouldn't settle for mediocre 'More MARTA' plan

By Maria Saporta

The proposed investment priorities of More MARTA in the city of Atlanta feels as though we’re coming up short.

In gauging the response of the proposed priorities and timeline of the More MARTA plan, it appears few are satisfied or comfortable with the plan as it stands.

From downtown business leaders to advocates of rail along the Atlanta BeltLine, the feeling is similar. The plan does not deliver the most important transit projects quickly enough nor does it propose modes of transportation that are worthy of a world-class city.

streetcar

Two Atlanta Streetcars cross near Woodruff Park (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

The MARTA board is supposed to vote on the plan at a meeting on June 13. But the board would be well-advised to take another look at its recommendations – this time by aiming high, not low; by truly going for “more,” not less.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enhance the transportation infrastructure of our city,” said A.J. Robinson, president of the influential business and civic group – Central Atlanta Progress. “I think we should step back and think carefully about what priorities should be for the first five years so we can make smart decisions.”

In reviewing the proposed plan and timeline, one thought comes to mind – we’re trying to do transit on the cheap rather than putting in place a transit system that will serve us for generations to come.

An example is the amount of bus rapid transit (BRT) and arterial rapid transit (ART) – more buses – that’s part of the proposed plan.

Several corridors that originally were supposed to be light rail have now been designated to be BRT or LRT. Among the corridors now slated to be filled with buses are the North Avenue east-west corridor, the line to Summerhill near what used to be Turner Field, and along Northside Drive.

More MARTA plan

The overall “More MARTA’ plan (Source: MARTA)

Even Peachtree Street – clearly the most prominent corridor in our city – is slated for ART – not quite what one would expect to have along our signature street.

”I personally don’t think the BRT projects should be the priority in the city of Atlanta program,” Robinson said. “Just because buses are less expensive in the short-term doesn’t make that the right decision.”

With the current More MARTA plan, it feels as though we’re settling for mediocrity –as though we’re trying to do something on the cheap rather than build a system that will be an asset for decades to come.

Imagine if the Atlanta of the 1960s had decided to take the cheap route when it proposed our current heavy-rail transit system. If we had decided to go with buses as the permanent solution, I doubt we would have won the 1996 Summer Olympics, three Super Bowls and countless other major sporting and entertainment events.

And when high-profile companies are looking to invest in Atlanta, they want to be near a MARTA rail station. There’s a reason. Rail represents permanence. Developers are more willing to invest in a place they know will have transit in the ground and not subject to a change in route.

More MARTA

The short-term “More MARTA” plan (Source: MARTA)

And let’s not forget the Atlanta Streetcar – the inappropriately maligned Atlanta Streetcar. What most people forget is that the 2.7 mile Streetcar downtown loop was supposed to be the first phase of a much more extensive network that included transit on the BeltLine, along North Avenue and even Peachtree Street.

It has been argued that we should have a dedicated right-of-way for the streetcar and any proposed light rail, and there is merit to that argument. At some point in our future, we will have to rededicate pavement that’s been set aside for cars and turn it into transit corridors.

Some proponents for BRT argue that it can work if it has a dedicated right-of-way that acts like rail. Unfortunately, most “BRT” projects never fully live up to that reality. (BRT would make sense if it were a precursor to rail, but that rarely happens).

One problem with the More MARTA plan is that transit advocates want More MARTA sooner rather than later. The sexier parts of the plan – building rail along the BeltLine or along the Clifton Corridor – are slated to be built out by 2040 or beyond – more than 20 years from now.

The BeltLine Rail Now group issued the following statement on June 9th:

At BeltLine Rail Now, the “Now” part is as important as “Rail.” That’s why we’re disappointed that MARTA doesn’t plan to build light rail on the full loop until the 2040s. We had high hopes after MARTA’s board voted to include most of the BeltLine on its project list last year, but this plan careens down the wrong track.

An explanation for the stretched out timeline is money – or a lack thereof.

City residents passed an additional half-penny tax for “More MARTA” in November 2017. But to fully build out a robust transit system within the city limits, those dollars will need to be matched with federal and state dollars.

The long-term plan for “More MARTA” (Source: MARTA)

It is hard to know whether future leaders in Georgia and the United States will be more willing to invest in transit. But we do know that more people are moving to urban areas, and there is a growing demand for transit.

Remember the $100 billion challenge made by MARTA general manager and CEO Jeff Parker in January to build a first-class regional transit system over the next 40 years.

We need to be aspirational when thinking about our future transit needs.

A good place to start would be to extend the Atlanta Streetcar to the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail – connecting the downtown business district with the popular multi-use trail.

In short, the current proposed plan falls short of Henry Grady’s vision for Atlanta as the capital of the New South in  1864, when he proclaimed: “We have raised a brave and beautiful city.”

Now Atlanta needs to live up to that ideal by building a brave and beautiful transit system.

Jeff Parker, new president and CEO of MARTA. Credit: Maria Saporta

Jeff Parker, new president and CEO of MARTA. (Photo by Maria Saporta)

MARTA train

A MARTA train traveling through Inman Park along DeKalb Avenue at dusk (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

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.

16 replies
  1. Avatar
    Bill Seay says:

    The recent class of "BeltLIne U" came up with a brilliant idea of getting transit on the BeltLIne quicker and at little or no cost. Offer the use of a portion of the BeltLine ROW free to Lyft, Uber or some other such company as a "test track" for their autonomous vehicles and let them develop other vehicles for mass transit. Contact BeltLIne U for details. Could accelerate transit on the BeltLine and save a huge chunk of the BeltLine budget allocated for future trains.Report

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Chris Johnston says:

    Maria, MARTA cannot effectively expand until it fixes its two major operating problems – too many employees and too little farebox collections.
    Transport for London (TFL) is a world-class public transportation system that has about 10 times MARTA's ridership. Yet TFL has only 5.7 times as many employees. And TFL collects 40% of its operating revenue from the farebox (ticket sales) versus MARTA's dismal 20%.
    One key improvement needed in the farebox collections area is a graduated ticket price, based on how far you travel. TfL has a fully-automated, distance-based fare system.Report

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    Andy Hoover says:

    I agree with Chris Johnson's comments quoted below and would like to point out that BRT is not looked upon as the same and not ridden by the majority of mid to upper mid income target ridership (you know, all the people who are driving the cars) and therefor not a viable mass transit option for those people. EVER, ANYWHERE! Call it anything you want, no matter how frequently they run nor where it is correctly perceived as both slower and dirtier than actual MARTA, and, never perceived to be as safe. At the end of the day it is taking the bus. In short BRT is not actual mass transit but is simply targeted work transit for a select segment of people.

    "Maria, MARTA cannot effectively expand until it fixes its two major operating problems – too many employees and too little farebox collections.
    Transport for London (TFL) is a world-class public transportation system that has about 10 times MARTA's ridership. Yet TFL has only 5.7 times as many employees. And TFL collects 40% of its operating revenue from the farebox (ticket sales) versus MARTA's dismal 20%.
    One key improvement needed in the farebox collections area is a graduated ticket price, based on how far you travel. TfL has a fully-automated, distance-based fare system."Report

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    jon carlisle says:

    The employees I've encountered at Marta might as well be TSA 'agents' – bored, rude, full of themselves. And not one of them did a thing about the seat teaming with urine courtesy a recent customer (a fine Atlantan no doubt banned from the downtown cable car merry-go-round).Report

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    Patty Durand says:

    Maria, I was as big a supporter of the streetcar as anyone; I expected it to revitalize Auburn Ave., and it hasn't; I expected it to take tourists places, and it doesn't. I expected to ride it myself as a downtown worker but I don't. I shudder to think of transit dollars flowing towards the streetcar instead of light rail on the Beltline rail corridor. The streetcar is a failure because it operates on busy streets; it goes very slowly; I can walk faster to my destination than it can get me there. It purposefully misses green lights and waits until a traffic light does a complete cycle, frustrating both riders (me, when I rode it) and drivers stuck behind it; and it does that crazy 20-30 minute stop by the Skyview Atlanta ferris wheel while the driver takes a break. That's when I really knew I would never ride it again. Are you kidding me? Having a train stop for 30 minutes every time it circles around the loop, which is already only 30 minutes, is a guarantee that people won't ride it, and that's proved true.
    And, the streetcar vehicle itself is too big and enclosed – it's not fun to ride, in addition to all of the other problems. On nice Atlanta days riders are stuck inside a closed cylinder tube as though we're riding through a war zone. It's giant and hulking and a ridiculous choice for Atlanta streets. Who would want that? Not me.

    The city should invest in Beltline rail now because all of the required studies have been completed these past 20 years and been submitted to the federal government for matching grants. It's the most shovel ready project there is. The city has most of the ROW and what it doesn't have can be negotiated with CSX. Rail on the Beltline will connect citizens in a circular loop the city does not currently have; it will connect to MARTA heavy rail and end the common complaint that MARTA doesn't go where people need; the rail corridor along the Beltline is already there.

    It does not make any sense to extend the streetcar to the Beltline. Ridership won't suddenly happen. It will be the same result: empty streetcars circling the city, clogging traffic, and be embarrassingly empty because of it's slowness, it's enclosed tube choice of vehicle, and it's long wait times at traffic lights and for driver breaks. Let's not throw good money after bad. Let's spend our transit dollars on Beltline rail.Report

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    Hugh Malkin says:

    MARTA is a radial grid that focuses all of its movement to an empty downtown and lacks the vital circle lines that allow people to get to the activity centers spread around the city. This is partially the fault of Central Atlanta Progress. To the vast majority of City of Atlanta residents, MARTA is only useful if you work downtown and the occasional event or jury summons. With More MARTA's current prioritization, MARTA will continue to offer no relief to Atlanta's overloaded roads as the city's population grows by 140% in the next 20 years. More here: http://www.hughmalkin.com/blogwriter/2019/6/11/marta-needs-circlesReport

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    robert chapman says:

    MARTA is no relief to the traffic of ATL. A waste of money and hurting the properties around the train station & tracks . The issues are the same as it has been sense its beginnings and will continue.It appears that it is used to go to the airport or a Falcons game & that's as far as it goes .Report

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Jeremy says:

      I ride it every day and see many, many people joining me on their way to/from work and school downtown, midtown, and in Buckhead. Some days, the trains are standing room only. Can you imagine what intown traffic would be like if we took the average daily ridership of the train (~200,000 train rides per day) and put it on the streets in more single occupant vehicles?Report

      Reply
  8. Avatar
    Mist asanti says:

    How about Marta be a little more focused on joint expanse and have an rail system that reaches more suburban areas (i.e. Gwinnett county). It's nearly impossible to commute to work or school with just the express and it's limited schedule.Report

    Reply
  9. Avatar
    Chris Johnston says:

    My earlier comment on this subject has disappeared, so I am commenting again.
    Expanding MARTA will be a waste of time and money until MARTA fixes two operational problems – too many employees and too little farebox collection. Let's compare MARTA with Transport for London (TfL), a world-class transit system.
    TfL has 10 times as many riders in a year as MARTA, yet only has 5.7 times as many employees. To reach TfL's efficiency, MARTA must eliminate 2,150 of their 5,000 present employees.
    And TfL collects 40% of their operating expense from farebox collections (tickets, passes, cards, etc.) while MARTA only collects 20%. The cost to ride TfL depends on how far you ride, versus MARTA's lazy single fare. It is very obvious that MARTA's cost to move a passenger from North Springs to Airport is much greater than to move a passenger from College Park to Airport, yet the fare is the same.Report

    Reply

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  1. […] Atlanta is moving forward with its MARTA expansion and investment plan by focusing its initial efforts on bus rapid transit, but some city leaders and transit advocates think the project timeline and dismissal of rail develop… […]Report

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