Atlanta transit boosters need to unite for more MARTA

By Maria Saporta

A tug-of-war has emerged over how to invest the $2.5 billion More MARTA funding in the City of Atlanta.

Sadly, a divided mindset has developed on how to invest those dollars – pitting one group against another.

On one side, there is the BeltLine Rail Now group that is urging that the More MARTA project list fully build out transit along the 22-mile corridor surrounding the inner city.

On the other side, there are the Clifton Corridor proponents who want to build a rail line from the Lindbergh MARTA Station to Emory University.

The net effect is that two Atlanta pro-transit groups are divided rather than unified. That creates an “either/or” discussion when we should talk in terms of “and” – the BeltLine and the Clifton Corridor.

Atlanta needs both – and more, much more…

Atlanta Streetcar

Atlanta’s investment in the Atlanta Streetcar provides a nucleus for a light rail system (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Ben Limmer, MARTA’s assistant general manager, has been taking the More MARTA plan on the road, presenting the plan to two different groups – the Midtown Alliance and Central Atlanta Progress – just last week.

MARTA and the city developed a project list after voters approved a half-penny sales tax increase for MARTA projects within the City of Atlanta in November, 2016. The estimate is that the tax will generate $2.5 billion over the next 40 years.

But the initial project list totaled $11.5 billion – far more than what the tax is projected to raise. The initial project list envisioned 40 miles of light rail – one that would have created a robust transit system in the city.

The slimmed down plan anticipates 21 miles of light rail serving about a third of the BeltLine loop. Several of the other light rail lines have become “bus rapid transit” lines (a transit-lite option that often falls short of transforming a corridor and becoming a mode of choice).

The problem, as I see it, is that we’re not being as strategic as we should be. MARTA and the City of Atlanta have put forth a plan constrained primarily by the amount taxpayers are expected to contribute over the 40 years of the tax.

Yet there are all sorts of other possibilities to increase transit funding in the city.

First, there’s the State of Georgia. At long last, the state has recognized that it needs to invest in transit. In all fairness, the needs to invest in the communities that have been investing in our transit systems for decades.

Jeff Parker

Jeff Parker, the new general manager and CEO of MARTA (Photo by Maria Saporta)

In other words, the state should reward Atlanta for the investment it has made in transit. It is the one local government that has invested more in transit than any other entity, and MARTA has helped the city and state be economically competitive – for new companies, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the convention and tourism industry as well as giving residents and visitors alternatives to getting around.

Second, there’s the federal government. While the Trump administration is not viewed as a big backer of transit, especially rail, Atlanta should continue to seek federal funds to match the local investment. MARTA is assuming a 50 percent match for its major capital projects.

Third, we need to explore alternative funding streams. Originally, the revenues of the BeltLine Tax Allocation District were viewed as the mechanism to build transit along the BeltLine. That funding has not yet lived up to expectations, but that could change as more development is built along the corridor.

Fourth, Atlanta can explore public-private partnerships to build transit – perhaps in concert with proposed developments. Our original streetcar lines in Atlanta – built in the early 1900s – were established by developers wanting to get people to buy houses in the “streetcar suburbs” of Midtown and Inman Park.

BeltLine rendering

A rendering showing how light rail could be built along the BeltLine corridor (Special: Atlanta BeltLine Inc.

Lastly, there are other governments who can help in building out our transit system. The Emory line will benefit DeKalb County as much as it will benefit the City of Atlanta. It would be great if the two jurisdictions could work closely together to build the Clifton Corridor line and have it continue all the way to the Avondale Station.

The bottom line is that transit believers need to work together for a greater goal of building a transit-rich region and not working against each other.

It might help if MARTA and the city presented a project list with phases – showing what would be built as new funding was identified. Personally, I believe we should convert most of the bus rapid transit lines to light rail – building out our limited and beleaguered streetcar – so there’s service throughout the city.

I still believe we need a Peachtree Streetcar that connects downtown, Midtown and Buckhead – serving the important nodes of Piedmont Hospital, Peachtree Battle and West Paces Ferry Road – areas that currently are not well served.

And looking at MARTA’s map of proposed projects, there are voids in both the northwest and southeast sections of the city.

So instead of turning on each other, let’s dream big.

As the famous Chicago city planner of the early 1900s – Daniel Burnham – has been eloquently quoted:

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work….

More MARTA

The entire project list currently being proposed by More MARTA (Special: MARTA)

More MARTA

Proposed light rail sections of the More MARTA plan (Special: MARTA)

More MARTA

Proposed lines for bus rapid transit in the More MARTA plan (Special: MARTA)

More MARTA

Proposed Arterials (express buses) in the More MARTA plan (Special: MARTA)

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.

10 replies
  1. Reinmart says:

    None of the alternative funding sources listed remedy the fact that the city would be paying all of the Clifton corridor line which is misleading as shown on that map. Even in Marta’s own presentation prior to the referendum, there was an asterisk by the Clifton line stating that it was dependent on an agreement with Dekalb. Now that it has passed, Marta expects the city to pay for the route alone.Report

    Reply
  2. Judith Miske says:

    Streetcar is ridiculous. Rail line like other major cities. Get on with it and quit bickering. We are so behind. Been living here since 1971. Atlanta has never kept ahead of the growth.Report

    Reply
  3. kaystephenson says:

    Maria – I believe you will find that BeltLine Rail Now has not presented transit on the BeltLine versus transit along the Clifton Corridor as an either/or scenario. We have consistently agreed that Emory/CDC/CHOA is an important job center and that transit to that area would be valuable. In fact, in Plan 1B presented by Ryan Gravel on July 11th, we proposed that the city of Atlanta reserve money for this project so that when the other regional funding is in place Atlanta’s contribution would not have been spent on other projects and could be applied.

    There is enough money in the pot to complete the promised BeltLine Transit, contribute Atlanta’s fair share to the Clifton Corridor, and to build more of the Atlanta Streetcar System Plan. We agree that other funding sources are available. In fact throughout Cathy Woolard’s campaign for Mayor she spoke of pursuing public/private partnerships to do just that. What we are asking for is that MARTA and the City of Atlanta be clear about how the commitments that have been made will be fulfilled. If not this money, what money.

    There are other important job centers in the city that are not served by the proposed MoreMARTA plan including, as you mentioned a connection between downtown, midtown and Buckhead. Piedmont Hospital, with the BeltLine running right past it’s back door, is unserved by this plan. I do not believe that most of us would have voted on a regressive tax if we knew that we would not end up with a robust public transit system for the city in our lifetime. What has been proposed misses the mark.Report

    Reply
  4. breeze29 (@breeze29) says:

    So Cobb and Fulton counties can agree to public-private partnerships to spread the cost of Suntrust and Mercedes Benz stadiums but city, state, federal and local communities can’t figure out transportation solutions that meet the mutual interests of millions. Granted, transit priorities require shift in culture here in the Southeast while football and baseball stadiums in SEC country are baked into the DNA of the region. As it stands, most of the economic opportunities in Atlanta metro exist north of I-20 while the most marginalized citizens in the region are south of I-20. Meanwhile, the transit development priorities shift to the Northeast toward North Dekalb.Report

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  5. Thomas Nelson says:

    I agree. The proposal in More MARTA to build the northeast and southwest segments of Beltline rail is a good start, but we should be spending scarce public funds to connect them via the crucial southeast segment, linking the eastside trail at Memorial Drive to the Westside trail. A public investment in transit in southeast Atlanta will spur private investment in Chosewood Park, Boulevard Heights, Grant Park, Ormewood Park, and Reynoldstown. That private investment would fund the TAD to help build out the rest of the Beltline.

    Meanwhile, the city should reserve its fair share of funding for the Clifton corridor, and partner with Emory, DeKalb County, and the state to fund that line. The Clifton corridor serves unincorporated DeKalb Ave. and commuters from far around the metro area. The Beltline is a transit project that mostly benefits the city of Atlanta and Fulton county, and traverses many areas that don’t have private investment yet. As such, it wouldn’t be eligible for the variety of public and private sources of funding that the Clifton corridor enjoys.Report

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  6. Andre Howard says:

    M. Saporta

    My name is Andre Howard and I am an avid supporter of public transportation. I have on several occasions stressed many of the same concerns and solutions as you so eloquently spoke of in your article. It saddens and angers me to see that once again government is going to divert from those initial plans that would more mindfully and inclusively serve the greater community. To see the original plans be watered down (bus rapid transit) is disappointing–in fact it’s counter intuitive, most people that I know won’t take the bus but will gladly ride the train, actually if the rail service was more extensive I GUARANTEE ridership would be much higher. You are absolutely correct these efforts should be a collaboration which is both forthcoming and equitable. If there is any way I could be of assistance I am more than willing to do so.

    [email protected]Report

    Reply
  7. Scott Jones says:

    Thanks for this update, Maria. I agree with advocating for an extensive streetcar system paired with other alternate transit – locally, regionally & statewide. Citizens need to be more vocal now, and press elected & hired officials to pursue the bigger vision.Report

    Reply
  8. Chris Johnston says:

    How much streetcar do you consider reasonable? Remember that it costs about $60 million per mile to build and a fortune to operate – the City was spending $5 million per year to operate 2.1 miles of it. And also remember it is slower than a bus unless on dedicated right of way.Report

    Reply

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  1. […] Atlanta Needs Rail on Both the BeltLine and Clifton Corridor (Saporta Report) […]Report

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