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…
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.
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.
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….