By Maggie Lee
As MARTA ponders how to spend a new Atlanta sales tax worth $2.5 billion over 40 years, BeltLine rail advocates say a ring of rail belongs at the top of the priority list.
Most of the dozen or so people who addressed MARTA’s board on Wednesday afternoon came to talk about Atlanta’s new transit sales tax, explaining that they want to make sure it funds light rail along the under-construction 22-mile trail, ASAP.
Brandon Sutton said he lives in Cabbagetown, that his business is is on the Eastside Trail and that the promise of the BeltLine to radically transform Atlanta is what’s kept him here.
He said he voted for a new Atlanta sales tax for transit in 2016 because he believed the vote would get the rail built, part of the original BeltLine plan.
But he’s not happy with the priorities MARTA has published.
“The priorities as they stand now will have absolutely no impact on life in my part of town, but I’ll be taxed for the next 40 years to pay for them,” he told the board.
What MARTA’s proposed for light rail is a zig-zag line from Greenbriar, through West End, Downtown, Virginia Highlands, then a branch to Buckhead and another to Emory.
That includes about seven miles of rail along east and southwest portions of the BeltLine, but not the whole 22-mile loop.
Ryan Gravel, the urban design consultant whose Georgia Tech masters thesis became the BeltLine, has been urging political leaders not to neglect transit on the trail. Transit, he wrote, was the driving force behind the BeltLine’s original promise to repair Atlanta’s fragmentation, disinvestment and decline, especially in low-income communities of color.
He urged leaders not forget about those people who got on board with the BeltLine because they were promised transit.
“Literally we wouldn’t be building it without those people, their advocacy, and their support for transit. But a lot of them are getting pushed out, gentrification. We’re not seeing the ladders of opportunity for them, other things that would come with transit,” Gravel said Wednesday, after speaking to the MARTA board.
He and others presented arguments for the loop on Tuesday night, at a public meeting of a campaign group called Beltline Rail Now.
Several of the Wednesday MARTA speakers took shots at the so-called “Clifton Corridor” part of the light rail scenario: the spur out to Emory.
The Emory area wasn’t part of the city of Atlanta when folks like Sutton voted for a transportation sales tax 2016. But now it is — and plenty of people think the area is jumping in line ahead of places that have long been part of the city.
But the Clifton Corridor is the largest employment center in the region that has no direct access to MARTA or a highway, said Betty Willis, president of the Clifton Corridor Transportation Management Association. That’s a group mainly of employers, including Emory University, where Willis is senior associate vice president for government and community affairs.
There are thousands of jobs in the corridor, she said, and not just for doctors or people who have a college degree.
“By having this transit line, it will give direct access to those thousands of jobs for people who cannot get to the Clifton Corridor, can’t afford to live anywhere near it, don’t want to have a car, can’t afford a car,” Willis said.
She said it’s “misinformation” that Emory is a Johnny-come-lately, and that transit to the neighborhood is something that agencies like the Atlanta Regional Commission and MARTA have been thinking about for years.
The BeltLine Rail Now plan counters that Clifton connectivity is a regional project — that Atlanta should pay a share of of it, but so should other jurisdictions, like maybe the state.
MARTA itself is going through a public involvement phase and it’s good to hear from citizens and residents, said General Manager and CEO Jeffrey Parker after the Wednesday meeting.
What his agency has to do is whittle down a dream list of about $10 billion in “potential” projects that voters saw before voting themselves a tax. That list included new infill stations on existing lines, new heavy rail construction, and a much bigger web of light rail.
“We’ve whittled it down based on the public input that we’ve heard … we’re continuing to confirm that we’ve got the project list right,” Parker said.
Besides public input, MARTA’s using nine principles set with Atlanta City Council to decide on how to spend the money. The list includes things like easing travel for workers and joining to other regions.
The transit agency’s board is expected to vote on a project list this fall.