City of Atlanta and MARTA can create transit model in age of micro-regionalism

By Maria Saporta

In November, voters in the City of Atlanta likely will get an opportunity to increase their investment in MARTA by a half-penny sales tax for 40 years – adding to the penny it passed in 1971.

At the same time, the rest of Fulton County likely will get to vote for .75 of a penny for transportation projects – most going to roads – for the next five years.

Atlanta Streetcar

Atlanta Streetcar travels on Peachtree in the heart of downtown in front of Margaret Mitchell Square (Photo by Maria Saporta)

And what will we get? Micro-regionalism.

While it is good MARTA may soon be getting new revenue and expansion opportunities, let’s not fool ourselves. This is not moving us closer to a regional transit system.

What we are seeing is a “regional” transportation system being planned by micro municipalities.

The cities of Alpharetta and Johns Creek, which have populations of 63,000 and 83,000 respectively, are reluctant to support expanding MARTA rail up Georgia 400 to their cities. But consider this: the 10-county metro Atlanta area has a population of more than 4.3 million people, and the mayors of two North Fulton cities are putting on their brakes on a plan that should be serving the entire metro area.

Meanwhile, the City of Atlanta is the largest city in the region and the state with more than 425,000 residents. And all polling shows it is the most transit-friendly part of the region.

If Fulton County really wanted to increase its investment in MARTA, it would want City of Atlanta voters be part of that referendum.

MARTA expansion

Planned expansion for MARTA if it is able to secure new funding (Source: MARTA)

Because the non-Atlanta portion of Fulton County is not jumping on the MARTA train at this time, it may hurt its chances of passing an additional MARTA tax at a later time. The rest of Fulton County could vote for .25 of a penny for MARTA in 2017, and that could possibly be increased to half penny in five years.

MARTA did have an ambitious $8 billion plan to expand the transit system in Fulton and DeKalb counties, but it had hoped to have a half-penny sales tax from those jurisdictions. Now it is having to take an incremental approach towards expansion.

And there are a lot of unknowns with that approach – if and when those voters will have an opportunity to vote for MARTA.

So what is known?

The City of Atlanta will have a huge competitive advantage when it comes to transit in the Atlanta region.

Already, the biggest economic development projects are gravitating to MARTA stations. Companies want to locate in communities where millennials and the creative class want to be. And they prefer living in walkable urban areas served by transit.

Now it will be up to MARTA and the Atlanta community to come up with the best transit plan to serve the city’s residents.

Because MARTA’s expansion plan only included partial projects in the City of Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed has let it be known that the he would like to see the new MARTA revenues help expand the City’s streetcar system and BeltLine transit.

Atlanta Streetcar System Routes (Source: Atlanta BeltLine Inc.)

Atlanta Streetcar System Routes (Source: Atlanta BeltLine Inc.)

To have a successful outcome, it is essential for there to be a community-backed plan that works for both the city and the transit agency.

“The funds go to MARTA,” said Keith Parker, MARTA’s general manager and CEO.

When asked about who would be coming up with the project list, Parker said: “We have got smart people at the table discussing how we build a transportation system. We have a nice dose of projects that are complementary. This is an exciting opportunity.”

Ideally, Atlanta would take a methodical approach in deciding its transit priorities.

Should we extend the Atlanta Streetcar to the BeltLine?

Should we invest in a streetcar along the BeltLine corridor?

Should we build the Peachtree Streetcar?

Should we build a rail connection to Turner Field, Zoo Atlanta and the Lakewood Amphitheater?

What are the best corridors to connect the east side and the west side of the city?

Should we build a portion of the Clifton Corridor rail line hoping DeKalb County will support its portion?

Should we improve the MARTA stations in the city – most notably the Five Points MARTA station?

How should we select our highest priority projects? Should they be based on highest potential ridership, greatest economic development opportunities, providing equitable investment in our region?

No matter what, the hurdles we faced with the Atlanta Streetcar should be addressed head on. We need to make sure MARTA has the expertise to design, build and operate a light rail or streetcar system.

Atlanta has a wonderful opportunity to lead the region by showing how to seize the future. It can become the model for the rest of the region. As Atlanta proves that transit is giving it a competitive edge, the rest of the region will find out the hard way that it’s a day late and a dollar short – and forced to play catch up.

During last year’s LINK trip to Toronto, metro Atlanta leaders heard the term: “relentless incrementalism.” That term seems to fit this approach to transit expansion.

But the term “micro-regionalism” is more descriptive to the path the Atlanta region is taking.

Next week: Should Atlanta ask voters to approve both a 50-cent MARTA sales tax increase and a 50-cent transportation sales tax?

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.

13 replies
  1. mnst says:

    It’s actually just the opposite of regionalism — it’s the legislature’s same anti-regional stance, it’s just that this one time, they walked the walk on actually giving local governments control, and let the city of Atlanta decide if it wants to take on new transit funding.

    The questions about what we should build are great ones, but they’re also ones we’ve been talking about for years. The idea of new rail transit in the city of Atlanta isn’t a new one. The streetcar system plan has been under development for years. East, west, and crosstown routes are already undergoing environmental assessment for potential federal funding. These are *clearly* the routes that should be prioritized in this referendum, because they’re projects that are much closer to reality, having been planned and researched for years already.Report

    Reply
  2. JamesReese says:

    The hiccup is going to be whether the City and MARTA can come to an agreement on how to extend MARTA within the city limits. Although MARTA has the expertise, I fully expect City Hall to make it difficult with focus on the street car. As the GM said the funds go to MARTA.Report

    Reply
  3. scfranklin says:

    The mistakes of our past haunt metropolitan Atlanta today. MARTA should have been created as a regional authority with all the power, independence and legal authority needed to execute a metro system and state funding to support it.  Instead lawmakers took the politically comfortable path. Here we are 40 years later struggling to do what political leaders, lawmakers and civic leaders knew they needed to do but didn’t do for reasons that range from fear of political backlash to dreams of continued racial segregation and nostalgia for a time long gone.Report

    Reply
  4. Tim Langan says:

    The half penny should be spent on a line from Atlantic Station to Arts Center (or Midtown or North Ave) to Ponce City Market. Cable car along beltine wouldn’t run where there is enough density and the bridges over the Beltine would all have to be rebuilt (not wide opening).Report

    Reply
  5. Kevin Matthews Ireland says:

    Fellow Atlanta progressives, please don’t hate; I’d like to hear your opinions and perhaps change or evolve my own.
    I fully support spending more on MARTA and mass transit, but I REALLY don’t like streetcars (except perhaps along reduced-access routes like the Beltline). In my opinion, streetcars are just incredibly expensive buses with cute outfits.
    Like buses, streetcars take up a traffic lane and block traffic every time they stop to pick up passengers. Like buses, they are completely constrained by heavy traffic and street lights.
    Unlike buses, though, streetcars are also constrained to a very few routes that require hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure investment. Unlike buses, it’s almost impossible to adjust streetcar routes based on evolving city needs.
    My suggestions:
    1) Invest some of the proposed non-Beltline streetcar funds into developing sleek, futuristic-looking buses that people will like to ride. Equip them with state-of-the-art fast-pay options, safety features and free wi-fi.
    2) Spend a few million dollars in relocating telephone poles and curbs to make it easier for the new buses to make sharp turns along their routes – rather than hundreds of millions of dollars in streetcar tracks and ugly overhead wires.
    3) Invest a few million dollars in high tech smartphone apps that allow people to submit their current location and destination – and then provide them with the best mass transit method to get them there most quickly based on current traffic and actual MARTA positions.Report

    Reply
  6. Tim Langan says:

    I like your thinking. I’d say go old school San Fran trolley on the design on the buses. When Georgia Tech changed the design of their campus buses to look like trolleys a couple decades ago, ridership immediately jumped.Report

    Reply
  7. James R Oxendine says:

    Ok, let’s talk about the $.50 solution. Can it bring some new technological innovations to the table such as the Internet of Things ( IOT)concept that allows for more security, efficiency and cost effective solutions for transit and transit oriented development(TOD)?Will the new funding and strategic approaches allow MARTA to relocate its headquarters to the 5 Points station as planned 30 years ago and to become part and parcel of the revitalization of Underground Atlanta? Further, will the new funding allow MARTA and the city of Atlanta to contract for the planning, development and management of the Atlanta Streetcar system, including the proposed transit portion of the Atlanta BeltLine? In this instance, the use of autonomous, battery powered vehicles could and should represent a secure, efficient and cost effective approach to enabling the more timely introduction of transit to the Atlanta BeltLine. If these elements are introduced into the discussion of new transit models, perhaps a practical and long term consensus can be developed.Report

    Reply
  8. mnst says:

    Light rail on the Beltline is a serious transit solution that would reduce car dependency in both developed and developing parts of Atlanta. The San Francisco trolley is a tourist attraction. We need real transit solutions.Report

    Reply
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  10. AlexDavis2 says:

    “Micro Regional Transportation” may be a good “stop gap measure”. There are uncertainty about the future. And, may allow questions to be answered. There are many competitors for Atlanta/Fulton. Florida is beyond control, for development. Using their “Asset” to increase the value of our own. Is a sensible approach. We live in a challenging time, economically. There are troubles the average person does not know? What type “Economy” are we creating? How well will it serve us? And, the classic; Whose the “Competition”? The Politics of “Micro Regionalism” are just now being establish. Its a response from The Majority Segments” to the future “Demographics”. Control is the main ingredient of Politics. So we will must live the choices we make. We do know, “Nothing Perfect”! As we go through this “Transformation”, let “US” be respectful!Report

    Reply

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