Clifton Corridor’s light rail service an ‘overnight success’ that took six decades

By David Pendered

Overnight success takes about 20 years, or so goes the maxim. Sometimes it can take nearly 60 years, as in the case of the Clifton Corridor – where the newly approved plan to connect rail service dates to a map unveiled in 1961, when President Kennedy was in office.

emory

The many services along the Clifton Corridor related to Emory University contribute to a daily traffic flow estimated at 40,000 vehicles a day. Sunday afternoons are not typically a busy time. Credit: David Pendered

As such, the effort to deliver rail to the Emory University area exemplifies another maxim: “Never, never, never give up.”

That line’s attributed to Winston Churchill, Britain’s prime minister during World War II.

Emory University’s Betty Willis has coined a litany of hopeful outlooks in her decades of active advocacy for the Clifton Corridor route. Among them:

  • 2001 – “We’re very excited about this proposal … and we feel it addresses a growing need to provide rail transit to some densely crowded intown neighborhoods.”
  • 2018 – “MARTA and Atlanta will be competing with cities all over the country for limited federal funding, and this project is the best opportunity for a $1 billion expansion of the MARTA system, the first major expansion Atlanta has seen in two decades.”

Even with just these two decades of perspective, some contend MARTA needed nothing more than Atlanta’s annexation of the Clifton Corridor and its environs as reason sufficient to provide a light rail line to the area. This outlook seems to overlook efforts in the 1990s by John Lewis and Cynthia McKinney, not to mention the corridor’s advocates, and regional planners and their 1961 map.

A version of the Clifton Corridor transit route appeared in a planning document released in June 1961 by the Atlanta Region Metropolitan Planning Commission, a precursor of the Atlanta Regional Commission. Credit: blog.library.edu.gsu

In the 1990s, Lewis and McKinney stumped for the project. As the area’s representatives in Congress, they sought federal funding so MARTA could do the planning necessary to apply for federal construction funding. In addition to a multitude of services, the region was a treasure trove of jobs ranging in pay from high income to blue collar.

McKinney in 1991 described the Clifton Corridor transit piece as one where rail would improve air quality and the quality of life. In a statement announcing the second piece of a total funding package of $2.1 million, McKinney observed:

  • “Traffic congestion is adding greatly to Atlanta’s poor air quality. Building more highways, widening I-285 or widening roads through our quiet neighborhoods is certainly not the answer. We must look closely at other forms of alternative transportation such as monorail, light rail or express buses.”

The 1961 map was produced by planners who worked for an entity that preceded the Atlanta Regional Commission. At the time, regional boosters saw transit as a sweetener to attract development, according to a report in the New Georgia Encyclopedia. MARTA didn’t exist at the time and would not exist for another decade, not until voters established it in 1971 in Atlanta, DeKalb and Fulton counties.

These years of effort finally paid off last week for advocates of the Clifton Corridor.

MARTA’s board of directors earmarked $350 million for a light rail line to link the Lindbergh Station with the Clifton Corridor. Light rail is a service similar to the Atlanta Streetcar, which operates on a fixed guideway.

Specifically, MARTA’s program list says the Clifton Corridor will be:

  • “About 4 miles of grade separated light rail transit (LRT) service from Lindbergh station to a new station near Emory.”
emory, residential

A mix of developments, in addition to office and institutional, adds to the complexity of the traffic mix in the Clifton Corridor. Credit: David Pendered

The project is part of a $2.7 billion list of construction projects approved by MARTA’s board. This amount represents local dollars collected from a transportation sales tax. In some cases, this pot of money is to be supplemented with federal construction funding. The challenge of obtaining federal funding was cited by Willis in her observation in September.

At this time, the Clifton Corridor route is to terminate near Emory. Previous plans to have it connect with another MARTA station have been shelved. In the past, plans called for the route to link with the Decatur Station or the Avondale Station. Both connection points would provide riders immediate access to the East-West rail line.

Clifton Corridor is home to institutions including Emory University, the national headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a plethora of other regional destinations. Estimates show that some 40,000 vehicles a day travel the corridor, according to figures provided by Emory.

Getting to either end of the corridor is no cakewalk. The north end is served by Briarcliff Road, a two-lane road with occasional turn lanes that connects to North Druid Hills Road, which connects to I-85. The south end of Clifton Road abuts Ponce de Leon Avenue, a major route leading into Atlanta from northeast DeKalb and Gwinnett County.

 

emory, winship

Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University is one of the regional destinations whose main entrance is served by the oft-congested Clifton Road. Credit: David Pendered

 

Emory, CDC, Clifton

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a major employer with offices facing the Clifton Corridor. Credit: David Pendered

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

4 replies
  1. Betty Willis says:

    Thank you David for your thoughtful piece and for reminding me how old I am getting! 🙂 Yes, I have been passionate about this project for over 20 years and feel very encouraged about where we are now. We have come a long way and hopefully this long-awaited project will come to fruition soon!Report

    Reply

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