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I voted for More MARTA, not less MARTA

The Atlanta BeltLine.

By Guest Columnist MATTHEW RAO, chair of BeltLine Rail Now.

I voted for More MARTA, not less MARTA. And like me, so many of you did too.

More MARTA, the 40-year program funded by a half-penny tax to fund transit in the City of Atlanta, passed in 2016 with 71 percent of the vote. And ever since, Atlanta’s citizens have been paying to implement the plan. More MARTA provides a chance to leverage our existing rail system to achieve last and first mile connectivity for people in all of Atlanta’s neighborhoods.

In More MARTA, four rail projects including the streetcar extensions west and east to the BeltLine, BeltLine Rail from Lindbergh to Bankhead, Campbellton Road light rail transit (LRT) to Greenbriar, and the Clifton Corridor LRT to Emory form a system rather than a collection of individual routes, offering easier and more direct routes and transfers that save time and extend the reach of each project. Together with three bus rapid transit (BRT) projects that connect to MARTA’s system, these new rail lines would become the backbone of a city dedicated to a green future and the possibility of a full life here without the need for a car.

But this summer, we are witnessing the scaling back of the plan. It need not be that way, and there are signs of hope and opportunities to get back on track right now.

A resident of Midtown Atlanta, Matthew Rao is a leading kitchen and bath designer, founding and operating RAO Design Studio in Midtown since 2005. A resident of the City of Atlanta for most of his life, Matthew has taken his passion for design to other areas outside the world of kitchens. He serves on the Advisory Board of the Atlanta Community Food Bank and as chair of BeltLine Rail Now.

In May, MARTA gave its first public accounting of how it has spent the $367 million in More MARTA sales tax revenue so far. It came as a shock that nearly two-thirds of the money has already been spent on bus operations and bus service extensions — mainly frequency enhancements — leaving only about $134 million on hand for capital programs. Why does this matter? Because bus improvements over 30 years were only supposed to cost $238 million. It is unclear how much more bus service Atlanta has today than it did in 2016, before More MARTA.

In June, MARTA adopted a new budget that continues the present pattern of spending. Also this summer, the MARTA Board voted to downscale Campbellton Road LRT to BRT, saying that bus rapid transit provides a “rail-like” experience at far less cost and in much less time to build. Many local residents and supporters of More MARTA were dismayed and disillusioned. The point of Campbellton Road LRT has always been to bring investment, development and jobs to the community in addition to serving existing riders better. LRT would provide faster service, increased capacity, and has been shown to deliver more development than BRT. The permanent nature of rail infrastructure is seen as something people can count on now and in the future. Also announced in June, MARTA is taking steps to change the preferred alternative for the Emory line from LRT — long the choice — to BRT.

If MARTA can no longer afford to deliver all of More MARTA, why not just say it out loud? We deserve that truth. There hasn’t been a better time since the 1970s and 80s to apply for federal matching dollars, upon which nearly all big-city transit projects depend for up to half of their total project cost. We are in year two of the five-year Biden Infrastructure and Jobs Act, which provides an additional $23 billion in transit funding. Other cities won out in year one, but there are still four years of grants remaining before funding levels drop again. It’s time to get busy and get ready to apply for our share. In Atlanta, we must create new local revenue sources beyond the sales tax. Few cities rely solely upon sales taxes for the local portion of the cost of transit projects. We won’t be able to build More MARTA unless we enlarge the revenue pie.

The More MARTA project map.

So, what can we build by the time the World Cup and the eyes of the world arrive here in 2026? For sure, Summerhill BRT will be up and running, but we can also have trains operating on the BeltLine. In June MARTA and Atlanta BeltLine Inc. (ABI) announced that they had reached the 30 percent engineering milestone for the streetcar extension to Ponce City Market, which includes the first section of BeltLine Rail. This significant achievement means that the project can move forward. What it needs now is the leadership of Mayor Dickens to press for the next steps immediately.

ABI has announced a request for qualifications to award $3.5 million, with $700k of that coming from the City and $2.8 million from the federal government, to study all of the BeltLine rail corridor that MARTA has not previously studied, from Lindbergh counterclockwise to Memorial Drive. This puts the promise of delivery of BeltLine rail to the west and south sides one step closer. Rail on the “J” of the BeltLine is projected to serve an estimated 31,000 riders per day. And that projection was made before Microsoft and others started construction at the emerging tech hot spot near Bankhead.

By 2050 the population of the City of Atlanta is projected to double, reaching up to 1.2 million people, with nearly 25 percent of them living in the BeltLine tax allocation district. The private sector has invested billions of dollars in the BeltLine corridor so far, and the city is enjoying the trail, parks, and other amenities. But the resulting development has brought increased traffic congestion and pollution without delivering the critical element of rail transit, which has always been part of the plan since day one. To relieve the gridlock, promote equity and connection, and take an important step toward combating climate change, we need more people riding the greenest form of transit we can build — electrically powered trains.

The light rail and streetcar projects in More MARTA represent a one-time investment in the permanent infrastructure future of the city. In corridors like the BeltLine, with its dedicated streetcar right-of-way of tracks in a grass rail bed, the 15 to 20 percent higher construction cost vs. BRT will be more than offset by lower maintenance and operating costs. Rail also provides much higher capacity and speed than buses. In the end, the beauty, the green qualities and the aesthetics of the BeltLine are supported by rail and not by paving a new 22-mile road.

Atlanta needs the benefits we can achieve through building all of More MARTA. The World Cup is coming in 2026. Our city is a finalist to host the Democratic National Convention in 2024. With a world-class transit system, we would have a better opportunity to host more such events and to make Atlanta the truly international city it can be.

I voted for More MARTA, not Less MARTA, in order to bring first-class transit to areas that have suffered from disinvestment and under-investment for decades and to connect all of Atlanta’s citizens to needed resources and to each other. The best time to have made these investments was years ago, but the second best time is right now.

Would you like to write a guest column for SaportaReport? The SR team strives to uplift and amplify the diverse perspectives in our community, and we want to hear from you! Email Editor Derek Prall to discuss the specifics.

8 Comments

  1. It's Me August 1, 2022 2:49 pm

    Bravo! Says what so many think. Too bad MARTA won’t care. They will continue to tell us what’s good for us rather than do true listening sessions.Report

    Reply
  2. Dana F. Blankenhorn August 2, 2022 9:57 am

    I live in Kirkwood, by the East Lake MARTA. I bought my house 40 years ago because there was MARTA.

    But what we want from mass transit today isn’t what we needed in 1982. Today, electric motors scale from bicycles to buses. Rails are fixed. Schedules have also changed, and where we want to go has changed. It’s changing all the time. There’s a lot more demand for service along Buford Highway than DeKalb Ave. When we want to go where has also changed. We use MARTA for the Atlanta United game, or the Airport. We don’t put on suits, drive to rail stations, and spend 9 hours a day at a downtown office anymore. The office centers are now all on the edge anyway.

    This tells me that mass transit needs to be flexible. Flexible in terms of routes, in terms of scale, in terms of schedule. We need mass transit to get us where we want to go, when we want to get there. Except for events, where cars can’t scale, or for destinations, where parking doesn’t scale, our travel desires are each unique to ourselves.

    MARTA should reflect that. It doesn’t. So it’s becoming obsolete, rapidly. That will continue until it adapts to what people want. Flexibility.Report

    Reply
  3. John Naugle August 2, 2022 12:40 pm

    Matthew, your article is inspiring. I admire your example of activism. With you and many others, I want BeltLineRailNow {dot} com too! Once our GREAT city gets the Rail we will then have to get the Train — because you cannot put cart before the horse, right? Your organization’s RailNow initiative would be an ideal collaborator and partner for our PeaceTrain initiative; don’t you think?

    “All Aboard” — ThePeaceTrain {dot} info

    I’m so proud to proclaim and reference herein that your Father, Giriraj Rao, was my first ever Mahatma Gandhi mentor, ‘guru’, and/or teacher. As the co-founder of the Gandhi Foundation USA, he laid a very dynamic cornerstone that will yield some wonderful spiritual and societal rewards to our GREAT city — and for generations ahead. Being a student, ‘grasshopper’ and/or protégé of your Father and his elevating example positioned me to create the original brand term ©ATLANTA: City of Peace™ and to establish an organization that carries the same name: ATLpeace {dot} org

    Three Cheers to your Father and my Gandhi Teacher.Report

    Reply
  4. K Blount August 2, 2022 1:47 pm

    Thank you Matthew. I agree 100% with you, and most/all of my intown friends/neighbors have the same sentiments. “More MARTA” passed in 2016 (for many, like me, I voted YES because it included Beltline rail). Yet where are we 6 years later? Studies and stalling. The Beltline concept for light rail is brilliantly concepted to provide last-mile connectivity to/from existing heavy rail for citizens from all over the core of metro ATL, where their use of heavy rail is not viable today. Heavy rail is too expensive to expand much. More buses or trains on existing (already congested) streets with limited/restricted right of way is not the right concept at all.

    Unrestricted right of way is available right now for MARTA’s taking along the Beltline loop – ready to go! — to allow residents of 40+ neighborhoods to transgress intown ATL in a predictable and convenient manner. Atlanta is fortunate to attract global events like World Cup but that’s not a future guarantee if gridlock and parking challenges continue. The wide-reaching transit that was the basis for the Beltline thesis is by far the best use of MARTA funding to serve an exponentially large group of Atlantans every single day.Report

    Reply
  5. Nick Nicholson August 2, 2022 5:52 pm

    Isn’t the attractiveness of LRT is that it is on dedicated right of way? What’s wrong with using some form of buses on a dedicated right of way if buses are more economical to purchase and operate? All we are talking about is rubber tires rather than steel wheels on a dedicated road surface, concrete or rails. I too love rail and belong to rail-promoting organizations. Sometimes other options are better. Denver on its 16th St Mall is an example, and Denver has an effective rail system in addition. Why is rail the answer for our Beltline? I love rail but which is more practical, efficient, and likely to be done?Report

    Reply
  6. Eric August 2, 2022 8:41 pm

    Why did Matt leave out the crosstown routes were also originally identified as LRT, however changed after passing of More MARTA to the more appropriate transit mode for the given route?Report

    Reply
  7. Brian Sumlin August 2, 2022 8:56 pm

    After reading Matthew’s article very nice article and I hope MARTA is listening. The entire MoreMARTA program needs reevaluated because it needs to be Equitable and realistic and as each corridor comes on the list each corridor continues to lose and MARTA continues to “win”. We have to as a tax payer, stakeholder, and investor into the program we should be holding these entities accountable including the Mayor and the City Council. The majority of them ran their campaigns on supporting light rail and why are they not defending their communities that placed them in office? Each corridor should be scared “why”? because now there’s no guarantee that LRT light rail transit will be further adopted into our communities here in Atlanta for the MoreMARTA program. Other cities are achieving their goals but why can’t Atlanta do this? Hopefully they will see that there is major descrepancies in the program and make changes and leave the decision when it comes to determining the LPA locally preferred alternative up to the corridor and not by MARTA. If not then an audit and investigation needs to be conducted on MARTA and this program and a independent firm must do it.Report

    Reply

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