Less is less with More MARTA projects
By Maria Saporta
As a lover of transit — especially rail — my heart has been broken repeatedly by the unrealized opportunities metro Atlanta has had over several decades.
The reasons are many. Lack of state and regional funding for the capital expansion of transit in metro Atlanta. Anemic efforts to secure federal dollars for capital expansion. And having our major transit system, MARTA, being out of the capital expansion business for more than two decades.
A major problem is that in addition to MARTA, we have multiple agencies – Atlanta Regional Commission, The ATL (Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority), the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and the State Road and Tollway Authority competing for limited federal dollars and minimal state funding. Plus, the Georgia Department of Transportation has pretty much-ignored transit spending in metro Atlanta.
This regional ineptness will be addressed in a future column.
But my latest heartbreak has come from the scaling back of plans to be funded by the More MARTA half-penny sales tax passed in 2016.
According to a schedule MARTA released at the March 1 Atlanta City Council Transportation Committee meeting, there’s now a list of nine projects expected to be completed by 2028. And only one project is slated to be rail – the extension of the Atlanta Streetcar connecting to the Atlanta BeltLine and continuing on to Ponce City Market.
That list has been pared down from 17 projects in 2018 and from as many as 70 in 2016.
Several transit lines once promised to be light rail (LRT) – namely Campbellton Road and Clifton Corridor – have now been scaled down to bus rapid transit (BRT) because of costs and expediency. (See charts at the end of this column).
That’s not all.
Of the $394.8 million collected thus far from the More MARTA sales tax, $180.7 million, or about 46 percent, has been spent on bus operations and enhancements leaving fewer dollars for capital expansion.
In fact, MARTA had projected that over the life of the More MARTA tax until 2032, $2.4 billion would be raised, and only $238 million, or 10 percent, would have been spent on bus enhancements.
Several councilmembers – Amir Farokhi, Marci Overstreet, Keisha Sean Waites, Antonio Lewis and Matt Westmoreland among others – questioned MARTA on how it has spent its money so far, whether the sequencing of projects was equitable, who was holding the agency accountable, and if the scaling back of plans would cause the public to lose trust.
City Council President Doug Shipman was especially direct in his questioning of Collie Greenwood, MARTA’s general manager, over the amount of money spent so far on bus enhancements.
“I believe there should be a return of some, if not most, of the money that was spent on bus operations and expansions back to the More MARTA capital funding pool,” Shipman said in an interview over the weekend.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens also is taking MARTA to task.
“It’s important for me, the City Council and the public to say: ‘MARTA, we want to see projects delivered. We want to see Campbellton Road BRT completed soon. We want to see the Summerhill BRT, completed soon. We want to see Metropolitan and Cleveland Avenue projects completed, and we want to see these things done on time and on budget,’” Dickens said in an interview on March 3.
At long last, the City of Atlanta leadership is becoming more engaged in MARTA’s decision-making. Dickens replaced two City of Atlanta members on MARTA’s board with his own picks – former Atlanta City Councilmember Jennifer Ide and Jacob Tzegaegbe, a senior transportation advisor to former Atlanta Mayor Kiesha Lance Bottoms.
“I like the choices of those two new board members,” Dickens said. “They bring a fresh lens to it. They ask good questions, and they are sometimes saying: ‘Wow, how did we get to this point? And what is the way out?’ I talk to them every other week or so.”
Dickens also said the city had a bit of a breakthrough when the state awarded a small grant for the redo of the Five Points MARTA Station. He is hopeful there will be more state support in the next few years.
“You start with a little bit, and maybe we can grow to a lot,” Dickens said. “We want to utilize those resources quickly so that the state sees the benefit of it in time for the FIFA World Cup [in 2026.] Then we turn around and see how the state can prioritize MARTA support.”
The good news in the past week is the streetcar extension to and along the Atlanta BeltLine up to Ponce City Market.
In the public comment portion of the Transportation Committee, Nathan Clubb urged MARTA “to move forward as quickly as possible” for financial reasons and to rebuild public trust.
“I see this extension of the streetcar as a proof of concept to have rail all over the BeltLine,” Clubb said. “We need to build it out as quickly as we can.”
Shipman said MARTA and the city need to start implementing projects.
“I would have hoped we would have been further along with federal funding by this point with all the money going to infrastructure, with our two Democratic senators – Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock and with Biden administration,” Shipman said. “We have done an enormous amount of planning, but we haven’t done enough with implementation and capital construction.”
That’s been true for decades.
On Sunday, I called up Nathaniel Ford, who worked with MARTA from January 1997 to January 2006, when he was serving as general manager. He’s now in his 11th year as CEO of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority.
“The last two MARTA stations were built during my tenure – Sandy Springs and North Springs [both opening in 2000,]” Ford said, adding the Amour Yards maintenance facility opened in 2005 when he was still general manager. “After that, MARTA has not had any major capital projects. The longer you take to get these projects done, the more costly they become.”
That conversation brought me back to the Atlanta regional LINK trip to Miami in 2006, when we heard from Jack Stephens, a former MARTA deputy general manager, who then was helping run the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority. He retired as its executive director in December 2018 and passed away in June 2019.
“The problem in Atlanta is that you have no one making decisions and implementing them,” Stephens told the delegation of Atlanta leaders in 2006. “You do a lot of planning. You spend millions and millions and millions of dollars on studies and visioning. But nothing is getting done. At some point, somebody has to take the bull by the horns and do something.”
the key to getting people into transit is frequency. Trains in Kyiv were recently limited to 8 minutes apart AT NIGHT. Atlanta trains don’t run 8 minutes apart at rush hour. It’s worse with the buses.Report
Tier 2 will never get built.Report
I have enormous respect for Maria Saporta, but I must confess my disappointment to read her support for rail technology on the Beltline right of way.
*Transit is a service*. Transit is not a particular technology. In itself, a streetcar does not address traffic congestion.
One of the biggest problems in Atlanta’s transit planning is the obsession with rail technology. We have that technology in the current streetcar, and indeed the cars are pretty to look at. But Atlanta’s streetcars provide bad transit service. That is because transit service depends on other factors. Effective and efficient transit requires an unobstructed track, a right of way that connects travelers’ origins and destinations, and cost-effective equipment.
The many idealistic young people (and some old ones, too) rallying around streetcars will set back Atlanta transit if they get what they want. On that score, see the analyses of Georgia Tech professors Mike Dobbins, Harold Wertheimer, and myself (link below.)
And of course, the Beltline corridor will not allow for good service. It does not connect origins and destinations.
When and where are the traffic jams in this city? They are at rush hour on North Ave., 10th Street, Piedmont Ave., and the freeways, i.e. they are on radial routes in and out of the city. Traffic jams are not caused by people going from Grant Park to Inman Park to Virginia Highland to Ansley Park. That ring route (of the Beltline) does not correspond to patterns of travel.
Moreover, running rail through what is now a linear park will not spur economic development. Development has exploded along the Beltline because the Beltline is a park. Most developments are located on radial spokes that people use to get to work and on the Beltline that people use for recreation. A guy who holds a day job as senior VP for development at Portman Properties (a firm that knows a thing or two about urban development!) has expressed concern about running rail through the Beltline (see link below.) Developers fear that the public asset that has attracted developers may soon be a canyon of concrete rail beds and overhead electrical wires.
Finally, consider the equity implications. Who desperately needs transit? Who relies on it for their livelihood? It is not readers of this column, most of whom live in northeast Atlanta. It is working class folks who live well outside the Beltline loop. South and West Atlanta need transit. Even Amir Farokhi has acknowledged that his Old Fourth Ward district is already comparatively well-served by MARTA heavy rail.
Folks, what Atlanta needs is good transit service. To get that, we must spend wisely. Deploy transit to meet demand. Use cost-effective technology. Follow rights of way that connect origins and destinations. Promote urban development by preserving parks. Streetcars on the Beltline will set back transit in Atlanta.
Citations above can be found at http://www.SaveTheBeltline.netReport
Your focus should be on level of service now and in the future…not the technology of delivery. Loving fixed rail is a fatal flaw.Report
The proposed Streetcar extension is a massive waste of very scarce taxpayer money. $230 million to put 1 mile of track on the Beltline without any possibility of connecting to any other area of the Beltline until at least 2035.Report
Yes, the Atlanta streetcar solves not one transportation problem in Atlanta. The current streetcar has almost no riders and is tantamount to a themepark ride. Atlanta can do better. We should look at the best technology for transportation like electric buses which are quiet, efficient, and flexible.Report
Take a closer look at the 2023 graphic……
– 1 project constructed
– 4 projects designed (not constructed)
– 4 projects at concept phase (not designed or constructed)Report
Sounds like Renew Atlanta/TSPLOSTReport
Are comments being censored?
I am seeing comments appear and then disappear.
What happened to Fred Duncan’s comments?Report
This comment is irrelevant (there were some technical glitches in the comment section.)
Please ignore it.
[It would be appropriate to delete this comment.]Report
Marta gutted its in-house capability to run a capital development program back in the 90s. It staffed up as an operating agency and has depended heavily on outside consultants to create and implement its transit expansion vision. The must invest more in in-house talent to break out of the current inertia. People who live to dig dirt.Report
While more and better public transportation is needed throughout Atlanta, I respectfully disagree that Rail needs to be expanded in a dense urban area, specifically MARTA’s proposed Streetcar East extension project. The streetcar “railway” is cumbersome, results in safety concerns, and installation requires both overhead wires and ripping up of streets to place an embedded rail. The Streetcar has been and will continue to be very lightly utilized – there has been no recent ridership study that has been issued to support this proposed project, which will cost taxpayers over $100M per mile just to install it. The project as proposed is likely to destroy a historic neighborhood and it will reduce the ability for pedestrians and bicyclists to access the BeltLine. In addition, this project will be a stand-alone eyesore for at least ten years, since MARTA and the BeltLine have indicated that future BeltLine rail/transportation projects will not even be considered until the year 2035. Sorry, this project is not the answer to demonstrate that rail works.Report
I have been hearing that more than four comments posted here have been removed.
These comments were from polite community leaders.
Could someone explain why censoring of appropriate content is happening in this comments section?Report
Looks like the comments are back online now. That is very good to see.Report
All I might ask is why can’t the $200+ Million dollars being allocated for the streetcar project be put to better use around the city?
We need more stations on MARTA’s rapid transit (East/West & North/South).
The streetcar concept has been proven by many major cities as a huge waste of money. They are dangerous to cyclists, scooters, pedestrians and even cars have a hard time maintaining lane over the rails.
Look at places like Washington, DC where their streetcar is not-only seldom used but considered a massive mistake.
(Not to mention that there are many questionable reasons for this money to be given to unneeded projects.)
The mayor and many city council members are failing to listen to almost 1,000 concerned citizens. The streetcar project is oddly being forced upon our city — and no one has an answer as to why.Report
Good comment – I agree, that’s a heavy tab for not much and would be better served on other projects that can leverage federal $$ through demonstrated ridership demand. The BeltLine should be supportive to transit, rather than a transit line itself, by providing an excellent multimodal route between lines -for pedestrians, cyclists, and other personal modes of movement. Keep the ROW for trees and natural vegetation, and possibility of widening the paved area where needed (e.g. separation of walkers and cyclists).Report
Lifelong public transit supporter here and yet I’m surprised that you support the streetcar project. That boondoggle has been embarrassing in every way imaginable.Report
I am thrilled to read this essay and learn that the city is finally asking questions of MARTA about how they’re spending our TSPLOST tax dollars, which we thought would be spent expanding transit. Atlanta is going to add 3 million people by 2050. Transit is the only solution to make that tenable. Ryan Gravel’s vision for Beltline transit was a 22-mile emerald necklace of parks and transit. Without transit it’s a 22 mile necklace of concrete parking decks to accommodate all the cars of the new residents.
Atlanta is already one of the most sprawling and unsustainable cities in the U.S. if not the world. Expanding transit and demanding a competent transit agency is the only way this will be an enjoyable place to live and drive once we hit 8-9 million in population. Some of those people have to not be driving. We deserve better from MARTA. Please, Atlanta city leaders – continue to press MARTA to make Phase 1 of the Beltline transit happen.
We need to demand that MARTA do better – we need a transit agency that builds transit. We need a transit agency that communicates with the public and that secures federal grants for the region instead of letting millions of dollars in federal matching grants go to…Phoenix.
We want to live in a sustainable and equitable city where people can travel with dignity – one where population growth is embraced because the city can accommodate it. That was the vision that is starting to take life now and we need more of it.Report
Great topic. We need a big discuss.Report
Thanks Council and City Councilman Doug Shipman for holding MARTA accountable. The citizenry of Atlanta overwhelmingly voted for more transit in 2016 by approving the TSPLOST funding More MARTA. It’s time for MARTA to deliver. Regarding Streetcar East, BeltLine rail needs to start somewhere — what better section of the BeltLine to start than the densest segment. Hope is the SE and SW BeltLine rail sections follow shortly after so historically transit underserved parts of the city are connected to job centers, hospitals and arts/recreation destinations. Similarly, it’s great the the Summerhill and Campbelton Road BRT projects are moving forward. But we can and need to do better. The wait between 2016 and now has been too long. Let’s collectively push MARTA to finish these projects in the timeline they lay out. And add more once the funding is in place. The city and its transit hungry citizens deserve it.Report
We must focus on expanding transit. The beltline vision always included light rail – this is what we voted on and approved with our tax dollars. We need to hold the city and MARTA accountable to get this done. Transit will be critical to Atlanta and the time is NOW.Report