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.”