By Maggie Lee
High-capacity bus service and parts of a Greenbriar-to-Emory light rail route are set to go first, as MARTA starts work on a three-decade building plan. But BeltLine rail advocates are making the case that the plan ought to be more ambitious on the ring trail.
MARTA has some money to spend because city of Atlanta voters OK’d a half-penny, 40-year sales tax for transit in 2016. The “More MARTA” sequencing plan that the full board approved on Thursday, though, is just that, a plan.
“As circumstances change, whether it’s new funding, our ability to get federal funds, possibly our inability to get federal funds with certain modes, we will have to react to that,” said MARTA General Manager and CEO Jeff Parker on Thursday, at the start of the board meeting.
Work would start first on segments of a zig-zag Greenbriar-to-Emory light rail route; and that line would include the existing streetcar Downtown and parts of the BeltLine. But “start” doesn’t necessarily mean shovels in the ground. The segments still need various pre-construction studies and planning.
Also set to start in the first round is planning on the Capitol Avenue/Sumerhill “bus rapid transit” route, a kind of route where buses get priority and generally travel in their own lane, not slowed down by cars.
About 80% of More MARTA funding will go to light rail, though new bus lines are scheduled to be the first new capital improvement that people see. None of the light rail is scheduled to be finished until about 2027. The entire More MARTA revenue will come to about $5.9 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.
A.J. Robinson, president of the influential business and civic group Central Atlanta Progress, came to the meeting and pledged that his organization would continue to be a partner and supporter of transit — the organization has even helped fund the streetcar.
But he urged a review of the bus situation Downtown: “Before we get more buses we need to take care of the buses we have,” Robinson said.
Several folks from the Beltline Rail Now campaign came and asked the board to look harder for more money and more speed.
“We want to see light rail on the whole loop of the BeltLine by 2030,” said Kay Stevenson, from BRN.
From its beginnings as urban planner Ryan Gravel’s graduate student thesis years ago, the BeltLine’s premise has always included transit, so that it links neighborhoods together and delivers transit equity. Delaying transit on the ring, Gravel has argued, will ensure the BeltLine’s failure.
Transit in metro Atlanta is generally is funded by federal grants, local sales taxes and farebox revenues. The state of Georgia has started to tiptoe into one-time funding for some capital projects, and does fund some commuter buses.
But it’s difficult to imagine the Republican-dominated Gold Dome approving a spend of eight or nine figures in a handful of intown, deep-blue districts.
The BeltLine itself was supposed to be funded in large part by property taxes from properties near the trail. But delayed by a court challenge and hammered by the Great Recession, those property taxes haven’t panned out as planned.
“I think this is a great opportunity that MARTA is stepping in with More MARTA funds to help deliver a project that we would all like to do quicker,” Parker said after the meeting, “but we’re constrained by funding.”
Parker said that collectively, everyone needs to help think of more transit funding sources.
For now, MARTA will shift to zooming in on each individual project: turning those thick lines on maps into detailed designs of where exactly to lay a rail, where to build a bus lane, where to set up stations and stops.
Bus rapid transit is only going to work if there’s an exclusive lane for it and light rail is only going to work if the train is not sitting in a lane of vehicular traffic, Parker said. MARTA has got to make sure those modes are at least as fast as driving, preferably faster.
“We are going to have to find ways to do that, whether that’s widening projects or taking lanes, those are the technical details that the design process will ferret out,” Parker said.