MARTA – a jewel in metro Atlanta’s economic development future

By Maria Saporta

All of a sudden, nearly everybody wants MARTA.

Metro Atlanta and Georgia have always been obsessed with economic development – attracting new companies to town or getting existing companies to expand.

So when Amazon says it wants to locate its second headquarters in a place with transit, it is sending a message loud and clear to our state and local officials that metro Atlanta needs to expand its regional transit system.

And MARTA, once the stepchild in town, has become the most sought after amenity when companies are looking for a place to invest in the Atlanta region.

MARTA train

MARTA train pulls in to the Five Points Station (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

State Sen. Brandon Beach sent the point home at the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Connect ATL : Summit on the Future of Mobility held at Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center on Sept. 22.

“State Farm sells car insurance; Mercedes-Benz sells cars; and Pulte Homes builds houses with driveways to park cars,” Beach said. “Yet, all of these companies relocated their company headquarters to be near transit.”

(Thanks to James Touchton from the Council for Quality Growth for tweeting that quote).

Beach did not even mention that NCR, a Fortune 500 company, is building its new corporate headquarters in Midtown – partly because it wants to be near MARTA. WestRock (which might as well be an Atlanta-based Fortune 500 company though its official headquarters is still listed as Richmond, Va.) announced it was moving its Norcross campus for Sandy Springs, largely so it can be close to MARTA.

And Veritiv, a relatively new addition to the Fortune 500 list, also picked Sandy Springs, partly because it was convenient to MARTA.

The storyline is clear.

In a recent speech to the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta, Larry Gellerstedt III, CEO of Cousins Properties, explained the trend underway in real estate.

“CEOs don’t make the decisions about where companies are located,” Gellerstedt said. “It’s the head of HR (human resources). They are chasing talent, millennial talent. Millennials are waiting longer to get married and have a family. They want to live in urban cores where they can live, work and play without having to get into a car.”

Gellerstedt has seen office business investment shift in the last decade or so.

MARTA West End Station

Buses in front of the West End MARTA Station (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

“It used to be 80 percent suburban and 20 percent urban. Now that has flipped,” he said. “They want to be within two blocks of mass transit. They are chasing talent and transit.”

Even Emory University, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention want to be annexed into the City of Atlanta because they believe they will get rail transit more quickly if they do so.

We are hearing all sorts of encouraging statements from top state officials – namely Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston – about the importance of MARTA and transit in Georgia’s economic development strategy.

Here is the rub. It will take years, maybe even a decade or more, to build a rail transit line. To be prepared to meet this surge in demand, we should be well on our way in expanding our regional transit system to Clayton, Gwinnett, Cobb, Douglas and Rockdale counties.

And we should have been building out all the missing links in North Fulton, South Fulton and DeKalb counties. Even in the City of Atlanta, which just approved a half-penny MARTA sales tax increase, there needs to be much more transit to create the kind of multimodal city we want to be.

We are so far behind, and we cannot keep spending years doing study after study. It’s time for the state to become a real financial partner of transit – much in the same way it has helped build roads and highways throughout the state.

Take Cobb for example, having a commuter rail line (possibly double-tracking the state-owned CSX line that runs from downtown Atlanta through Marietta and continues to Chattanooga) would be a big step forward.

But that commuter rail line would not satisfy Cobb’s need for transit. It also would need a rail line from the Arts Center Station up to Cumberland, the Galleria, the new Braves Stadium and continuing north along Hwy 41 up to Kennesaw State University.

MARTA train

A MARTA train traveling through Inman Park along DeKalb Avenue at dusk (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

The same is true for just about every city and county. We will need a variety of transit options – from heavy rail and commuter rail, light rail, streetcars, bus rapid transit, express buses, city buses and paratransit.

Instead of creating different transit agencies for each mode, we need to have a regional transit authority that can coordinate a seamless transportation system.

Under the leadership of Keith Parker, MARTA’s outgoing general manager and CEO, the 46-year-old transit system is now being recognized for the jewel it has been for decades.

“There is momentum, and we want to continue to be a well-run, well-regarded transit system, so it takes away any legitimate reason for people to not want to join us or do business with us,” Parker said in an interview in July.

Parker said MARTA has been having conversations with the state of Georgia and  various cities that want to discuss transit.

“I think we’ve turned the corner,” Parker said. “We have been approached by a number of entities outside of the original five counties that want to talk about transit.”

Although Parker is leaving his post, MARTA will continue to be the most highly-sought after jewel in metro Atlanta.

MARTA Matters

An image on the back of a MARTA bus showing the possibility of transit-oriented development (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

15 replies
  1. James Reese says:

    We’ve been paying for MARTA for more than 30 years in South Fulton. There’s no progress. BRT on South Fulton Parkway, Hwy 92, Camp Creek Parkway, Old National Hwy, and Fulton Industrial Blvd would only bring us a quarter of the way. We’re not asking for buses on neighborhood streets we would like to have the option available to help with the economic development of our area.Report

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  2. jim martin says:

    The rail connection to Cumberland, the Galleria, the new Braves Stadium should not be to Arts Center. That is just plain crazy. It should be to Bankhead down Marietta Blvd going past the new quarry park. The land is available and way cheaper. Most of the line could be above ground, so construction would also be way cheaper. There would be lots of new development incentivized along that route whereas there is no shortage of this in midtown. It would also intersect the proposed Beltline at or near the new park.Report

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    • Mary Hallisey says:

      I agree with Jim Martin. The west side of Atlanta is poised for tremendous growth and access to public transportation is limited, at best. What a great way for new green space (quarry park, river, emerald corridor, etc.) to grow in tandem with public access. A smart design (with strategic forethought) could enhance economic development and provide a vehicle for equity at the same time!Report

      Reply
    • Kyle Montgomery says:

      Unfortunately, while the bankhead route seems to be the low hanging fruit, anyone commuting from Cobb to north midtown (arts center area) would have 30 minutes added to their commute with the Bankhead route, having to transfer at five points. While the bankhead route would be probably marginally faster for downtown workers, it would not be anywhere competitive with car for anyone working along the North/South line, especially in Midtown or Buckhead. I think the cobb line (HRT) needs to connect with Arts Center. When the line was built, there were cutouts built into the tunnel where a Cobb line could branch out north of the arts center station. The line could either go up 75 with a station near Amtrak, or go next to Atlantic Station, Howell Mill, and proceed the Marietta Blvd/285 route. I think the west side will be served well with the planned light rail along the beltline, and HRT transit there will be redundant.Report

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      • jim martin says:

        The I-75 line would have zero useful stops inside the perimeter. It would simply be an express train to the suburbs that serves a small and specific group of commuters. It would promote no economic development along its route. Getting a rail line from Arts Center to the freeway would be fabulously disruptive and expensive. Once there, the line itself would offer little or nothing that a dedicated bus line could not do at a very small fraction of the cost. Why bother to build it? Just because folks in Cobb have an irrational prejudice against buses (and perhaps other things as well)?

        Light rail along the Beltline, if it ever arrives, would turn south and east at the quarry park. It would serve nothing along the Marietta Blvd, Atlanta Rd, Vinings, Smyrna,… corridor to the Northwest. There are lots of suburbanites out there who would like to come into the city and lots of large underdeveloped industrial parcels there that could be put to more efficient use. Some of those are already redeveloping with dense(ish) mixed-use projects. An extension of the green line would also help to revitalize the area around the existing stations south of the quarry park where Marta has already made a substantial investment.Report

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        • Kyle Montgomery says:

          I agree the HRT along 75 would be express, similar to how the line travels along 400 from Buckhead to Medical Center. The rail line would certainly be constructed as an elevated structure from the red line HRT across 85 with an elevated station at Peachtree (above Amtrak) and the elevated line continuing to the side median of 75 to continue up to Cumberland in the GDOT right of way. I don’t think this would be extremely disruptive to the existing roads, however, certainly many trees in it’s path would need to be removed.

          I certainly agree it is probably not cost effective in the short term, but may be a good long term plan, assuming Cobb is committed to sending some sort of rail transit all the way up to Kennesaw, and perhaps across 285 to Sandy Springs.

          It may be best to construct the 15th street bridge with HOV exits, then allow BRT to use the HOV and HOT lanes and let that be the transit to Cobb. If that becomes successful, after 10 years, perhaps HRT would fit the bill.

          I just disagree that Bankhead would be an effective connection to Cobb county. Assuming the majority of users on a cobb county line would be office workers in Downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead (and fewer in town people commuting to Cobb), the 30 minute travel distance from Bankhead to Arts Center would make the trip non-competitive with existing modes of transportation.Report

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          • jim martin says:

            Commuting isn’t a race. Commuters will weigh multiple factors in deciding their preferred modality. They need to factor in the cost and convenience of reaching each end of the line vs the hassle, cost, and uncertainty of driving and parking a car in the city. Letting people who don’t use transit dictate the future of transit is probably not a good idea.

            An express train from where I am to where I want to be will always sound good to me, but mass transit has to balance my good with everyone else’s in a regional sense. It makes no sense to speed people to distant suburbs while there are huge tracts of undeveloped or underdeveloped land inside the city itself. Traffic is already worse out there than it is in here because the freeways helped to promote our current pattern of development (i.e. sprawl). It is not a sustainable pattern and we don’t need to be further encouraging it. Transit that does not support in-town development is not a good idea. The I-75 line would actively discourage it. If Atlanta becomes very dense one day, these sorts of lines might be a good idea, but that is not likely to be the case in my lifetime.Report

          • Kyle Montgomery says:

            The Beltline is planning 3 different light rail lines on the west side, which I feel will serve that neighborhood well. I feel that transit has to be somewhat competitive with car and convenient to users for people who want to use it. While I support density, a diverse metro has all kinds of people and not everyone wants to live in dense areas. I believe Washington DC and San Francisco can serve as models of metro areas where suburbs and urban areas are served by transit in a meaningful way.Report

          • jim martin says:

            I am not familiar with the three rail lines. The Beltline loop is one. That turns east and south from quarry park and doesn’t serve the Northwest beyond that point. The North Ave Street car is two, the city tasked ABI with the planning for that, although it isn’t technically “the Beltline”. It runs east from either Bankhead or Ashby depending on where they ended up with the EIS. I don’t know what the third line that you are referring to is. I have not heard about anything else in the NW. There is talk of a line on the SW side of town, which I have not paid a lot of attention to. I don’t think that ABI is currently doing the planning for that line. Is it? There was also talk of transit on Northside Drive, but that was BRT not LRT the last time that I heard about it, and wasn’t even in the planning phase. Of course, the current budget for building light-rail projects is $0. There is a big difference between transit plans and actual transit.

            Making transit competitive with cars can be easy if we stop investing heavily in infrastructure to support cars and start taxing them at a reasonable rate via a gas tax in order to invest in transit. The fact that Atlanta’s current form has been dictated by cars, makes the transit problem harder from the competitiveness perspective.Report

  3. Josh Roseman says:

    I’ve been saying for YEARS that the state, not the counties/cities, should be running transit in the Atlanta area. The counties and cities keep voting down or otherwise obstructing transit, and have been doing so for decades. It’s hamstringing the Atlanta area, especially given that the city continues to sprawl in all directions. We need rail to all the major counties. We need a second perimeter highway (probably along SR-20 or even further out). We need a second airport (like FLL/MIA, maybe one up at the top of 575 and ATL where it is now). And none of it is going to happen unless someone stops letting the fiefdoms that make up the Atlanta area stand in the way of progress. I’m sick of spending almost 8 hours a week in traffic — and plenty of people spend 10, 12, or even 20. Give me a train. Hell, invent transporters. DO SOMETHING.Report

    Reply
  4. alexander w davis says:

    “Amazon” is not a great deal for this area. It tags this economy as a “Service Economy”. Which means low inflation, low growth and low paying jobs. In the interim, we get more traffic. When we do our assessments? “Jobs” cannot paint our view so badly, we lose our viewpoint. At this moment, we have no vision. That being our predicament, it places us in a vulnerable position, due to ignorance. We, don’t need “Amazon” in South Fulton. How about staying in Seattle?Report

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    • brainstar8 says:

      Atlanta is adept at attracting big new business that seems, in turn, to invest in big new business that does two things: handsomely rewards those who are the wealthy decision-makers and ignores those who pay taxes in the city, waiting for quality of life improvements: better streets and roads and safer communities. Earlier this week I had a conversation with a native of Chicago who moved here a year ago, and when I asked her what she thought of Atlanta, she said just those things (which I as a long-time resident have said for years).Report

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  5. brainstar8 says:

    Sure, companies are enthusiastic about “getting MARTA.” The CEOs who run these companies and their management teams don’t intend to ride MARTA – ever – and probably have never ridden rail or one of those lumbering buses. Problem is, MARTA management has never come up with a formula to attract riders in large numbers unless there’s a recession or a collapsed interstate bridge. But re: MARTA and bridge collapses, no one seems to care that the people at the top have not effectively done their jobs.Report

    Reply

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