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MARTA kills Clifton Corridor rail option, moves ahead on bus alternatives

Alternative 1B for the Clifton Corridor is the same as 1A except for a spur bus route going to Decatur Station.

By John Ruch

MARTA has killed the rail option for its Clifton Corridor project and is moving forward with two “bus rapid transit” (BRT) alternatives.

“LRT [light-rail transit] is no longer an option for this project,” said project manager Bryan Hobbs in a private briefing last week ahead of a Feb. 13 public meeting.

MARTA officials attributed the decision on the route, which would connect Lindbergh Center and Avondale stations, to similar travel times and much lower costs for BRT. Those calculations are key to securing federal funding, they said.

However, the decision comes amid unclear funding for MARTA projects in general and the Clifton Corridor in particular. MARTA officials would not clarify whether the Clifton project is among those General Manager and CEO Collie Greenwood has said is an internal short-list of priority projects for “More MARTA” sales tax funding still awaiting finalization.

“I think we’re in a position to say we’re not able to say exactly what the final answer is with the More MARTA program, but it is very clear from MARTA and the City leadership that this is a very important project  and we’re continuing to work on it,” said transit agency spokesperson Greg Giuffrida.

Officials did say that only the portion of the Clifton project within the City of Atlanta – roughly to the Emory University campus – has secured local funding. That means the rest, in unincorporated DeKalb County and the City of Decatur, would need some kind of money, perhaps through a sales tax there.

Alternative 1B for the Clifton Corridor is the same as 1A except for a spur bus route going to Decatur Station.

Officials said the Clifton project could continue and launch as that Atlanta-only segment. “Right now we are prepared to stop within the City of Atlanta,” said Hobbs.

The decision comes amid controversy over previous MARTA moves away from rail to BRT. The Clifton Corridor, like the Atlanta BeltLine and Clayton County’s commuter route, was originally proposed as a rail project but has opened to BRT consideration, with MARTA citing cost or technical issues. The transit agency faced fierce opposition last year to choosing BRT for the Campbellton Road corridor in Southwest Atlanta.

Key to the projections of similar travel times for rail and bus options is a proposal to use the dedicated right of way (ROW) along a CSX railroad line. The bus would drive on a roadway separated from the tracks by a wall. However, that route is not definitive, with Hobbs saying MARTA is having “encouraging” talks with CSX. Most of the route likely would be within the rail bed, though taking private property for construction easements and “shifting” of the track is possible in the concept, Hobbs said.

The use of that railroad ROW, and dedicated lanes on the street on most of the rest of the route, leaves open the possibility of future rail. “As long as you’ve got dedicated lanes, you’ve got opportunities,” Hobbs said.

The use of on-street lanes for the BRT options raises the question of how comparable travel times would be in real life since such lanes can be blocked by illegal parking, crashes, debris and other issues. Peter Vorhees with AECOM, a private firm consulting on the project, said the exact type of lanes has not been determined and could include ones with barriers to keep out other vehicles.

MARTA is currently establishing a BRT route in Summerhill that will use a simpler form of dedicated lanes. Officials acknowledged that the route could see blockage problems. The transit agency is seeking state legislation to allow it to use automatic traffic cameras as an enforcement tool against illegal parking.

The Clifton alternatives moving ahead are known as “1A” and “1B.” Both have an identical main route and mode – BRT roughly paralleling Clifton Road and the corridor of North Decatur Road and DeKalb Industrial Way. Alternative 1B adds an “arterial rapid transit” route – meaning an express bus – between Clairmont Road and Decatur Station.

Both options include a separate but interconnected shuttle van service to the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Clairmont Road about a half-mile from the Clifton Corridor route.

MARTA’s projections are that the main BRT line travel time in peak hours would be 31 minutes, while LRT’s travel time would be 29 minutes – a similarity Hobbs characterized as a “wash.” The difference, officials said, is in cost projections. The main BRT would cost $990 million to $1.3 billion to build, and $7.7 million to $8.9 million a year to operate, they said. Meanwhile, LRT would cost $2.4 billion to $2.9 billion to build, and $22.3 million to $25.7 million for annual operations.

All of those numbers are preliminary and subject to change. They are also missing a key statistic – estimated ridership. MARTA previously said its estimates are outdated due to the COVID-19 pandemic effects and now the agency is working on a new model.

Those numbers also change in practice if only the Atlanta segment is built. MARTA did not immediately provide a full breakdown of estimates for that segment only but gave some numbers appearing to apply to the main BRT line as costing $550 million to $700 million.

Another question is how the service would connect to Lindbergh Center Station. Lindbergh is intended to be a major connection point for future BeltLine transit, which is also in a study phase, and the Clifton Corridor project is likely to be built first. Hobbs previously acknowledged that could make the project dictate the route or mode – or both – of BeltLine transit as well, though he emphasized it is being planned independently. Last week, he said MARTA has some options for the station connection and said the agency could provide some preliminary details. But a spokesperson later said only that there are “multiple options” that require further study.

MARTA will now work on a single preferred alternative and plans to present it around March, Hobbs said.

MARTA has scheduled in-person and virtual meetings about the current Clifton alternatives for Feb. 13, 16 and 18. For more details, see the project website. For the meeting presentation, click here.


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1 Comment

  1. Kevin Williams February 16, 2023 1:45 pm

    Marta is a joke!Report


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