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MARTA to seek its own lanes for streetcar expansion

By Maggie Lee

In a car-loving city, MARTA planners are looking to get light rail its own lane as much as possible, as they plan a system across the city.

MARTA inherited a streetcar that runs as slowly as the Downtown Atlanta traffic through which the city built it.

Some Atlantans call it a “blue elephant” as they drive by, or sit with it in traffic.

And that streetcar line is right in the middle of a planned 22-mile light rail system that MARTA has sketched in a zigzag from Greenbriar to Emory and Buckhead, and along some segments of the BeltLine.

Atlanta Streetcar

Atlanta’s investment in the Atlanta Streetcar provides a nucleus for a light rail system. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Except for the BeltLine, the light rail will pretty much go along existing road corridors.

So will light rail get its own lane or be mixed with cars?

“One of the things that I think everybody probably agrees with, is, to the extent possible, let’s build it in its own dedicated right-of-way,” said MARTA Board of Directors Chairman Robbie Ashe, on Thursday, speaking just after the authority board approved a major expansion that includes the light rail system.

One idea Downtown, he said, is to work with the city of Atlanta to see about maybe turning Auburn and Edgewood avenues into one-way streets, which would make it easier to give the streetcar its own dedicated lane.

Yes, that would cost cars some space.

Ashe said he’s learned after seven years with MARTA that nothing in transit is easy.

Or take Campbellton Road. By Fort Mac, it’s pretty narrow; further southwest it widens out some, noted MARTA General Manager and CEO Jeffrey Parker. MARTA will need to plan, in consultation with the community, where and how it will run, where the stops will be, and more.

Light rail planning is in its earliest stages — not much more than lines on a map right now.

A MARTA map of a new version of the "More MARTA" expansion plan. (Click for a larger version.)

A MARTA map of a new version of the “More MARTA” expansion plan. (Click for a larger version.)

“We’re going to have to design something that works in terms of providing reliable predictable transit, but we’ve got to fit it in in the corridors we’re building it in,” said Parker. “This is the effort that we have in front of us.”

While light rail is the most expensive per-mile part of the “More MARTA” plan, that’s not all the transit agency is doing with a new transit sales tax. Other projects in the plan include fast bus service in dedicated lanes, more frequent local buses and station improvements.

The More MARTA work is funded by a voter-approved city sales tax worth $2.5 billion over 40 years. Though to get the whole list of projects done, they’re looking for other sources of money, like federal and private funds.

To put the tax in a little context, instead of MARTA getting 1 cent in Atlanta sales tax as it got for decades, it now gets 1.5 cents in sales taxes. So that’s a lot more MARTA.

So now MARTA needs to prioritize the list of projects. Some things, like more bus service, is already underway.

Prioritization is largely going to be around project readiness: how easy it will be to get shovels in the ground. For example, light rail on the BeltLine will be easy compared to the line to Emory. On the BeltLine, all the land is already publicly owned and environmental studies are finished.

A complex light rail project might take, say seven to 10 years on the long end.

A project like bus rapid transit or arterial rapid transit (fast or frequent buses that have some priority, like their own lanes or their own signals) could take something like two to three years.

“This isn’t going to all happen at once,” said Parker.


More MARTA Letter to Mayor Bottoms_September 27 2018

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Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.


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