Betty Willis, Clifton Road Corridor Traffic
The Clifton Road corridor has become a congested thoroughfare serving Emory University and surrounding institutions in the years since a transit line to the area was included in the region's 1961 transit plan. File/Credit: Susan Chana via Emory University

By Guest Columnist BETTY WILLIS, president of the Clifton Corridor Transportation Management Association

As far back as 1961, transportation planners at the predecessor of the Atlanta Regional Commission had the foresight to anticipate where MARTA rail lines would best serve the metro region’s transit needs, years before construction began in 1975 on the heavy rail system.

The map they produced with their recommended rail lines included a spur extension to serve what was already a major employment center that included the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Emory University, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston and the Veterans Administration Medical Center.

Betty Willis, edit
Betty Willis

Today, six decades later, the Clifton Corridor rail line is still a top priority for local transit planning agencies and the rail line best positioned for federal matching funds.

Why is this transit line so significant for Atlanta and the metro region? It would connect wide areas of the city and intown communities to a critically important employment center that is still not served directly by MARTA rail or the interstate system. The Clifton Corridor has continued to see massive growth with the CDC – the largest federal agency headquartered outside of Washington – and Emory, now the largest employer in Atlanta with an annual economic impact of $11.4 billion.

But it’s not just about the transit service this connection would provide for close to 30,000 employees who work along the Clifton Corridor, the 15,500 students and the numerous health care patients and their families who travel to the area every day. It would also open up access to thousands of job opportunities at the CDC, Emory, the VA Medical Center and other institutions and businesses for residents throughout the City of Atlanta and the metro region.

Many cannot afford to live close by, or drive to, the Clifton Corridor area, and a rail connection into the MARTA system would help promote equity and regional mobility by connecting workers to jobs that otherwise would be out of reach. Atlanta area households spend almost 19 percent of their budgets on transportation costs, with over 94 percent spent on buying and maintaining private vehicles – well above the national average of 16 percent in household costs. Rail transit would substantially reduce transportation costs, allowing workers to allocate these savings to other expenses such as housing and food.

Betty Willis Clifton Corridor, 1961
A version of the Clifton Corridor transit route appeared in a planning document released in June 1961 by the Atlanta Region Metropolitan Planning Commission, a precursor of the Atlanta Regional Commission. Credit: Emory University

Recent data from the ARC forecasts the largest growth in jobs over the next few decades will be in the healthcare sector, with scientific research and technology closely following. With the metro region’s top academic research universities fueling a growing life sciences industry, Atlanta has a unique opportunity to be a world leader in the biomedical/biotech arena.

The Clifton Corridor Transit Initiative would provide ease of connectivity for enhanced collaboration across academic institutions and the opportunity for increased economic development and innovation. Job growth in Georgia’s life sciences industry increased almost 15 percent over the past decade, double the national average, and is expected to continue to rise. These are the jobs of the future and access to them should be available to all citizens.

The planning for rail to the Clifton Corridor has been going on for years.

In 1998, the Clifton Corridor Transportation Management Association was formed by Emory University and its healthcare institutions, the CDC, CHOA, VA Medical Center, Emory Conference Center Hotel and other businesses to address the significant transportation challenges in the Corridor. The CCTMA began working with MARTA to explore transit opportunities, providing funding for initial studies and worked with members of Georgia’s congressional delegation to secure federal funding for the feasibility study of the CCTI.

MARTA has continued to study the CCTI for almost two decades, committing a huge investment in funding, planning and community engagement, while advancing the project through the federal process, where it is viewed as a strong contender to compete with other projects from around the country for limited federal funding.

MARTA is currently conducting the Environmental Impact Study and envisions the route seen in this 2018 map as the light rail connection from the Lindbergh Station to the Avondale Station, providing service to many stakeholders along the 8-mile route. Credit: Emory University

Since the passage of the More MARTA 0.5-percent sales tax in 2016, there has been a renewed focus on the importance of a world-class city having a world class transit system, with future expansion projects based on fundamental principles and criteria that support a unified system.

MARTA, local transit authorities and jurisdictions, the ARC, Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, Georgia Department of Transportation and the recently established Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority (the ATL) have been working together toward a more regionally unified and better connected transit system – one that will promote collaboration among current and future transit partners, drive economic growth by providing better access to jobs across the region for a diverse and talented workforce, and attract new business and expansion opportunities.

What’s next? In December, the ATL, in agreement with the Atlanta region’s transit and planning agencies, is slated to approve a regional transit plan based on thoughtful, professional and collaborative evaluation that will help to guide transit projects and improvements going forward. Projects that promote cost-efficient transit service, are financially feasible for federal funding and enable regional economic opportunity and growth, will emerge from this plan. Rail to the Clifton Corridor is well-positioned and long overdue to be MARTA’s first major expansion in two decades.

This will be an important first step toward a world-class transit system that will support the needs of a rapidly growing international city. The CCTMA applauds the huge commitment of time and resources that have gone into this planning process.

Note to readers: In addition to serving as president of the Clifton Corridor Transportation Management Association, Betty Willis serves as executive director the Clifton Community Partnership, and as senior associate vice president of government and community affairs at Emory University.

Betty Willis, Clifton Road Corridor Traffic
The Clifton Road corridor has become a congested thoroughfare serving Emory University and surrounding institutions in the years since a transit line to the area was included in the region’s 1961 transit plan. Credit: Kay Hinton via Emory University
The Clifton Road corridor has become a congested thoroughfare serving Emory University and surrounding institutions in the years since a transit line to the area was included in the region’s 1961 transit plan. Credit: Kay Hinton via Emory University

Join the Conversation


  1. “Many cannot afford to live close by, or drive to, the Clifton Corridor area, and a rail connection into the MARTA system would help promote equity”

    Uh…you mean equity for all those low-income people living in Midtown? Hmm.

  2. This is an excellent summary of why the Clifton Corridor merits receiving a top priority for transit funding. Advocates for the BeltLine’s streetcar believe their project should come first because of a priority promise made long ago. However, times have changed.
    The sections of the Atlanta Beltline streetcar that are even remotely likely to be built in our lifetimes are too stubby and disconnected to be useful, especially when compared to the Clifton Corridor. The BeltLine path also has a severe overcrowding problem due to the rapid adoption of micromobility options like e-bikes and scooters. The streetcar land reservation could be put to use to alleviate this congestion, but only if rail advocates abandon their quixotic efforts.
    At the very least, regional leaders must not allow themselves to be swayed by those who seek to defund a deserving project as described in this column in order to pay for a transit project whose time has come and gone.

  3. How many In town neighborhoods would have to be sacrificed to implement the Clifton Corridor transit plan ? How many neighborhoods in Southwest and Southeast Atlanta would go without transit upgrades to implement the Clifton Corridor Plan ?

  4. Carrie, I’ll answer your two questions and then ask you one.

    Answer #1 – 0

    Answer # 2 – 0

    Question – How many people in Southwest and Southeast Atlanta would then be able to reliably get to good paying jobs in the the corridor?

  5. Darin – this project does not serve wealthy midtown residents as you suggest. People from all over the region come to work in this area. Many work for the CDC. Many are hospital workers for Emory, DeKalb Medical – nurses, orderlies, food staff, housekeeping, etc. that truly cannot afford to own an automobile. Others are patients of the VA Medical Center, who cannot afford cars, or may not even be able to drive them do to health and disabilities. Due to the lack of direct high capacity transit, many workers/patients are taking long journeys every day to get to this area, often having to make bus transfers with long wait times. There’s a lot of faulty logic out there that this project serves wealthy doctors and professors – and it can, they can choose to take transit – but that’s not who this project will primarily benefit.

    I’m assuming you take aim at this project because you would like to see funds go toward the BeltLine. While the BeltLine is a good project for intown Atlanta, it does not have nearly the potential workforce impact that Clifton Corridor would have.

  6. Clifton light rail is a worthwhile project. However, it should be paid for with regional, not city of Atlanta, funds. The citizens of Atlanta voted the tax ourselves for transit projects that would improve our neighborhoods and serve the citizens of the city. Clifton transit service the region, and many of those who would benefit do not live in the city of Atlanta. I, like many others, supported a tax increase in order to build light rail on the Beltline. And the Clifton corridor was not even in the city limits when we voted — part of the proposed route still isn’t. Clifton corridor transit should be built when DeKalb county and the state have funding to contribute.

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