A rendering of how the streetcar on the BeltLine could look was included in IDOM's report on Best Practices for the BeltLine Streetcar. (Special: Atlanta BeltLine Inc. and MARTA.)

It’s so frustrating to keep revisiting the issue of whether to build rail on the BeltLine after years of repeated voter and citizen support for the concept.

The initial vision for the BeltLine 20 years ago included rail transit. Since then, there have been countless reaffirmations to bring rail transit to the 22-mile corridor. In 2016, Atlanta residents voted emphatically (71 percent) for the More MARTA sales tax and project list that included BeltLine rail along multiple sections of the corridor.

In 2018, 16 Neighborhood Planning Units that border the BeltLine endorsed the concept of rail.

On Monday, BeltLine Rail Now released its tally of the current support among NPUs for rail. 

In the past year, BeltLine Rail Now sought reaffirmation from the 16 NPUs, and 12 renewed or reaffirmed their support. 

Twelve NPUs across the city have reaffirmed their support for BeltLine rail in the past year. (Image credit: BeltLine Rail Now: Garrett Clum and Colleen Finn.)

Again, an overwhelming majority of Atlantans — as represented by their NPUs — reaffirmed their support for rail along the BeltLine. 

NPU-E, an area that includes Midtown, Ansley Park, Home Park, Atlantic Station and several other neighborhoods, did not vote in favor because the community representatives were split down the middle. Each neighborhood in NPU-E has an equal vote, so Midtown, with its 19,000-plus residents, has the same representation as Sherwood Forrest, with fewer than 500 residents. 

When taking into account the population of each neighborhood, the pro-rail neighborhoods accounted for more than 66 percent of people living in NPU-E. 

The study reinforces what we already know. There is strong city-wide support for rail along the BeltLine.

On July 13, the MARTA board voted to go forward with extending the Atlanta Streetcar to the Eastside BeltLine Trail, and then having rail go from Irwin Street to the Ponce City Market. Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and Atlanta BeltLine Inc. have been strong advocates for BeltLine rail, and MARTA is well underway with detailed engineering and design plans for the project.

Clyde Higgs, president and CEI of Atlanta BeltLine Inc, with his predecessor Brian McGowan at Atlanta Rotary discussing merits of a green rail bed for the streetcar. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

It makes no sense to halt the BeltLine rail project that is so far along, especially at a time when we’re in desperate need of more transit.

The Atlanta region is anticipating significant population growth — an additional 2.9 million people — by 2050, and the City of Atlanta will outpace the region by possibly doubling its population in that time frame.

Given the anticipated, we need to do everything we can to be less dependent on the automobile. That means we must embrace all forms of alternative transportation — walking, cycling, e-scooters and other light individual transportation vehicles. 

But, most importantly, we must build more mass transit throughout our region. And no mass transit system is as effective in moving people as rail. When MARTA was passed in 1971, it was with the vision of becoming a world-class region. 

Imagine where our city would be without our MARTA rail system. We never would have gotten the 1996 Olympic Games, three Super Bowls and countless other major events – not to mention 210,800 riders each weekday who use MARTA trains and buses to get around. The only way we can avoid becoming an even more congested city is to invest in more mass transit, especially rail.

Brian McGowan took a photo of a streetcar’s grass railed during a recent visit to Munich, Germany. (Photo by Brian McGowan.)

On Sunday, Atlantans demonstrated how much they love an urban experience without cars. Atlanta Streets Alive — the monthly festival where the city restricts cars on Peachtree from downtown to the Woodruff Arts Center — opens up that public space to people. It parallels MARTA’s North-South line, showing the important interconnectivity of transit with pedestrians and cyclists.

Unfortunately, a group of influential Atlanta leaders have formed a group to revisit the question of rail along the BeltLine. It’s so disappointing they would use their energy to try to stop MARTA’s first real investment in rail in more than two decades, especially after the project has gotten the green light.

So, what’s the solution?

Clyde Higgs, president and CEO of Atlanta BeltLine, said most of the concerns expressed by opponents relate to design and implementation issues for rail along the corridor.

Luxembourg tramway shows grass railed. (Special: CAF USA).

Here is where we can come together as a city. 

Let’s coalesce around making BeltLine rail as green, clean and non-disruptive as possible.

Contrary to what opponents have claimed, rail is not an outdated form of transportation.

“The transportation sector with the greatest technological advancement is rail,” said Matthew Rao, board chair of the BeltLine Rail Now. For example, there are now hybrid streetcars that can switch power modes from overhead wires to batteries to a third rail with low-voltage electricity.

Rao also said streetcar and light rail projects are being built all over the country and the world. “

Believing in the value of rail
BeltLine Rail Now Chair Matthew Rao along the BeltLine trail behind Ansley Mall. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

“There are 16 American cities with streetcar projects underway,” Rao said. “There are another 14 cities with light rail projects underway.”

Metro Atlanta is an outlier in not investing in rail expansion, as more than 100 regional leaders learned when they visited Montreal in August – seeing first-hand how a forward-thinking city is investing in transit and a pedestrian-friendly urban environment.

Instead of fighting BeltLine rail, detractors should be demanding that we build the highest quality transit system – one that respects the natural environment, one that complements the existing trail system and one that provides true transportation with reliable and frequent service.

Paramount to those demands is making sure the rail line travels through a corridor of grass rather than concrete.

Atlantans on Oct. 22 revel along a Peachtree Street closed to cars and open to pedestrians and cyclists. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

“The green rail bed has become the world standard for new trams and streetcars,” Rao said. “We need to do it the right way.” 

The constructive way forward would be for Atlantans to aim high and implement the most environmentally friendly and technologically advanced rail line along the BeltLine. We must envision how we want our city and our region to look 30 or 50 years from now. Let it be a place that lifts up people over cars and a place that’s dedicated to quality urban design.

In short, let Atlanta be a city that embraces both rails and trails as our way to the future.

Note: The Council for Quality Growth is holding its annual State of the BeltLine breakfast on Oct. 24 where transit will be a centerpiece.

Atlanta Streets Alive on Oct. 22 shows how fun and lively our city can be when it turns over public streets to people rather than cars. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)
Rebecca Serna, executive director of Propel ATL who championed the effort to have Atlanta Streets Alive was enjoying a beautiful fall day on Oct. 22. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

Join the Conversation


  1. Why not include a quote from Executive Director of Propel when you have a photo of her closing out the article? You both wrote the article and took the photo of her.

  2. I’m an Atlantan and I’ve never said I wanted a train riding alongside the side of the walking path on the Beltline. I *have* said that I wanted light rail to Emory University and the CDC (that we were promised multiple years ago) and I have said that I wanted an expansion past North Springs. But, nope, I have zero interest in trains squeezed onto the beltline (even if they promise to plant a few shrubs when they’re done!)

  3. Here are some other facts Maria
    1) The first MARTA build of Beltline is already 1 year behind schedule. If we look around the City, it is clear from Renew to TSPLOST to MoreMarta that we are overpromised and underdelivered
    2) The current MoreMarta, contrary to what ha been stated by the Beltline’s CEO, does not fully build out the entire 22 miles in the 35 years remaining. South/SW/and the northside are not currently in the plan
    3) Can anyone say with certainty that in 35 years, a slow moving loop transit will really be the best option for getting around the city?
    4) EAV will sort out its current issues, and, depending on pricing, will allow for a more or less straight line ride v. hoping that you might not have to worry about the “last mile”.

    Let’s cut our losses now.

  4. Time and time again, I hear weak arguments for BL rail. I’ve never seen a compelling argument for BeltLine Rail other than people in Intown Atlanta really want it and think it’s cool, or because Ryan Gravel laid out this vision, therefore we must stick to it. It does not satisfy a regionally significant commute pattern like Clifton Corridor, nor does it provide high capacity service into job centers from transit-dependent populations like Clayton County lines or Campbellton. Intown NPUs are wealthy and well-organized and are providing a loud voice to get the best toys, but it doesn’t mean they should be rewarded, even if Maria says so.

    I think we know it’s wanted, but I think it’s good for city leaders to question whether or not it’s really NEEDED. Give us some good, objective quantitative data like costs vs. ridership compared to other routes/corridors. Please tell me a critical mass of origin-destination served by a beltline loop.

    It’s okay to question something before spending Billions.

  5. Nobody. As in not one organization or person has presented a credible study demonstrating that operating costs of Beltline Rail could be covered by revenue from operations.
    It’s not even close. Who will pay for multi-million dollar deficits to keep the system running? Huge issue that is not talked about.

    1. Its being talked about incessantly. You’re just not in the room. I’ve been in the room. And I was here when peopled tried to kill the original MARTA development funding with the same red herring comments.

  6. The Beltline rail stop planned to be built a few yards from my condo cannot come too soon. More loops of street cars must follow.

    To Atlanta Streetcars’ critics who complain that it does not go anywhere, I ask if they would criticize I-75 were it only four miles long? Atlanta needs to build a system of rail loops.

  7. What is frustrating is that people are still advocating for an antiquated technology. Light rail is just a euphemism for a street car/train. Another feel good, virtue, signaling project. Where is the data on the feasibility? What is the ROI? Why is the city not looking to more advanced technologies, American invented technologies to replace railroads from the 1800s?

    I lived in Europe and used public transportation for many years, including trams. They are noisy, cause vibrations to nearby buildings, are expensive to build, maintain and operate. There is a huge environmental impact when constructing rail.

    We’ve heard all the misleading promises before about how the Beltline was going to benefit everyone. I suspect this railroad system is no different.

    If individuals are set on mass transit, then build trackless trams like other advanced countries are doing. They don’t require massive construction, can use regular roadways, don’t require more ugly power lines, etc.

    That money could also be better spent improving the bus system by constructing pull off bus stops and advanced traffic signals to give buses and trackless trams priority. I suspect making improvements to the current bus system (which could also be supplemented with trackless trams) is not a priority because it is not as sexy as a shiny new tram rumbling down the street.

    Simply imitating others is not a wise plan. The transit system needs to be financially self sustaining, a viable form of transportation for daily living, not just for recreation and less impactful on the environment. It should also service the communities that need public transportation the most.

    This light rail/street car idea does not meet any of those requirements.

  8. Your example of NPU E not supporting Beltline Rail despite your figure of 66% of their people actually being in favor is troublesome because we assume an NPU reflects the will of the people.
    Sometimes an NPU-recognized neighborhood association’s recommendation to their NPU reflects very few member votes from a community of thousands. The vote of another neighborhood association with 500 residents will carry as much weight. ie. 5 votes/10,000 is as influential as 5 votes/500
    Let this be a call for added attention and commitment, by each of us, to support our NPU community to find ways to reach and represent even more of the people in our neighborhoods.
    While “There is strong city-wide support for rail along the BeltLine.” Shouldn’t he voices of those most impacted be weighted more heavily than remote voices?
    …and please enforce a speed limit on the Beltline now and forever. 5mph for all vehicles so as not to startle and endanger those who use ADA personal mobility devices.

    1. Agree. Maria’s narrative here is hardly journalism, let alone objective. NPU’s are not reflecting what people want. Rail has failed in ATL for a long time because the “leaders” don’t lead or innovate – they chase dollars.

  9. Maria,
    Tell the truth. When is the last time you actually walked or wheeled along the Beltline? The photos that are included are part of the big lie. They show a scattering of people and trees overhanging. What is happening on the BELTLINE now? It is so crowded that at times it is impossible to move! or bike or scooter. Any light rail will strip the area of trees, put up fencing and shrink the trail that is now overwhelmed with people. That is good. Folks are out there moving their bodies. Don’t kill what is working. Find some transportation corridors that are close to the BELTLINE not on the trail. At least be honest in the presentation. Go there and see for yourself!

    1. The rail is planned for the grassy outcropping alongside the trail. That’s why it’s there. I rarely see anyone walking in this section. Please consider our elderly, disabled or just tired people who might need the rail rather than expecting a connective path to be solely for able-bodied Atlantans.

  10. Thank you for writing this. The 11th hour reactionary anti-rail wave from NIMBYs – many of whom moved into some of these neighborhoods’ more expensive homes in the last few years – has been incredibly disappointing. It’s time to get our transit discourse back on track. Atlantans want more rail, and the Beltline is ideal for it!

  11. Beltline CEO, quoted in today’s AJC, says that the only issue is one of aesthetics…..”We can use bushes and trees as a way to create barriers between the trail and transit.”
    Clearly, he has no clue. The cross-sections for the transit released by MARTA show a 4′ chain link fence running pretty much continuously from Irwin to Ponce City Market. Only 3-4′ are left over for all the “…bushes and trees…” that this no-nothing suggests will solve the problem.
    Clearly, proponents will say anything regardless of its lack of factual underpinning.

  12. I currently live on the beltline (small b as it is not a movement or political party…yet) and I either walk or run on it 5-7 days a week. Rain or shine. My question to the Eastside Extension advocates is this- If the rail system is about commuting to high employment centers, retail zones and affordable housing why is the trail mostly empty Mon-Fri during office hours or commute times and completly full on Sat Sun with people trying to be outside in nature, getting their steps in and people watching, art viewing and the like? There is no weekday demand for mass transit (workers or tourists) currently between Monroe Dr at Piedmont Park and Dekalb Ave to warrant the expense, disruption to exisiting businesses and reduction of green space that a tram system deployment would bring to a 1.5 to 2 mile stretch of the trail that seems to be quite popluar without the train today. The people that actually use the trail today want to be outside and enjoying the time to slow down and the space to breathe, not sitting on a tram to go eat food at the Ponce City Market Food court. The former being in the obvious majority while the latter numbering so small not to warrant the continution of this project. A future looking project would be to build one of Elon’s tunnels under the city to reduce the 75/85 connector disaster and elevated spurs off the exisitng Marta Lines to areas of the city that could actually benefit from transit. Hospitals, schools, universities etc. 30312 is mostly residential, with a good mix of retail and enterntainment already and the beltline is our linear green space. Building a tram will not increase equity amongst the people (not sure wha that even means really), getting out and about and actually mixing together in open public spaces has a better chance at bringing us together than some transit project that will most likely be outdated before the first 2 miles is complete. Besides, commuter numbers are down for a lot of reasons with projections for it not to rise signigifcantly ever again. Here is an idea- finish the beltline trail first to see what the usage is in other parts of the city. If there is high demand for more commuter transit options over recreational use then build that section, The eastside is good with what it has thank you.

    1. You ask, “why is the trail mostly empty Mon-Fri during office hours or commute times?”

      Part of the answer is obvious. Because there is no transit! The beltline is UNDER utilized today during MOST of the week. Rail helps solve that problem. All y’all yelling about it being too crowded on Saturday afternoons are the weekend warriors of urbanism.

      More density is coming. This construction boom that just ended will be repeated in ~3 years. Get ready for a City with a million people. A new Amsterdam Walk rising 17 stories. A redeveloped Ansley. A new hub at Armour Yards…

      You may have to share the beltine.

  13. I support Beltline rail, but on the Beltline not the connector to the steer car. Putting the connector in will be a pain, cost a lot of money and create hazards for bikes and scooters. Get rid of the street car and reuse the parts on the Beltline. We need to improve bus service frequency with electric busses and add more and better bike lanes maintaining what we have.

  14. Opposing Rail as now envisioned on the beltline is NOT opposing public transit. It is sensible. The streetcar on the beltline will take 40′ right of way….and will have HUGE SAFETY FENCES to prevent dumb people from being hit by said street car. Tree removal…en masse…is the first step in this plan. The image you showed in this article is…simply put…a lie. It is NOT what MARTA actually plans to do. Look at the areas of the beltline that cross under overpasses like Highland Avenue, take away 40′ for the streetcar, and you have almost no room left for, you know, the actual PEOPLE who have made the beltline the success it is.
    I have been to Europe and seen lovely mass transit sustems there. It is ashamed Atlanta is not willing to build one like those, but that is NOT the plan. And it is indeed disappointing that media fails to report the truth but instead perpetuates lies.
    Oh, and you don’t think the money that will be wasted on this street car couldn’t be used to improve MARTA in the rest of the city?

  15. It’s interesting how the article reports no conditions that may have been placed on an NPU’s support for the BeltLine, when conditions were clear and concise. The BeltLine COMPANY should try to finish the existing project, aka the BeltLine trail, with the grant they just received before they look towards adding a rail line. When was the last time someone from the BeltLine attended an NPU meeting to see how people feel about how they’re currently handling their never ending project?

  16. No reasonable business sticks to an unexecuted plan that is 20 years old. e scooters did not exist back then. Assuming the goal is to increase non-car transportation then the prudent thing to do is analyze if newer technologies would produce better results, faster and at less cost. That analysis must include cost vs. benefit. The fact that the Beltline is not doing this is somewhat surprising, again if the goal is to improve transportation. It seems to me we made need new leadership who is not so close minded and prone to group think

  17. Expand the streetcar from downtown that was out of service due to safety concerns for months this year? The streetcar that around 100 passengers ride per day? We don’t have ridership numbers and there has really been NO study in support of this project working. Despite studying this for over 20 years, we still can’t prove it’s a good idea in comparison to other more meaningful cost-effective projects. Let’s fix the pedestrian path by adding some space for cyclists/scooters, and keep all the mature trees. Atlanta voters never approved this. I voted to expand transit More MARTA tax, but that was supposed to benefit 99% of Atlanta residents, not allocate most of the funding towards a project that doesn’t show any benefits at all.

  18. Maria. the public has not spoken and the more the public learns about this albatross (I’m trying to be polite) the less they like it. Supporters of the streetcar extension seem to view it as a metaphor for equity and inclusion. What’s inclusive and equitable is the Beltline in its current form. As I have said previously, you won’t find a more diverse place in Atlanta.
    The streetcar would do nothing to enhance the Beltline; rather it would hem it in and detract if not ruin its urban/park setting. Moreover, after the initial burst of curiosity subsided, hardly any would ride it. We would see empty train cars rumble by all day. Just like with the current streetcar fiasco. Lovely.
    Normally, when something is a failure, the idea is not to double down on it. Yet, perversely, that’s what proponents seek to do.
    It’s bad enough to spend several hundred million dollars to create something of no value. To spend several hundred million dollars to create something that diminishes value is obscene.

    1. For several years, I have been asking a simple question, but no one seems to be able (or willing) to answer it. What kind of ridership is needed to make the mass transit component of the Atlanta Beltline financially feasible? Hopefully, *someone* has done the math on this. How many new residents and office workers does that translate into along the Beltline and in the various Beltline neighborhoods?

      The next question someone should ask is, “How long will it take us to get to that level of density?” Just show best, middle, worse case scenarios so people can get an idea of what kind of numbers are being used to justify this project.

      Another question is, what happens to *trail* usage as the commercial and residential density along the Beltline continues to grow to those levels? Those who use the Eastside Trail now, can probably vouch for the fact that the multi-use trail is already at capacity. If residential and commercial density is expected to grow by 2 or 3X (or 10X) over the next ten years, how will the multi-use trail handle that There’s not much room (if any) to expand the multi-use trail along the 22-mile corridor.

      Finally, and this is the part that has perplexed me the most since I first became aware of the Beltline project in 2014. Where is the “equity” that the Beltline was supposed to deliver to low income folks? It seems to me that, to date, the Beltline Redevelopment Project has had the exact opposite effect on the City of Atlanta. Recent stories about record-breaking rental rates in “trophy buildings” are not compatible with equitable development. Rooftop cabana clubs, yes. Equitable development, not so much.

      Now, carry this logic one step further. How will adding a mass transit component to the Beltline create a more equitable city? In order to give people access to more opportunities, you need two things: opportunities and people that need those opportunities. By the time the rail component gets built, how many mass transit-dependent people will be living or working anywhere near the Beltline? Remember, there’s no park and ride on the proposed light rail system. In order to use Beltline transit, you will need to GET to one of the platforms. Finally, how many unskilled or low income job opportunities do you think will be available along the Beltline in 5 to 10 years? Those jobs have been going far far away from the Atlanta Beltline in recent years. Think Amazon, Walmart, UPS, etc. Where are ALL the large-scale manufacturing facilities being built today in GA. Far, far away from ATL.

      I don’t have a dog in this hunt, but for those who do, I hope and pray that ATL’s transportation planners are getting the advice (data) they need to make financially sound decisions. Given the rate and scale of technological innovation taking place as we speak, the risks of making catastrophic decisions are unusually high right now.

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