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.
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.
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.
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.
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. “
“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.
“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.