A year and a half after the November 2016 referendum, MARTA released its draft plan for how to spend $2.5 billion of City of Atlanta taxpayer money on transit – a plan dubbed “More MARTA.” I guess since I was outspoken about it before the news came out, and since the plan includes only one third of the Atlanta Beltline, several people have asked what I think. Here’s my initial reply.
First, a few points for context:
- MARTA. It’s popular in metro Atlanta to dismiss MARTA as “not going anywhere,” but the fact is that MARTA is the eighth largest system in the country (by ridership), serving the ninth largest metropolitan area (MSA population). It is significant – and it greatly benefits residents and businesses in the City of Atlanta, who, along with Fulton and DeKalb Counties, were early investors in the system, (through a penny sales tax since 1971). Reasonably, therefore, they are also the primary beneficiaries of its routes and service. While there is plenty of room for improvement, basic service across the system is fair for a city of our density and size. It is at the regional level that transit service really breaks down – but that also makes sense, given the lack of substantive investment from both the outlying metro counties and the state.
- CITY OF ATLANTA TAXPAYERS. The More MARTA referendum was not a regional vote – it was limited to the City of Atlanta, the geography of which is small relative to the region. While the region has very real transportation challenges, the residents and businesses of the City cannot be expected to solve regional problems on our own – or to cover the full cost of regional solutions. We have already done a lot by supporting the current MARTA system. The purpose of this additional half penny sales tax is to improve transit service within the city limits – to extend the reach of our current investments or improve what some call “last mile connectivity.” Priority projects should also help us manage the tsunami of growth that will more than double the City’s population over the next twenty years.
- THE PLAN. As reported by the AJC, there are several light rail projects in the current draft of the More MARTA plan, including $500 million for a new line from Lindbergh to Emory. The Atlanta Beltline has two segments in the plan – almost the entire northeast line up to Lindbergh and much of the southwest line – roughly a $450 million investment by my estimation. It connects those two sections with a $280 million extension of the downtown Streetcar – but this adds traffic congestion to the route, which many argue would compromise the usefulness of an otherwise traffic-free Beltline. Also of particular interest is the future for Campbellton Road, which would see a five mile, $130 million investment in BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) that would later, with an additional $260 million from the plan, be replaced with light-rail.
- EMORY. Along with its adjacent hospital district and the CDC, Emory University is an important regional destination and should be a top priority for transit investment. As a regional center, however, its connection to the regional system should be funded by the region. It is unfair to ask City of Atlanta taxpayers to pay for this connection on our own – to set aside other transit priorities like the Atlanta Beltline, which is entirely within the city limits, serves diverse city neighborhoods, exemplifies growth strategy, and has been in the works for nearly two decades. Even though the university and hospital district have other opportunities and resources for funding, MARTA’s current plan gives the project the biggest slice of City taxpayer funding – $500 million to a district that was not even within the city limits when taxpayers voted for the referendum in 2016.
- VISION. My concern about the current More MARTA plan is not only that it does not follow through sufficiently on the Atlanta Beltline transit vision that City taxpayers have been working on for nearly two decades, but it also offers no alternative vision. All these investments should add up to an idea about the future of Atlanta. They should build on a vision for transit that includes specific social and economic outcomes – on issues like gentrification, housing affordability and economic opportunity. We’ve always held the Atlanta Beltline to that standard, and while its performance is far from perfect, that shouldn’t stop us from holding other investments – say, the Emory line – to similarly high standards.
That said, and acknowledging that I’m in no position to change the More MARTA plan, this post simply answers the question of what changes I’d make if I could.
- VISION. I’d align our transit investments with a vision for the future city that includes challenges beyond mere mobility. We can’t pretend that equity, economic opportunity, or housing affordability, are separate issues – they are interrelated and essential to our ability to manage growth and change. We should incorporate these outcomes into our transit vision and then hold every transit investment accountable.
- EMORY. I’d set aside 20% of the budget planned for the Emory line and hold it until the region comes up with the rest. The Emory line easily meets federal transit planning expectations and should have no problem competing for money. Assuming the region finds that match, City residents will then be prepared to contribute our share. As for the remaining 80% previously budgeted to the Emory line, I’d reassign it to other projects that support the Emory connection but more directly benefit City residents and neighborhoods. I would use that money to fund light rail along the northside of the Atlanta Beltline – it would construct the physical connection to MARTA’s red and gold lines with an infill station at Armour, which can later be shared by the Emory line. And it would expand the reach of the future Emory line to a broad swath of northwest Atlanta and other destinations like Piedmont Hospital. (see graphic).
- BRT. Instead of putting in a temporary BRT line along Campbellton Road, I would make this a permanent prototype project that would jumpstart a regional BRT network. This roadway connecting Oakland City to Greenbriar could be a state-of-the-art, national model by prioritizing street design and signalization for transit and by including all the features of real BRT – level boarding with multiple doors, off-board fare collection, etc. The money in the plan assigned to future light-rail conversion would go toward another corridor better suited for rail. I would put it on the southeast segment of the Atlanta Beltline, which makes an urgently needed connection between jobs and opportunities on the east and west sides of the loop. It would also help neighborhoods like Pittsburgh, Peoplestown, South Atlanta, and Chosewood Park manage the ongoing development of vast swaths of land – in the best scenario, with meaningful transit and growth management strategies for the people who already live there.
- ATLANTA BELTLINE. I’d finish it up. I’m not saying that the entire loop of transit on the Atlanta Beltline should necessarily be paid for with the money from this referendum – there are a lot of other needs in the City. I am saying, however, that the Atlanta Beltline has earned its position at the top of the priority list for transit implementation, and if not this funding, then the City of Atlanta and MARTA should identify and commit to the funding and timing for full completion of the project. Ideally, this would happen before the City of Atlanta is completely gentrified – a goal that will be impossible to meet at the pace of implementation described in the current More MARTA plan. [history, threat]
For a list of ways to engage, check out this post.