Atlanta Transit Expansion Comes Closer as Region Prepares for Tax Referendum

» Hopes for regional transit funding are lining up.

When it was originally proposed in 1965, MARTA was supposed to be the transit authority serving the entire Atlanta region, then splayed out over five counties. Yet the system required funding to be put in place, and when asked to devote some of their sales taxes to the cause, only people in Fulton and DeKalb Counties — the most central of the region — agreed to pony up. So the rail system that began operations in mid-1979 remains constrained to those counties’ borders. Lacking needed funds, the original system plan has yet to be completed.

That’s in spite of the fact that the ten closest-in Atlanta region counties now house more than 4.1 million people and have grown significantly over the past half century. Partially because of the failure to expand MARTA, the region’s transit mode share of work trips has declined disastrously from 16.8% in 1960 to 3.7% today. New transportation projects have been few and far between: Currently, the only transit program that has its funding secured in the Atlanta region is the short (and, from the standpoint of the region’s larger needs, modest) Georgia Transit Connector streetcar, which was funded by a U.S. Department of Transportation TIGER grant last fall.

Fortunately, the area’s residents will be allowed to vote next year on an increase in local funding for transportation through a 1¢ sales tax, which would extend across the ten counties if it were approved by the population. The referendum, which is expected to raise up to $7 billion in additional resources over the next ten years, was made possible because of the passage of a Georgia state law in June 2010 largely pushed through by new Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

The flow of dollars holds great promise and could be instrumental in aiding the region develop its meager fixed-route public transportation network into something more convenient. Already, cities and counties across the region have submitted $24 billion in potential projects to be funded with the money, far more than could be distributed. (15% of dollars raised will be spent by constituent local governments, with 85% remaining allocated by the regional planning authority for projects determined by a regional “roundtable” group.) The final list of projects that would be funded by the tax will be determined in October.

Despite the clear need for improved transportation in the metropolitan region, though, there is no guarantee that county populations will approve the sales tax increase or that the projects chosen for funding will be appropriate in guiding the area’s growth.

The first problem is serious: The anti-government sentiment currently festering in the United States is likely to negatively affect proposals that would do a lot to expand the commuting options for one of the nation’s largest regions. Though transportation sales tax increase measures have fared well in cities from Charlotte to Los Angeles, whether they can pass in broad sections of the suburbs is a different matter. It seems almost inevitable that the citizens of Atlanta will vote in favor of the proposal, even though it will double their sales taxes dedicated to transport, but getting people to do the same in exurban sections of Gwinnett County will be much more difficult. It didn’t happen 40 years ago.

Second, even if the tax increase is passed, the projects funded will not necessarily contribute to positive change in this sprawling metropolis. Though MARTA has a number of transportation expansions under study, parts of the $7 billion will be distributed to roads projects as well. Outside of Atlanta proper, which contains just 10% of the larger region’s population, there is likely to be more support for highway infrastructure than bus or rail investments.

Some advocacy groups have already begun pushing to ensure that transit gets its “fair share” of funds, which they argue is 60% of the total, or $4.2 billion over ten years. That’s a big sum even for a region as large as this one, but it may also be too optimistic, especially if those making the list want the measure to pass in car-dominated outer sections of the area. The respective influence of these rival factors will be better understood once the list of projects to be funded is finalized later this year.

What seems likely are a serious of compromises, largely involving the extension of transit lines out into the suburbs, investments that return fewer transportation benefits than equivalent projects in the core but which could offer a motivation for voters and politicians from areas outside of Atlanta to support the tax increase. Bus rapid transit or heavy rail extensions from each of MARTA’s current termini have been proposed; these offerings would be heavy on cost but likely limited in spurring new construction around stations and encouraging car-free lifestyles. Their inclusion in the plan, however, may be necessary to acquire the necessary political support for the program over the next year or so.

Nonetheless, the potential for great improvement in Atlanta area transit is exciting. The Beltline, which would ring the city’s core with a light rail route coordinated with transit-oriented development, is a role model for the rest of the country — and the city has appropriately argued that a large percentage of the funding go to that project. In addition, a connection between Lindbergh Center and Emory University, a project that (in a different form) was part of the original MARTA network plans, has been revived as a regional priority and could finally see the light of day.

41 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Matt

    Lucky Atlanta – 4+ heavy rail lines. Here in Minneapolis, we have 3/4 the population but only one slow LRT line. It’s a shame our leaders didn’t get a head start on transit back in the 70’s like Atlanta.

    • Ted King

      For those who want a more balanced picture one can visit Metro Transit . Yes, they presently only have one LRT line and only one commuter rail line in addition to buses and bicycle racks and routes. But a second LRT line is under construction (link below) with est. opening in 2014.

      “Central Corridor Light Rail Transit (LRT)” (MetroCouncil.org)

      • Tim E

        Don’t forget that an additional Southwest Light rail plan is moving forward if not mistaken, bringing the real possibility of two LRT lines running and a third under construction in the next decade. The question for Twin Cities, will a second commuter line serving the southeast along with new intercity rail city to Duluth come to frutition (third commuter line in the making)?

        In otherr words, like Ted alluded too. Twin Cities might have gotten a slow start but they definitely have movement forward on a metropolitan standpoint and will get much farther then most of the comparable Midwestern cities/metro areas.

    • If you get state aid for your transit system, you’re already doing better than Atlanta. MARTA gets no state funds, since the state legislature is dominated by rural conservatives and suburbanites who hate the city. As a result, Atlanta’s transit mode share, while higher than that of Dallas and Houston, has fallen behind Seattle, Portland, and LA.

      Much of this is racial. DeKalb, the only suburban county that’s part of MARTA, is also the only one that’s majority-black.

      • Brandi

        Actually it seems like Atlanta has one of the most racially segregated public transit systems in the United States. When I visited there a few years ago the racial divide seemed to be stronger than most people. Actually multiple people told me MARTA stood for something other than the official acronym.

      • Tim E

        In my opinion, state funding is fickle and not really going to move transit forward in the immediate future – think budget problems on the scale of Feds but no way to print currency. Instead, metro areas who act and plan as a whole, have strong regional leadership and do a good job of securing federal funds will move forward. In Atlanta’s case, this is a Metro area with a large GDP that could easily support a transit buildout with some coherent leadership without having to depend on state dollars

        • Tim,
          The city of Atlanta and Decatur have had good leadership transit for many years. The suburban counties and rest of state have been luddites, in large part for racial reasons. There are additional reasons.

          Compared to large transit centric-cities, Atlanta still lacks office and residential density in Downtown and Midtown districts as commuter attractors. That trait is however, gradually changing for better.

          Atlanta is the least dense Top 25 Metro area in the country. So the further out MARTA extends, the less dense the population is near stations. Of course people near the station traveling into town find it useful. But most people don’t want to drive 20-30 minutes to a station to ride into town, since total travel might still be over 1 hour. A consequence, is the cost per patron mile increases to extend lines in Atlanta.

          As repeated in this forum, the good news is that Atlanta’s MARTA has it core built and commercially attractive Downtown, Midtown and Buckhead districts and a popular line that goes into the airport. MARTA has a nice LIght Rail beltway planned that will be relatively close in for high chances of patronage success interconnecting middle class communities. So as racial sentiment gradually improves, center city density increases, oil prices rise, HSR and Commuter Rail finally reach Downtown, Atlanta will benefit more quickly than Phoenix and Houston. The way Dallas is building it may be on par with Atlanta transit mode share and totals by 2020.

          • One additional point. Greater Atlanta needs to muster support for a northwest MARTA line in the I-75 corridor. Atlantans won’t reduce the highway congestion problem without it.

      • Beta Magellan

        And Clayton County, where voters recently passed a non-binding referendum that recommended joining MARTA, is also majority-black (with a growing Latino population); from what I understand their county transit service recently folded due to lack of revenue. I’m pretty sure an extension to Forest Park with a stop at Hopewell was part of the MARTA plans until a fairly late date—surprised it’s not on the map.

        I’m also surprised none of the commuter rail schemes the Georgia Regional Transit Authority’s floated over the years were mentioned here—although sunbelt commuter rail systems tend to perform pretty poorly, they do help give outer suburbanites the feeling that they’re getting some benefit from transit. Furthermore, prepping the lines for commuter rail could serve as a first step towards intercity rail in Georgia (to which there are also multiple plans that are fairly distant from realization).

    • Brandi

      Actually I think Atlanta beat out Seattle to win some kind of federal grant to start a rapid transit system in the 1970s. It’s a shame because that was the last time there was really a push to create new rapid transit systems. A lot of larger cities could really benefit from these systems over light rail systems. I think it could be a lot more transformative on their growth patterns.

      • Steve

        I think Seattle won the federal match but voters rejected the tax package that included the local match and the federal side went to Atlanta. It’s not totally unlike what’s going on with HSR funds now.

        Anyway, the lost subway is one of the things modern Seattlites cry in their beers about, though it’s not totally obvious to me that the 1970 Seattle subway plan would have been good for the city.

    • DBX

      The catch is that in Atlanta, unless you’re on the subway, you can basically forget public transit because the bus system just isn’t good enough. In the Twin Cities, the bus network is frequent, offers point-to-point connections to several different hubs and extends well into the suburbs. And, apparently, has a sufficiently secure source of state funding that it can go on running during state government shutdowns — even if they admittedly do have to suffer biennial fights over funding levels.

  • Ryan G

    If the Atlanta area really wants to improve transit, Cobb County (and Cherokee) needs to get on board for a new line up I-75. And there needs to be a line at least around the upper perimeter, if not further. There are plenty of daily commuters who could use both of those lines, plus several retail centers along the way that could be served for off-peak use.

  • Ocean Railroader

    They should extend the heavy rail lines instead of having it switch over to light rail or super bus in that from a operating stand point and a commuter stand point it would make more sense. They have the most different types of transit systems I have seen in a while on a city map.Or they could have the light rail line and the streetcar lines link up with one another so the trains can run more freely with one another.

    • Beta Magellan

      Looking at Atlanta from Google Maps (and remembering my own visit there), everything’s at such a low density that I wonder whether it might be possible to build a third-rail powered metro at grade—for some of the routes it might be easier to close off a few streets and add some grade crossings. Alternatively, they could run the metro trains at grade with signaled crossings and having the power supply switch from third rail to overhead wires—I believe this was the original plan with the MBTA’s Orange Line, which (IIRC) was to have replaced the Needham commuter rail line in its entirety. The cost of new rolling stock might make this untenable, though.

      • Ocean Railroader

        It would be safer to have a light rail or a streetcar be at grade on it’s own right of way to travel this route then a thrid rail powered train in that the thrid rails would attract a lot of atention from the local kids.

        • I’d wonder, if the point of the third rail powered metro is that it can be a heavier rail vehicle than modern equivalent for a light rail vehicle of an induction loop ~ what, precisely, is the benefit of that extra weight?

          IOW, heavier weight is not a benefit in its own right, so the question is what is the benefit that is made possible by the heavier weight?

          • The point of third rail is that it allows the train to run on lower voltage. Among other things, it requires less insulation, i.e. lower clearances, to the point that some intercity tunnels switch to a special third rail if there’s no room for catenary.

  • Anon256

    “The Beltline, which would ring the city’s core with a light rail route coordinated with transit-oriented development, is a role model for the rest of the country”
    The Beltline misses connecting with MARTA lines in the south and west, and connects in the north and east only with large detours that will significantly increase travel times. Even New York’s G Train does a better job connecting with radial lines. Furthermore, rather than serving a dense, congested district with expensive parking like most successful transit lines, it serves residential and suburban areas with spare road capacity and free parking. Remind me why anyone thinks this project is a good idea?

  • Bob

    I agree about the infill stations. Atlanta has some pretty impressive transit infrastructure with MARTA but it also has (IMO) some of the worst land-use planning for transit in the country. The majority of stations are nothing more than park and rides, many intown stations have seen little new investment surrounding them (to be fair, its been 10 years since I have ridden MARTA regularly), and downtown Atlanta was never a huge employment center (relative to several of the suburban business districts).

    Without some commitment to zoning changes in Atlanta (similar to what Charlotte has done) I suspect new transit investment will do little to improve mobility.

    • Joe

      @Bob Actually everything you wrote is pretty inaccurate. The transit and urban structure of Atlanta proper isn’t perfect, but it’s far from the nightmare some people often make it out to be.

      Even with all of the funding issues and limited coverage area, MARTA has a daily weekday ridership of over half a million. Compare that to the darling transit system of Portland which has half the ridership but gets very little of the grief that MARTA and Atlanta get for public transit, even though it is the 9th most used system in the country by ridership. The way some people make it out to be it would seem like there are only 5 people who take MARTA.

      Also, not directed at you Bob, the person who mention how many black people rider MARTA: Did you take a second to consider that Atlanta is a majority black city?

      • The point about race isn’t that Atlanta is majority-black. It’s that the white suburbs surrounding it refuse to contribute anything to MARTA, stereotyping it as fit only for black people.

      • Steve

        That half million number includes buses too, right? I had the impression that MARTA’s rail system ridership was only about 250,000.

      • GRL

        Two points of order:

        1.) The ridership difference between MARTA and Tri-Met isn’t half: current APTA figures give a total MARTA weekday ridership of 438.8 thousand, and Tri-Met a ridership of 313.5 thousand. That’s a difference of 70%. Moreover, bus ridership between the two systems is nearly equal.

        http://apta.com/resources/statistics/Documents/Ridership/2010_q4_ridership_APTA.pdf

        2.) The Atlanta metropolitan area is over twice the size of the Portland metropolitan area. This means that the percentage of residents using transit is larger in Portland, even if total riders are fewer.

  • If the Beltline really fails to connect with MARTA rail as as your drawing suggests, it has to be considered a really problematic project. You always need to work with, not against, the existing infrastructure.

  • Akiva

    In regards to comment number 1, the system is really 2 major routes, not four. Both the North-south and East-west line have a branch or spur, which Marta labels as a seperate line, even though they are sort of duplicate services.

  • Federico

    I wouldn’t say it’s inevitable that Atlanta proper will vote for this. The wording of the enabling legislation specifically prohibits any funding from going to MARTA operations, which has made it politically unpopular with the counties currently paying for MARTA (Fulton and Dekalb, themselves over 40 percent of the sales tax area’s population).

    Even if Atlanta were able to secure enough of the project list to feel comfortable with an additional penny tax on top of what it currently pays for MARTA, the enabling legislation also states that projects have to serve multiple counties, which puts any project list including the Beltline or some of these smaller MARTA expansions in precarious positions for garnering suburban support. If Beltline ended up on a project list that will be put to referendum in 2012, claiming $1B or so of the $7B in expected sales tax revenue, it’s unlikely that voters from the suburbs would go for it unless their returns were great enough– suggesting a bounty of road projects for the remainder of the region and little else in the way of transit. As much as Beltline has potential to transform city neighborhoods in Atlanta, it has (understandably) limited ability to appeal to a still-incipient region-wide desire to enhance and expand commuting options through transit.

    You’re right to point out that compromises are the most likely outcome, but the balance is going to be delicate for the thing to pass at all and the resulting projects will probably not give any one constituency exactly what they want or need. But that should surprise no one. It has been difficult for those of us in Atlanta who want to see a greater commitment to transportation choices to view the regional sales tax proposal as anything more than punting from the state.

  • Brian

    ^If the tax levy must go to system expansion, is urban core support (where MARTA isn’t shown as expanding) be conditioned on the Beltline?

    • Federico

      Urban core support will be conditioned on *something*, whether or not that’s the Beltline. The city of Atlanta has been putting it on the table with top billing for the last several years, but the unconstrained project ‘wish list’ the city submitted for consideration/prioritization in forming the regional list included several other projects as well that are presumably intended to be vote-getters if Beltline falls victim to regional horse-trading.

      I do believe that the city will continue to push Beltline as far as they can, but with a project likely to claim over $1B of the $8B or so expected from the sales tax the city needs to have a few other cards up its sleeve.

      For what it’s worth, the schematic map in the article includes transit projects both from the city of Atlanta’s project wish list (Beltline) and MARTA’s (basically everything else). I don’t know details but I imagine MARTA got to submit a list because of its unique status in the state and because of the infrastructure under its jurisdiction. The only project shown here not already in the two counties currently paying for MARTA is the Gwinnett Center extension of the Doraville line. The blog post points out that Gwinnett voted against transit in the past, but last November a non-binding referendum to join MARTA narrowly failed (something like 48 to 52, but still a major change in attitudes from even 10 years ago). I suspect MARTA concluded long ago that Gwinnett would eventually join the fold, but probably not for free (hence MARTA would need to pony up a rail expansion project there). I wonder if this is MARTA anticipating that and trying to position for the funding… we’ll see how the regional project list pans out.

  • Tom Marney

    Three days and only 25 comments. Atlanta is so boring. :/

    As someone who was very engaged on transportation and development issues in the late ’90’s-early 00’s, I’ll tell you: this whole thing is just silly. There won’t be any answers until people start asking the right questions, and they’ve never even gotten close. That goes for both citizens and most government leaders.

    Adding new transit corridors won’t work, because even in the relatively-booming mid-00’s we couldn’t afford to operate the system we had in place. And with the recession, transit operating funding and service levels imploded. How are we supposed to fund even more high capacity transit?

    One thing about the Beltline: To the degree that the Beltline concept is rooted in reality, it’s more of a property development scheme than a real transportation investment. The idea is that diverse improvements to the corridor will increase property values and attract enough development to not only pay for the project, but to generate a substantial surplus for property tax-levying entities. That’s why the Atlanta Board of Education is among the project’s backers.

    • I don’t get the “either/or” on transport investment and property development.

      A transportation investment that is part of a larger project with the whole project intended to yield sufficient financial return to be self-funding is still a transportation investment.

      • Nathanael

        Furthermore, if it causes sufficient development to center around the line, it becomes a useful transportation investment. (Some streetcar suburbs had their streetcars ripped out later because they never got dense enough to really support them — but many promptly DID become dense enough and still have their streetcars to this day.)

  • Tom Marney

    Well, yeah, but not all corridors are created equal in that regard. The Second Avenue Subway, for instance. It’ll increase development potential, but it’s entirely viable strictly as a transportation investment, even if no new development results from it. The Orange Line in northern Virginia has become a showcase for intense TOD, but it’s still be worth having even if the city of Arlington hadn’t done the excellent job with maximizing its potential that it has. That’s because the Orange Line, y’know… actually goes somewhere.

    The Beltline is completely at the other end of the viability spectrum. The corridor itself barely serves any existing employment centers, and it connects poorly with MARTA’s existing rail system and other transportation facilities. Plus, AFAIK, there’s no specific strategy to encourage those who live in developments along the Beltline to use the rail, such as mandatory provision of MARTA passes to residents of said developments.

    It’s even more obvious if you live in Atlanta, as I do: the Beltline concept appeals to some people at an almost religious level, and the fervor causes these people to engage in extremely wishful thinking.

    I’m not saying that it’s impossible for the Beltline to succeed. I AM saying that it’ll take a degree of commitment that Atlanta has never provided, even in attracting and staging the 1996 Olympics. Given the extreme risk involved, I think skepticism is the only defensible attitude to have.

    • Anon256

      Do you have a good understanding of WHY “the Beltline concept appeals to some people at an almost religious level”? There is a lot of temptation to make fundamental attribution errors about this sort of question, but I’d like to better understand the situational factors that make such a project appeal so strongly to some people, especially if this might help gain their support for projects that also contribute significantly to mobility.

    • Nathanael

      The poor connections with MARTA are worrisome and should be remedied. Because any loop line COULD be a tremendous extension to the + shaped system, but with poor connections to the existing system? Suspicious.

  • Tom Marney

    No. I’m a construction worker, not an anthropologist. :P

  • Anthony

    This should help people make up their minds in Atlanta on expansion of MARTA.

    http://www.wsbtv.com/news/27608434/detail.html

    • Nathanael

      No, it shouldn’t. I suppose every time there’s a carjacking, you oppose expansion of roads, and every time there’s a home invasion, you oppose expansion of housing? Use your brain.

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