In an Atlanta Desperate for More Transit Options, New Rail Plans for Eastern Suburbs

» After considerable disagreement over the value of funding rail extensions to Southern DeKalb County, the MARTA transit agency board endorses the project — despite a lack of funding.

Solving regional disagreements in the Atlanta way, apparently, means making sure that anyone who makes a loud enough stink gets a piece of an expanding pie. Even if the pie isn’t expanding.

The Atlanta Region Commission (ARC) is already fighting to convince a skeptical electorate of the necessity of increasing the local sales tax to pay for transportation improvement projects — an issue that will be put before voters on July 31. The Transportation Investment Act (TIA) would raise the sales tax across regional counties by 1% over the course of 10 years. ARC’s announced list of priority investments would bring new rail and bus links throughout the region thanks to more than $8.5 billion expected to be raised (about half of which will go to roads projects). MARTA, the operator of urban bus services and the city’s metro rail line, would be the single greatest beneficiary of the funds thanks to line extensions and renovations of the existing network.

Yet, as previously described here, plans for new rail lines extending to Emory University, into the northern suburbs, and along streets through the center city, have been contested as inadequate by residents and political leaders in DeKalb County, just east of central Atlanta. Most bothered are residents of the southern section of the county, led by the local NAACP, who argue that they have been paying for the functioning of the system for years but never received the benefits of rail service.

ARC’s plans for fund distribution, as documented in the map above, would provide for the implementation of a rapid bus line along I-20 East from downtown Atlanta to this area, but South DeKalb inhabitants want something else in exchange for their votes: An extension of the MARTA heavy rail line from Indian Creek. DeKalb County’s residents must vote in favor of the referendum in large numbers in order for it to pass because of the probable strong resistance to the tax from residents of counties further from Atlanta, despite the fact that ARC’s priority list specifically includes funding for lines running in all directions into the suburbs.

Last week, MARTA seemed to make an effort to realize the rail project. The agency’s board approved continuing the advancement of two projects — a light rail line along the Clifton Corridor in west DeKalb and a $2 billion, two-pronged strategy for serving South DeKalb. The latter would include both the 12.8-mile I-20 East rapid bus line previously discussed and a 12-mile rail extension along I-285 and I-20 to the Mall at Stonecrest, with four other new stations as requested by South DeKalb groups. The projects would, like most American transit capital programs, require federal funding.

But they would also need a source of funds above and beyond those being distributed by TIA, raising questions about whether MARTA’s move is designed primarily to give voters in South DeKalb the sense that rail is planned for their area, rather than actually offering funding for it. In order to construct this rail extension, an additional $800 million in local funding is required beyond that being raised by TIA. No one seems to be clear about how this money would be raised.

It is also worth questioning the value of extending rail to South DeKalb County. The area is, like much of metropolitan Atlanta, automobile dependent and lacking in significant density. The alignment of the rail corridor in the median of interstate highways seems unlikely to produce any significant transit-oriented development. The BRT project, which would rely on HOV and HOT lanes to transport people between the area and downtown Atlanta, would not be much better from any of these perspectives, but at least it would be more economical. A total of 28,700 daily riders are expected to use the two services ($70,000 per rider), at the very high end for similar new transit capital projects.

Serving a denser section of the region is the Clifton Corridor, which will bring 8.8 miles of light rail between the existing Lindbergh Center and Avondale Stations, via 10 to 13 new stations, including at Emory University and the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control. Its $1.1 billion cost (also rather high) would be enough to connect the stations in 26 minutes, about 8 minutes less than is possible today on the MARTA rail system with a transfer at Five Points. Service to this area of DeKalb County has been a priority for MARTA since the agency’s first plan was developed more than 40 years ago. Though the use of heavy rail connected to the remainder of the MARTA system was considered, the lack of adequate right-of-way makes a through-running connection between Lindbergh and Avondale impossible with fully grade-separated rail. So light rail has been the focus.

The first phase of the corridor, from Lindbergh to the CDC headquarters near Emory Campus, can be paid for fully through TIA funding, but the rest of the line will require federal aid.

A significant portion of the Clifton Corridor would be built in a subway, as documented below in a map distributed by MARTA. This results from two factors: One, (wealthy) homeowners in several of the areas through which the line would pass would likely legally contest a surface line that would require significant use of eminent domain in residential neighborhoods; two, CSX (the freight railway) owns the track right-of-way that the corridor parallels and MARTA has been loath to consider negotiating with the company, likely because of CSX’s hostility to passenger rail projects in other parts of the country.

Fortunately, other sections of the line would be built in the median of arterials, a construction method that would deliver most of the benefits at a far lower cost.

The focus on projects for DeKalb County here should not imply that the City of Atlanta itself has been ignored in the proposed funding allocation. Indeed, TIA would fund a significant expansion of the city’s diminutive streetcar project, which is currently under construction. The streetcar line would be expanded both east and west to meet the first stages of the Beltline project, which is a proposed combined transit and park system along existing freight railway rights-of-way that would encircle central Atlanta. A new crosstown corridor on North Avenue would connect Georgia Tech directly to Midtown. Though the full Beltline would not be funded through TIA, these first stages serve the city’s densest neighborhoods in which people are most likely to take advantage of transit. Later phases may be sponsored by the revenues from the tax increment financing district that is funding other elements of the project.

The projects being promoted in the Atlanta region are thus a mixed bag in terms of necessity and cost effectiveness. None, however, will be implemented without the passage of the sales tax increase later this year. Will voters from South DeKalb be convinced by MARTA’s move?

Map above of Clifton Corridor: From MARTA

33 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Nathanael

    Given Atlanta’s history, it would be impressive if the suburbs and the city could agree on passenger rail funding — more impressive if the state government would go along too. It might mark a turning point. The number of conceptual projects which have just died in Atlanta is very large, and they usually died due to squabbling of this sort.

  • Eric

    “Fortunately, other sections of the line would be built in the median of arterials, a construction method that would deliver most of the benefits at a far lower cost.”

    Lower cost but also lower usefulness, since a large portion of the walkable zone around the stations is taken by the road and interchanges, which are hostile to pedestrians and transit users.

    • Joey

      Eric, I think by saying “arterials,” he’s referring to roads that are NOT freeways. Presumably, they’d have sidewalks, businesses, housing, etc., along their sides.

    • Beta Magellan

      Based on the map, it looks like most stations will be on grade-separated parts of the line with a number of underground ones, which makes me wonder whether using light rail on the Clifton Corridor is penny-wise but pound-foolish. Since much of the proposed line (and how many of the proposed stations) is planned to be grade-separated, why not make it more appealing to potential riders by making it heavy rail through-routed to the north-south spine or build it as a high-frequency automated LRT shuttle?

      • The Alternatives Analysis summary cites the ability to run into redevelopment sites and what it says is “easier to integrate into the topography”, which I take to mean the greater flexibility of LRT aerials ~ in addition to the option receiving the strongest public support.

  • Progressive Capitalist

    Seems silly not to build the gap between the NW and Clifton Corridors sooner, so that they can both operate as one LRT line. Maybe prioritize the section of future LRT between NW Corridor’s Howell Mill station and the MARTA interface at Lindbergh Center, instead of the NW Corridor’s segment south of Howell Mill station to the MARTA interface at Arts Center. Then, these two corridors could actually operate as one, and now force transfers to ride one stop on MARTA. Otherwise, you may see similar problems to the Red Line in DC, which sees a capacity crunch for transfers between Metro Center and Chinatown stations.

  • Progressive Capitalist

    If Clifton and NW were built as heavy rail, could the added trains run along existing MARTA tracks between Lindbergh and Arts Center?

    Granted, the Clifton corridor is entering the MARTA corridor in the wrong direction to interline the service with Northwest/I-75.

  • andy

    i thought the beltline was light rail? not streetcar, becuase its running in a ROW, there is no street on the beltline. also i hope the line going downtown to south dekalb is rerouted past turner field, grant park, panthersville and out towards stonecrest on I-20 east.

  • Bob F.

    The tunnels called for in the plans for the Clifton Corridor line seem largely unnecessary—particularly the tunnel near Lennox Road and Zonolite. By my count, there are fewer than sixty homes along that section of the proposed line. It would be far cheaper to offer those people an inducement/bribe of $500,000 per household in exchange for MARTA getting the land it needs for the line. They could even retain ownership of their homes. Given that a very small number of “wealthy” people live there (Woodland Park, the neighborhood north of that section of the line, does not fit any reasonable definition of wealthy; many of the houses that border the tracks are worth well less than $200,000) and given that their houses already back to an active freight railroad, my hunch is that virtually everyone would happily snap up such a deal.

    • ScottNATL

      Well…being in one of those houses…I’d take that offer. The problem is that this is a fairly busy CSX corridor. There is no option to build at grade. It would have to go over or under…those are the only options

  • bruce

    I too wonder where MARTA is going to find the funding to build these new lines. But I am even more concerned about whether they will be able to afford to operate them. When I started riding MARTA’s rail system in the 1980’s I could catch a train every 6 minutes; now it is 15 minutes, even during peak periods. Will they cut it to 20 or 30 minutes in order to run the new lines? MARTA should be focusing on improving the existing service, e.g. by going to full automation in order to run more frequent service.

    • Andre L.

      The voters would never approve new capital investments for the existing network only… at least not on this scale. And why should them?

    • Pablo J

      The TIA includes 20 year operations costs for each of the transit lines. So if the voters vote “yes” in July, the transit operations of any lines built will be covered for at least a few decades.

      Also, just wanted to point out that while trains are 15 minutes apart on MARTA, the lines are doubled-up, so it’s really only 7.5 minutes between trains (it used to be 12 minutes apart, which would be 6 minutes apart on the doubled-up lines).

  • Peaton

    “A new crosstown corridor on North Avenue would connect Georgia Tech directly to Midtown.”

    I think in terms of promoting infill this is the most crucial element. I feel like lots of the Dekalb stuff could also be dealt with via buses, although I do favor rail in general.

  • Nathanael

    Heh. This line of yours just sunk in and I appreciate it.

    “Solving regional disagreements in the Atlanta way, apparently, means making sure that anyone who makes a loud enough stink gets a piece of an expanding pie. Even if the pie isn’t expanding.”

    I think this is the *American* way, or perhaps the *political* way. With rare exceptions such as the “goo-goo” (good government) progressive Midwest.

  • Nikko P

    Am I the only one bothered by the Clifton Corridor line going down Clairmont Road then abruptly turning east and jogging south to Avondale instead of going straight to Decatur?

    • peaton

      Agree. Its strange.

    • Eric

      Probably because:
      1) Dekalb Medical Center and the surrounding office area would be a major destination.
      2) There is space for the “potential LRT storage site” – Decatur itself does not have space for that. Not sure how necessary this storage is (the other end of the line should definitely have space for storage).

      Before seeing this map, I also assumed the line would end in Decatur. I have no idea if advantages 1) and 2) outweigh the loss of Decatur.

  • Tom Marney

    @ Nikko P and peaton: Not really. The proposed alignment would serve Dekalb Medical Center and the proposed Super WalMart (LOL) at Suburban Plaza. And a connection to downtown Decatur via tree-lined Clairemont Avenue would be very unpopular, I’d guess.

    Remember, studies for that corridor began many years ago with Cynthia McKinney’s proposal (before she went off the deep end) for a Lindbergh-Emory-Decatur-South Dekalb light rail line. After quickly finding that the proposed corridor wasn’t especially viable, that study headed off in a variety of directions, including a heavy rail line branching off the East Line and into the I-20 corridor, though the current insane scheme to extend the East Line through two ninety degree doglegs and hadn’t reared its ugly head then.

    NOW: Everybody knows that metro Atlanta simply isn’t dense enough to support an extensive suburban rail network. Beyond that, I think there’s a Dekalb-related issue at work: In Dekalb, there’s great contrast between the north end, which is rich, largely white, and has the huge Perimeter Center edge city with its MARTA line, and the south end, which is poorer, mostly black, and has nothing even remotely resembling Perimeter Center.

    It’s true that richer people are moving to southern Dekalb, and there are some really nice homes there. Apparently some people believe that a Perimeter Center-type activity center can be created there if only MARTA served the area. But it’ll never happen, because… as Joel Garreau explained in Edge City, edge cities arise only in locations that are convenient to the city’s stock of prime quality executive housing and the specialty businesses that serve them. In Atlanta, that’s the West Paces Road area bounded by Peachtree, I-75 and I-285. Atlanta’s edge cities are located along that area’s perimeter: Buckhead, PC, Cumberland-Galleria and (arguably) Midtown.

    Even with its locational advantages, it’s taken years for the Perimeter Center area to even start to resemble Buckhead in terms of upscale-ness. And the idea that southern Dekalb can ever be like northern Dekalb, desirable though it might be, is absurd. It’d be a lot more responsible of the NAACP et al to advocate for serving southern Dekalb responsibly rather than treating transit as some sort of political trophy.

    Or so says me. :P

    Oh, a trivia fact: The link Yonah provided is to the plan MARTA proposed during the successful 1971 referendum. But… the failed 1968 proposal included a heavy rail branch from the North Line to Emory (actually on the campus, not a mile away) along the CSX corridor.

  • Nikko P

    You’re getting to a small medical center at the expense of 1) direct service to downtown Decatur 2) a convenient and shorter connection to the MARTA heavy rail line. I’ve seen a lot of transit planners rail against huge route meanderings to serve a destination at the expense of overall transit times. This seems like the epitome of that very problem. If they’re blowing money on a tunnel between Lenox and Barcliffe Road, why wouldn’t they be able to instead build a tunnel from the intersection of Clairmont and Scott to downtown? (Or just take out car lanes on Clairmont if you really think NIMBYs wouldn’t be a problem).

  • Tom Marney

    I dunno, and I don’t want to argue about it. Actually, I’m more surprised and appalled at the amount of tunneling, especially under the parking lot of Suburban Plaza.

  • Don

    The only project here that makes sense to me is the MARTA extension up GA 400. The other extensions to the North, East and West could be handled more cheaply and with better effect on traffic by commuter rail along existing freight lines. The NS and CSX lines to the East and Northeast are not particularly heavy with traffic. Double track and some signal work and you’re done.

    To the Northwest, its a bit trickier since the freight traffic on NS and CSX is so much heavier and there already are big chunks of double track. But it’s still cheaper to add onto existing ROW then to gouge out new for BRT or light rail.

    MARTA heavy rail is pretty much at the limits for trip length for heavy rail transit and the population density in the Atlanta ‘burbs is pretty low. There is a mismatch between the high construction costs for heavy rail transit and the market they are thinking of building into.

  • Tom Marney

    @ Don

    Ah, what might have been…

    A study recommending a six-line commuter rail system (to Athens, Senoia and Bremen first, Gainesville, Canton and Greensboro later) was published in 1995, and at one point the Athens line was in the TIP for opening in 2003. Relatively little double tracking was proposed– bypasses were deemed sufficient in most cases. The failure to pursue commuter rail was, IMO, one of the larger screwups in Atlanta transportation history. Now the Beltline has staked a claim on the rail ROW that made the Gainesville line viable. :/

    The GA 400 line looks good on a map, but I’ve been told by people I trust that heavy rail isn’t viable past Holcomb Bridge Road, only five miles from the current end of the line at North Springs. The sales tax proposal includes (IIRC) $37m for PE and possibly ROW to there. We’ll see.

    • Don

      Pushing MARTA too far up 400 and you do start to get to the limits of acceptable length of haul for heavy rail transit. What the “red” line has going for it is fewer stops per mile from midtown to the north. It behaves more like commuter rail than urban transit.

      As for the Athens commuter rail, you’d need double track west from Lawrenceville, for sure. East of there, probably nothing new.

      As for Gainesville commuter rail, it’s NS all the way thru the Amtrak station, around the wye at Howell and down to “the gulch” Some timber and asphalt platforms and you could be running it tomorrow.

  • ARC’s plans for fund distribution, as documented in the map above would like to implementation of a rapdi bus as discuss in the above post is very good for public benifit. But An extension of the MARTA heavy rail line from Indian Creek.
    MARTA effort for the rail project. The agency’s board approved continuing the advancement of two projects — a light rail line along the Clifton Corridor in west DeKalb and a $2 billion, two-pronged strategy for serving South DeKalb is very good.

  • Progressive Capitalist

    When both the Sierra Club and the Tea Party oppose a plan, you know it has to be a middle-of-the-road, common sense approach.

    Besides, Sierra Club should know better. Even if their ideal Plan-B ever sees the light of day, they will still face the resentment of Plan-A supporters, as well as the flipped opposition of their current strange-bedfellow allies for a Zero-Transit Plan.

    • Don

      Yeah, normally… But, this thing is a mess. It’s got all kinds of things that have no effect on overall mobility at all – just local pet projects, like increasing the number of lanes on isolated sections of local roads. A nice chunck of change to study stuff that’s already been studied to death and money for replacing suburban express buses – money that would have to come from elsewhere, anyway.

      The Sierra Club hates it because there’s not much transit in it. The Tea Party hates it because it is a new tax.

      It’s like a horse. The Tea Party would hate it because it eats and they don’t want to pay for hay and Sierra Club hates it because it’s not a cow.

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