A 2014 report
by Smart Growth America listed Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta as the most sprawled large-city (population greater than one million) metro area in the country. (Read the full report here
) Atlanta is the “poster city of sprawl”, and since the 1990s, and especially after the Summer Olympics were held in the city, Atlanta’s geographic footprint has rapidly expanded beyond the city limits. Atlanta’s census-defined Metropolitan Statistical Area (not the larger CSA) is comparable to the size of Vermont and spans an astounding 39 counties surrounding Atlanta proper. One of the methods the Census Bureau uses to determine a metro area is commuting patterns. That means Atlanta is so sprawled out that a significant number of people traverse a distance similar to Vermont to go to work and back home every day in pollution spewing single-occupancy vehicles.
Logically, sprawl and public transportation are not well-suited for each other. Sprawl on any scale makes transit functions difficult and agencies bleed money sending buses and trains to the far reaches of an urban area in hopes of picking up minimal riders. In Atlanta, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) faces the unenviable predicament of designing a workable transit solution to the most sprawled metro area in the country. They’ve done a fairly admirable job so far, but nonetheless were the only large transit agency in the country to lose riders in 2013 while nearing the verge of bankruptcy after operating in the red for years. Shaky finances led to service cuts and fare increases that year which further lowered the system’s paying customer base. It was an endless cycle that made MARTA a favorite punching bag under the Republican-led Georgia Statehouse. MARTA remains the largest public transit agency in the country to receive zero operating subsidy from their home state government, and five years ago, it was predicted that the agency would be financially insolvent by this year.
Facing a sprawling service area, hostile political environment, and an egregious history of nasty racial politics that I won’t get into right now, it’s a wonder that MARTA was able to turn its situation around so swiftly and so remarkably in the past few years. Those of you who ride MARTA daily will have noticed that over the past year, MARTA purchased a set of sleek new natural gas powered buses to replace its aging diesel fleet and boosted service so riders wouldn’t be stranded on train platforms and bus stops for too long.
Then, at the end of last year, state Senator Charlie Bethel (R-Dalton) introduced an amendment to the transportation bill to allow MARTA to levy a half-cent tax on its participating counties. That this amendment appeared at all was a pleasant surprise for transit-watchers in the region, but that it came out of the Republican delegation was absolutely unexpected. Although it ultimately didn’t pass, MARTA is expected to lobby for it next year.
Additionally, voters in Clayton County last November approved a sales tax that will expand MARTA’s jurisdiction into the county for the first time, making it the agency’s first territorial expansion and signaling a possible growing support among suburbanites who eschewed the agency four decades ago when it was first founded.
Finally, Smart Growth America, the group that first issued the report listing Atlanta as the most sprawling region in America, released a report listing Atlanta as one of the most promising cities for future walkable urban development.
All of these positive developments for MARTA came on the heels of Keith Parker’s appointment as CEO of the agency. Parker, who rides the train to work every day, has gone out of his way to establish a strong working relationship with the Republicans in the Statehouse. A Republican senator who sits on the MARTA oversight committee and initially protested his appointment wrote an op-ed saying that he was wrong to oppose Parker.
In the past few weeks, local news began topick up on MARTA’s quiet $8 billion plan to expand the system. In fact, much of this plan has been in the works for years and has only needed funding to get the ball moving. A transportation tax proposal that failed in 2012 would have funded a light rail line (but many more roads and highways).
The proposed light-rail line on the Clifton Corridor, along with an expansion of the Red Line north along the GA-400 corridor, the Blue Line east along I-20, and a new commuter rail line from Clayton County using existing tracks, are the top priorities for the agency. These projects, along with a burgeoning Atlanta streetcar network and the Beltline corridor looping the core of Atlanta, could herald in a period of massive transit expansion not seen since MARTA itself was first established, if seen through to the end. So what do these projects mean for Atlanta? Take a look at (unofficial) comparison maps below and jump ahead for a description of each of the aforementioned projects.
Click here to look at MARTA's current rail map
Click here to look at an unofficial rail map of what MARTA would look like if all of the proposed projects come to fruition. Made by reddit user killroy200.
Clifton Corridor (light rail)
This proposed light rail line (purple on the unofficial map) would run through what is known as the “Clifton Corridor”, which is anchored by Clifton Road in unincorporated Dekalb County, just outside Atlanta city limits. The road bisects the Emory University campus and also hosts the neighboring Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with about 32,000 employees just between the two of them. Including 15,000 students and hundreds more hospital patients, plus additional workers, residents, and visitors traveling to and from businesses and homes in Emory Village, Emory Point, Sage Hill, and North Decatur, the Clifton Corridor Transportation Management Association estimates that nearly 50,000 cars pass through daily. Emory claims that this is “Atlanta's largest employment center without direct access to an interstate or rail transit service”. By all accounts, there should be incredible transit demand in this area, but there is currently little supply except for Emory’s private shuttles and the 6 Emory MARTA bus, and no rapid rail solution.
The new light rail line would connect the existing Avondale and Lindbergh heavy rail stations and would shorten trip times between Lindbergh Center to Emory from a current 25 minutes by bus to 13 minutes, and roughly an hour from the Atlanta airport to 43 minutes. In addition to the Clifton Corridor area, the proposed line would pass through many residential areas between Lindbergh and Emory, as well as Suburban Plaza and the Dekalb Medical Center to the south of the university.
The Emory/CDC campus was originally served by the city streetcars that were later torn down, and was a station in the original MARTA plans that were never fully built out. This new line has enormous ridership potential, and needs to be one of the first steps of any transit expansion in Atlanta.
GA-400 (Red Line)
This proposal would see an extension of the Red Line north of its current terminus at North Springs to the northern reaches of Atlanta’s Fulton County into Alpharetta, a city of almost 60,000. This twelve-mile expansion would add five new stations, creating a hilariously lopsided map. This area is populated with affluent bedroom communities, so NIMBYism is strong. The AJC was very diplomatic in reporting how the current expansion would unnecessarily cross the freeway twice in order to avoid certain communities based on resident feedback and recommendations, although the crossing does give the commercial districts to the west of GA-400 some love. (Here are the demographics and population figures for North Fulton, for anyone interested).
GA-400 is a parking lot during rush hour, though, suggesting that ridership on the line would be pretty healthy however the extension be built. Alternatively, MARTA is also studying a far cheaper option of running rapid bus transit along the GA-400 right of way. I personally prefer expansions within an urban core, but this proposal has already gone through many of the procedural hoops, and has healthy ridership projections.
Clayton commuter rail
Clayton County joining MARTA was a huge public image boost for the agency, whose critics have long pointed to its low public approval, especially in the suburbs, as rationale for their complaints. Although Clayton has experienced its share of white flight, to the point that the county today is predominantly African-American, a fellow suburban county to the affluent north, Gwinnett, has voiced support for joining MARTA in an approval poll conducted by the county chamber of commerce.
In any case, MARTA convinced Clayton voters to tax themselves to join the transit district partially by promising either a rail or bus rapid transit connection to downtown, with rail as the priority. Fortunately, Atlanta’s former nickname “Terminus” was earned because the city was the nation’s largest rail hub. Many of those rail lines still exist, with the one in Clayton County owned by Norfolk Southern.
CEO Parker told NBC that the negotiations to share the tracks with Norfolk Southern “looks promising”. This line would be the peach-colored line in the map above, and runs through many low-density neighborhoods. This is why a commuter rail line is attractive. Not only is it cheap and requires less capital investment than the other options (the right-of-way already exists), but MARTA could easily justify running just one or two trains per hour outside of rush hour times. For those unfamiliar with these trains, imagine Metra in Chicago, Metrolink in Los Angeles, or Amtrak.
Operating commuter rail would be a first for MARTA, and I think its best option. These tracks traverse all over the metro area, and although they are owned by various freight companies, imagine if MARTA could cut a deal to utilize them for inexpensive and quick access all over the suburbs!
I-20 (Blue Line)
I personally don’t support the expansion of the Blue Line (or Green Line on the maps above). Neighborhood density begins to decrease dramatically east of Kensington station. Although Lithonia Industrial Blvd and Stonecrest Mall has a lot of employment potential, spending money on the most expensive method - heavy rail - seems like a waste to me. I would suggest two alternatives: either a Bus Rapid route (as MARTA has already suggested) along Interstate 20, or a commuter rail solution similar to Clayton County. The right-of-way already exists and runs parallel with some of the existing MARTA lines, although I don’t know who owns it. This would allow MARTA to (theoretically) extend the line further than the current plan, east past Conyers and through Covington and even Social Circle without necessarily having to acquire significant right-of-way land parcels. A mixed bus rapid and a commuter rail solution would be desirable.
I do like the artist Killroy’s suggestion of express trains along the existing Blue/Green line stretch on the fantasy map.
The Beltline is, along with the Clifton Corridor, one of the most promising proposals that MARTA currently has in the pipeline. It is a former rail corridor that is the site of one of the largest urban revitalization programs in the country, by turning the right-of-way into a mixed use trail with lots of public green space. Already it has boosted urban development in the city core and attracted young millennials who prefer a walkable living environment. The plan would be to expand the Atlanta streetcar into the Beltline right-of-way, which makes a lot of sense to me.
The Atlanta streetcar as it currently stands is a million-dollar tourist trap. It has a beautiful logo (and coming from the Bay Area, I am jealous of MARTA’s superior branding, such as the “Breeze card”), but that’s all it has going for it. I once beat a streetcar from Peachtree to Centennial Olympic Park on foot. The problem is that streetcars inherently suffer from the same downfalls of both cars (traffic lights, other traffic) and public transit in general (frequent stops). It works well in a city like San Francisco because its density makes it an inhospitable environment for driving anyway and the city gave some of its streetcars a mixed-dedicated lane. But in Atlanta, where every street design was constructed with the automobile in mind, the streetcar simply can’t compete with the car.
I think the streetcar would thrive in the Beltline, where the streetcar would enjoy a dedicated trail along revitalized urban developments and greenspace, but not so much in the existing downtown streets. This is, of course, just my opinion.
An extra half-cent tax from the three MARTA counties - Fulton, Dekalb, and Clayton - coupled with construction bonds, real estate income from new transit-oriented developments
around stations, and matching federal dollars (if TIGER isn’t slashed) could equal up to the $8 billion dollars
for the next seven to ten years needed to pursue these massive construction projects. MARTA has spoken with Governor Nathan Deal (R) about various proposals next year to change and increase the agency’s funding structure to give it more stability and flexibility to spend what it has. Republicans in the Statehouse had previously limited MARTA expenditures to a rigid 50/50 system: half of all spending on operating costs, the other half on capital expenditures, but lifted this restriction earlier this year.
This is an exciting time for MARTA. With its relationship with the Gold Dome thawing, and ridership on the rise, the agency’s potential is greater than ever. Let’s hope that the current favorable political environment isn’t squandered, and the powers that be help shepherd MARTA into a better future. In the end, it all comes down to political will. MARTA CEO Keith Parker told CityLab that:
Certainly, if we wanted to be as efficient as possible, we would run only in the densest areas in City of Atlanta and a few other places, only run a limited number of hours per day and very little on weekends, and really only concern ourselves with people who could pay maybe a $5 per trip fare. I still don't think we'd make money, but the level of subsidy could go down.
But if we were to do that, think again about the impact of what that would mean to this overall region. If we just think about adding 100,000 new cars a day on the roads, what that would do to traffic, the overall environment, and the overall quality of life here in this region.
I couldn't have put it better myself. Public transportation is a public good
, and everyone benefits from it. It provides a transportation option for those who choose not to own or cannot afford a car. It gives its riders a congestion free commute experience. And drivers benefit from having less congestion on the road. As a region, Atlanta and its sundry list of government bureaucracies all the way up to the state level need to come together to support MARTA. Otherwise, Atlanta's legendary congestion will only get worse.