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.
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