Buckhead is a step closer to gaining rail connections to the Atlanta BeltLine and Emory University, plus a slate of bus service improvements, after MARTA approved a “historic” system-wide spending plan Oct. 4. But the transit agency also tempered the excitement, as the sales tax money won’t entirely cover most of those projects, and a quest for more funding will begin.
“Think of this as a major and transformational down payment on our future commitment to the city and to the region,” said MARTA General Manager & CEO Jeffrey Parker in a press release. “This is an important milestone, but it’s not the finish line.”
The local projects are part of “More MARTA,” a huge transit expansion plan funded by a half-penny sales tax approved by voters in 2016. It is expected to raise $2.5 billion over the next 40 years.
But even that amount won’t cover such major items as building a light-rail line around the entire BeltLine or the new “Clifton Corridor” light rail between Lindbergh Center and Emory. Pressure from various interest groups prior to the MARTA board’s Oct. 4 vote led the agency to tweak the amount of “More MARTA” funds going to the BeltLine and the Clifton Corridor, among other adjustments. And MARTA promised to seek other funding sources, including private money.
It also remains to be seen how much money the sales tax actually raises. City officials are currently examining whether a separate but related sales tax earmarked for roads and sidewalks is raising less money than projected.
Meanwhile, some of the less construction-heavy improvements have already started or are more likely to happen soon, such as the bus service improvements on Peachtree Road and Northside Drive.
The “More MARTA” tax was approved with a proposed list of projects. Some of the biggest ones involved southeastern Buckhead, including constructing light rail on the BeltLine, a 22-mile path, park and transit loop being built around the city; building the new Clifton Corridor light rail line between Lindbergh Center and Avondale stations through the Emory University area; and adding a new station on the Gold and Red lines at Buckhead’s Armour Yard, offering connections to the BeltLine and Amtrak.
But MARTA recently said it can’t afford all of the projects — the Armour Yard station is among the casualties — and debated funding and construction priority on others. Major controversy erupted over MARTA’s plan to prioritize the Clifton Corridor and delay BeltLine rail or even change it into bus service or something else. In the final vote, both BeltLine and Clifton Corridor rail remain, but with funding earmarked only for segments of both.
In Buckhead, that would make Lindbergh Center Station a hub of those new rail lines. The Clifton Corridor would run between Lindbergh Center and the Emory University area. And a BeltLine rail segment would connect Lindbergh to Ponce City Market and other downtown areas. Still not funded at all is a “Northside” section of BeltLine rail that would run through southern Buckhead and was supported for priority by the Shepherd Center hospital, which is along the proposed route.
The Clifton Corridor is earmarked for $250 million of the sales tax money. A total of $570 million is devoted to various BeltLine rail segments, amounting to 61 percent of the planned route along the 22-mile circular park, according to MARTA.
Even the segments that will get sales tax money need further funding sources, and MARTA says it will work to secure it.
“MARTA intends to engage expertise in transit public-private partnerships to help us design a path forward for complete build out of the BeltLine corridor,” Parker wrote in a Sept. 27 letter to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms about the updated project list. “We will work in partnership with Atlanta BeltLine Inc. with the goal of having an actionable plan to leverage BeltLine and MARTA development assets to access private funding and financing.
This approach will prioritize joint development of transit and affordable housing along the corridor.”
Emory indicated a willingness to get involved in the funding campaign, too.
“Today, MARTA and the city of Atlanta made an historic commitment to public transportation and to the future of our community,” said Emory President Claire E. Sterk in a press release issued the day of the MARTA board vote. “The entire region is one step closer to a smart, sustainable and efficient transit network that connects communities as never before. Emory University and Emory Healthcare look forward to joining with businesses, government entities, and others who recognize the importance of this public transit opportunity and are committed to work in broad partnership to make it a reality.”
Buckhead is also marked for two significant bus route improvements. One is “arterial rapid transit” bus service on Peachtree Street and Peachtree Road. Arterial rapid transit means a bus that runs especially frequently and with priority at signals and in lines. The Peachtree route would run through Buckhead between Five Points station in Downtown to the Brookhaven/Oglethorpe Gold/Red Line station in Brookhaven.
The other major bus project is “bus rapid transit” on Northside Drive. Bus rapid transit means the bus would travel mostly in a dedicated lane. The Northside route would run between southwest Atlanta and I-75 on the Buckhead border.
Other items on the adjusted project list include more than $600 million for “high-capacity transit projects” in southwest and southeast Atlanta, including light rail on Campbellton Road and bus rapid transit between Summerhill and downtown; $238 million for improvements and route additions to the existing bus system; and $200 million to improving existing transit stations, with a priority list that does not include any Buckhead stations.
For more information, see itsmarta.com/moremarta.