Public confidence in the More MARTA program is strained; issues with drastic reductions in scope of the project’s original sequencing plan, as well as proportionally high spending on existing routes, and significant progress delays led to MARTA and the city of Atlanta jointly hosting three update sessions to inform the public about the More MARTA program’s resequencing plan April 18-20.
The sessions came after a resolution passed by the Atlanta City Council on March 20, which requested MARTA submit to a request for a complete financial audit, to be conducted by the Atlanta Finance Department.
In 2016, Atlanta voters approved a half-penny sales tax for the purpose of upgrading and improving the public transit system within the city, and more MARTA was formed as a partnership between MARTA and the city of Atlanta to facilitate the sequencing of 17 proposed projects over 40 years, utilizing the projected net $2.7 billion dollars from the self-imposed tax to budget. The plan looked to add 29 miles of light rail, 13 miles of bus routes, new transit centers and station upgrades.
In 2018, MARTA took over all functions of the downtown streetcar from the city of Atlanta. In the intervening years, MARTA spent $15.3 million of the More MARTA fund to operate, staff, and maintain the $99 million streetcar. Additional gaps in MARTA’s budget reporting brought criticism and discontent from Atlanta voters, whose support for the program relied on the belief that a large proportions of the funds to go toward upgrading and expanding the city’s heavy rail lines.
In response to the Audit request of the More MARTA program by City Council, MARTA released a statement calling the audit, “disappointing and disingenuous” and argued that it would further delay ongoing projects. MARTA argued its quarterly financial briefing for the program as sufficient reporting.
To address public scrutiny, More MARTA’s in-person and virtual updates sought to provide insight into the program’s approach to resequencing and prioritization. All three sessions were lead by Content Consulting Moderator, Contente Terry, and Interim Chief Capital Officer, Carrie Rocha. Guest speaker for the third session was Atlanta Department of Transportation Commissioner, Solomon Caviness IV.
During the first session, the speakers referenced light rail transit (LRT), bus rapid transit (BRT), and arterial rapid transit (ART) systems but failed to explain the acronyms of these various modes of transportation. This generated a lot of confusion for attendees unfamiliar with the terminology. The oversight was addressed and corrected in the second and third sessions. The definitions provided by MARTA are listed below:
- Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) an enhanced bus service that includes limited stops, transit stations and other features that mimic rail lines.
- Light Rail Transit (LRT) a transit mode that typically is an electric railway with a light volume traffic capacity.
- Arterial rapid transit (ART) a network of fast and frequent enhanced transit routes on existing high density, mixed-use arterial corridors serving “transit lifestyle” market areas.
The new sequencing plan separated the 17 already codified projects into two tiers. Tier I projects were promised to be delivered in a first phase between now and 2040. Tier II projects would be initiated at an indefinite date, dependent on additional funding from the sales tax, public grants and other resources. MARTA stated that its tiered approach was determined by the following factors: projects with funds already committed to by the state, competitiveness for additional funds, delivery phases (projects with grants tied to completion were already considered invested) and overall project stakeholder support.
“There’s lots of different factors that impact the list,” said Rocha on Thursday. “We’ve got external factors, we’ve got cost of projects, we all know we’ve had significant inflation. With those factors we need to sometimes take a step back, look at the list and make sure it makes sense. Sometimes things do change.”
One Tier I project that has been a large public talking point since 2019 is the Streetcar East Extension. It would be the first extension of the existing downtown Streetcar since its original opening in December 2014.
The first phase of the streetcar was not the success city officials thought it would be. The first year, the light-rail line offered free rides for a 2.7 mile journey between Centennial Olympic Park and the King Center. However, the estimated 1.1 million rides expected capped out at a little over 880,000 trips by the end of 2015. When the city began charging $1 to ride in 2016, ridership plummeted to around 371,000 trips a year.
Subsequent issues with inadequate staffing, safety concerns, and security investigations forced the closing down of the streetcar several times since its debut.
More MARTA plans for the streetcar extension to connect the downtown loop to the Ponce City Market, running along Edgewood Avenue to the BeltLine at Irwin Street and up to Ponce de Leon Avenue.
The project drew both support and backlash from residents of popular, high-income neighborhoods, such as Inman Park, Old Fourth Ward and Poncey-Highland. MARTA argues that the extension will provide a more equitable transit option and make good on multimodal promises made by BeltLine officials since that project’s inception. Opponents to the project worry that it will not improve the faults of the existing Streetcar and worsen traffic in the proposed zone.
The Campbellton Community Investment Corridor project was originally proposed as LRT along the six mile corridor in southwest Atlanta. In 2018, an estimated $311.2 million was budgeted for light rail between the Oakland City station and Greenbriar Mall. The budget also included an additional $5 million for a Greenbriar transit hub for local or enhanced bus service.
The Clifton Corridor project, originally also proposed for LRT, was designed to connect Lindbergh Center Station to Emory University, Emory Hospital, the Centers for Disease Control, Children’s Healthcare and Veteran’s Administration Hospital.
In 2022, MARTA announced the decision to pursue lower-cost bus rapid transit (BRT) for the Campbellton Road and Clifton Corridor projects instead. MARTA argued that bus rapid transit would cost less to build, $130 million versus $340 million for light rail, and be almost as fast, 18 minutes from one end of the six mile line to the other, compared with 16 minutes for light rail.
The decision sparked backlash from residents of southwest Atlanta, the neighborhoods of which make up many of the poorest districts in the Greater Atlanta Area. Residents cited concerns about how project funds are spent. MARTA responded, “neither light rail nor a specific amount of money was ever promised for the project.”
Remaining Tier II projects include expanded BRT on Northside Drive, construction of Beltline Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, and West segments, Streetcar West extension, building of Moores Mill Transit Center, and Vine City Station upgrades.
As of the publishing of this article, the majority of projects are still in the design phase. Only the Summerhill BRT project is in active construction.
Atlanta is one of the worst major U.S. cities in terms of traffic congestion. From 2020 to 2022, Atlanta’s population increased by an estimate of over 125,000 new residents according to the Atlanta regional commission, and the city has six of the top 100 worst traffic bottlenecks in the country.
Improved public transportation across the whole city is necessary to facilitate faster, cheaper, and safer travel for long distance commuters and light travelers alike.
MARTA and Atlanta City Council are soliciting questions and concerns regarding the More MARTA program via email: email@example.com.