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Metro Atlanta’s ongoing battle for regional transportation solutions

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For more than 50 years, MARTA has struggled to gain traction in the greater metro.

A map showing a northeast and northwest line, as well as a train branch to Emory.
Plans for metro rail transit in 1967.
MARTA archive

Regional transportation isn’t really metro Atlanta’s forte. At all.

But, believe it or not, there was a time when residents of the far-flung reaches of the metro area could hop on a train or streetcar to head downtown.

For years, frequent interurban streetcar service connected Marietta to Five Points; the line carried more than 3 million passengers in 1944 alone. However, the rise the automobile, shifting societal norms, and many other political factors led to the demise of the robust system.

By the 1950s, Atlanta’s once-thriving streetcar network was dismantled, replaced by buses; ultimately, the focus for moving the masses around the metro was placed on building out a robust highway system, laying the groundwork for today’s interstates.

The pivotal moment in the battle for transit across the region came more than 50 years ago with a now-infamous vote of five counties: Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb, and Clayton.

In the initial vote, only Cobb County residents declined to join the system, which still paved the way for the planning of lines to the northeastern and southern suburbs. But by the time it came around to funding the system, all but Fulton and DeKalb had bailed.

Construction began on the scaled-back MARTA rail system in 1971.

A map of the system approved in 1971.
via Reddit

Many explanations have been offered as to why the other counties passed on the opportunity to join MARTA. At the time of the vote in the 1960s, Gwinnett, Cobb, and Clayton were fairly rural counties, with just a fraction of the populations they have today.

There is also likely credence to the argument developer Mark Toro made a couple of years ago, in the wake of the failed 2012 TSPLOST vote: “It’s racism. We’ve got to recognize it and call it what it is.”

Of course, in the past few years, interest has increased for bringing transit beyond its current boundaries as density ramps up, traffic becomes more unbearable, and businesses increasingly use transit as a selling point for employees. And, surprisingly, one company could singlehandedly force the issue.

As part of Amazon’s quest for a second headquarters, the company has noted that transit will be an important factor in the decision. With Atlanta area municipalities vying to be selected, places like Cobb and Gwinnett now find themselves in an unfortunate condition compared to transit-minded neighbors, who now look prescient in comparison.

The Marietta Daily Journal reports that Cobb Chamber of Commerce leader Gary Bottoms told state leaders, “There may be a couple spots in Atlanta that fit [Amazon’s requirements], but it’s making it tough for Gwinnett and Cobb.”

Now, the question remains whether such transit-isn’t-evil revelations will be enough to overcome entrenched disapproval.