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Beltline rail advocates to MARTA: We want transparency, better public engagement

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An expensive rail line to Emory seems to be jeopardizing More MARTA promises of light rail on the Beltline

In renderings, a hypothetical streetcar sighting beneath the interstate.
How Atlanta Beltline rail could look, when the project eventually reaches Buckhead.
Rendering courtesy of Atlanta Beltline

From afar, it might look like a full loop of light rail along the Atlanta Beltline could be in contention with a proposal to bring MARTA connectivity all the way to the Emory University area that was recently annexed by Atlanta.

That’s not entirely accurate.

However, considering Beltline rail was promised when the multi-use trail project began, and was approved by Atlanta voters as part of a 2016 transit expansion referendum package, the prospect of MARTA’s board of directors using some $600 million in More MARTA cash to build a rail line to a place that only recently became part of the city might seem like a gut punch to Beltline rail advocates.

MARTA’s current project list calls for the buildout of 21 miles of light rail, although only about seven miles of that would be slated for development along the Beltline loop, which is ultimately expected be 22 miles in circumference.

On Wednesday, during a MARTA board meeting, members of activist group Beltline Rail Now! voiced concerns about the transit agency’s tentative priority list for that $2.5 billion of tax cash.

Beltline visionary and BRN! leader Ryan Gravel reminded attendees that the MARTA board approved the Beltline project—including its light rail component—in 2007.

“[Light rail] was a huge piece of the puzzle,” he said. “Transit has always been a part of the Beltline project, and we wouldn’t have gotten this far if it hadn’t been.”

Beltline-adjacent rail, Gravel said, “is late for a lot of reasons [such as the Great Recession], but now that we have the funding to build it, we should. We’re seeing a lot of uneven [economic] outcomes for the Beltline. A lot of them are due to the delay in transit.”

Boosting transit connectivity could help mend Atlanta’s severe income inequality gap, Gravel posited. Other speakers echoed that sentiment.

Cathy Woolard, another BRN! head and champion of the Beltline project during her time on the Atlanta City Council, told the board Wednesday that MARTA needs to step up its community outreach game.

“[MARTA’s] public engagement has been, ‘Hey, we’ll be at your neighborhood festival; come by and tell us what you think,’” she said. “This is far too complicated, and it’s $2.5-to-however-many billion in transit prioritizing that you can’t do at a park on a hot day at a card table.”

Woolard also lamented that MARTA’s board hasn’t been adequately transparent about how it came up with its latest priority list (outlined in the sidebar here).

“It is not clear how the priority decisions were made, and we’d like clarity on that,” she said.

Ben Limmer, MARTA’s assistant general manager, told Curbed Atlanta after the meeting that agency officials have been out on the town collecting community input, as well as hosting online surveys.

An early depiction of Beltline rail possibilities.
Beltline/Trees Atlanta

“Prior to releasing the list, throughout 2017, we did outreach for several months and gathered thousands of surveys, and that’s really what generated the proposed list,” he said. “So the phase of outreach now is to go back out to the citizens and ask them, ‘Did we hear you correctly? Did we get it all right?’”

Robyn Turner, another BRN! advocate, said the Clifton Corridor, which would link Emory to the Lindbergh MARTA station via light rail, shouldn’t take precedent over areas that are even more starved for transit connectivity—and an economic boost.

“It strikes me that the Clifton Corridor is a very affluent part of town,” she said. “And I don’t oppose the concept of rail on the Clifton Corridor, but I think it’s time to steer economic opportunity toward Southwest Atlanta, which has gone without for a long time.”

The future?

Brandon Sutton, a Cabbagetown resident and Beltline rail proponent, said he and his neighbors didn’t vote for the transit expansion referendum so they could pay taxes on projects that wouldn’t affect them—like the Clifton Corridor.

“I never imagined when I voted for the referendum that the biggest recipient of funding would be a corridor to an area that wasn’t even part of the city at the time,” he said. “The priorities as they stand now will have absolutely no impact on life in my part of town, but I’ll be taxed for the next 40 years to pay for them.”

Of course, some are staunchly in favor of the Clifton Corridor project and want people to know the idea didn’t just recently spawn out of thin air.

Betty Willis, president of the Clifton Corridor Transportation Management Association, which includes Emory and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the area is rich with well-paying jobs that even people without college educations could land—if they had a means of getting there.

“We are not Johnny-come-lately who have jumped the line once we annexed,” she said. “Connectivity to the Clifton Corridor has been on ARC’s regional comprehensive plan for transit since 1961, so MARTA’s been studying this project since 2000.”

Willis continued: “We’ve gone through dozens and dozens of community stakeholder meetings throughout the planning process. We’re now at the point where the environmental impact study is wrapping up, and it’ll be time to apply for federal funds. You have to have a local match to apply for federal funds.”

Still, asked how the rail line to Emory made it onto the priority list before the annexation was finalized, MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker told reporters, “I don’t know how or why it was.”

“We’re going through a public involvement phase, and it’s good to hear what the citizens and the community believe should be the priorities,” said Parker. “It’s good public discourse.”

The MARTA board is expected to vote on its list of transit priorities in September. Meanwhile, BRN! activists will keep fighting for a rail system they were promised more than a decade ago.

This article has been amended to correct a quote by Brandon Sutton. He said he’d be taxed for 40 years, not four. It has also been corrected to say the tax cash is from the More MARTA referendum, not the TSPLOST.