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MARTA 2040? Planner shares dream vision, opinion as crucial ARC deadline looms

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“Although rail expansion is contentious for its high cost, there is simply no substitute”

An illustration showing a hypothetical version of Atlanta’s MARTA transit with red and yellow and green lines.
Service to Cumberland? And Stone Mountain?
Nick Stephens

Nick Stephens, a Georgia Tech-trained city planner and editorial writer, is an impassioned urbanist to the core. When it comes to transit, given metro Atlanta’s anticipated population explosion, Stephens says the time to act is now. As in, today.

The metro’s 10-county planning agency, Atlanta Regional Commission, is accepting public comments via email (opinion@atlantaregional.org) until the close of business today (December 13). That input will help inform a 30-year transportation plan that ARC leaders must deliver to federal government officials by a February deadline, outlining which local projects might deserve grants from the feds.

Like Beltline Rail Now! advocates, Stephens stresses the importance of rail transit to the growing region’s mobility and success in this detailed Letter to the Editor and transit proposal, which includes a compelling visual. He writes:


This proposal presents the kind of critical, equitable and transformative transit investments that MARTA should make to continue thriving over the next 20 years. Some are long-proposed expansions, both to the heavy rail network and new light rail lines. Others are significant new routes that will provide crucial connections to major growth areas—many long underserved—and will be necessary to accommodate the anticipated doubling of the city’s population over the next 25 years, with significant growth throughout the surrounding suburbs as well.

Although rail expansion is contentious for its high cost, there is simply no substitute for the efficiency and capacity that fully separated rail offers. Atlanta residents inherently understand this, due to our traffic, and the issues with transit that shares vehicle lanes, and overwhelmingly requested the city “expand rail transit” as the primary objective in Atlanta’s Transportation Plan.

In the context of Atlanta’s inner core and outer suburb structure, MARTA’s heavy rail system is particularly well suited to accommodate trips of five to 25 miles, and this scale forms the focus of these proposals.

Much of this proposed infrastructure is at a time-sensitive juncture: a rail connection to southeast Atlanta has an extremely rare opportunity to be seamlessly incorporated into the ongoing redevelopment of the Georgia State Stadium area. Similarly, integrating rail transit as a central component of the redeveloped Tilford Yard (Bolton) should be a priority, not an afterthought. And continued redevelopment of growing job and residential centers with loyal transit ridership, such as Lakewood, Greenbriar, and South Dekalb, present opportunities for new transit connections in the near term that will only become more costly, and more necessary, the longer they are not implemented.

When MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker announced his $100 billion “moonshot for transit” this past January, it likely struck many as wishful thinking. But not only is it a necessary goal, given Atlanta’s growth trends, with the right planning and proposals, transit expansion in Atlanta can begin to correct decades of inequity that continue to plague the city.

Currently, the city of Atlanta has roughly 500,000 people, with the metro area closing in on 6 million; the city is just over 8 percent of the total “Atlanta” population. By 2040, the city is projected to have 1.2 million, in a metro area of 8.2 million, moving the city’s share up to 14 percent. This proposed system map would create a rail network that accommodates current and new residents in a comprehensive and logical way, leveraging the strength of the existing lines with new connections both within the city and beyond.

An illustration showing a hypothetical version of Atlanta’s MARTA transit with red and yellow and green lines.
MARTA 2040? The logic behind these ideas is explained below.
Nick Stephens

Three general concepts guided the proposals: 1) Demand, 2) Growth, and 3) Equity.

Demand:

Demand considers both existing and potential riders in areas that are currently underserved by rail transit. Job centers, residential centers, and major tourist destinations are focus areas. Individual destinations with over 1,000 parking spaces and no current rail service (including Stone Mountain Park, Zoo Atlanta, and Cellairis Amphitheater) emerged as obvious demand centers.

Growth:

Growth considers the patterns of expansion in Atlanta and the ideal scale of a system to balance Atlanta’s core with the suburbs. It considers the corridors identified in Atlanta City Design as growth areas, where large transit infrastructure could be more easily accommodated.

Equity:

Equity considers longstanding imbalances in transit service in metro Atlanta, while also factoring in the ways that expanded rail transit will help address the broader causes of ongoing injustices. The proposals presented are structured so that rail transit is represented more evenly across Atlanta’s four quadrants.


Previously proposed expansions:

Gold Line extension into Gwinnett County

This long-proposed expansion is obvious, foremost for Gwinnett’s massive population, as well as the increasing densification along the corridor where the proposed line will be built. Although growth in the county has slowed since the 1990s, by 2040 Gwinnett is projected to have roughly 1.5 million people, making it Georgia’s most populous county. Additionally, the proposed corridor runs directly through the core of Gwinnett’s lower income tracts.

Clifton Corridor Light Rail

This proposed light rail corridor is also an obvious choice, for providing transit service to the massive job centers of the CDC and Emory University, as well as serving growth along the Cheshire Bridge Road corridor and providing an important connection between northeast Atlanta neighborhoods and Buckhead.

Red Line extension on Ga. Highway 400

This proposed expansion extends the reach of the red line to major corridors in North Fulton county. Currently proposed as BRT, it makes sense to begin by testing that technology, and if successful, to eventually convert to heavy rail, if demand requires.

Langford Parkway BRT/Light Rail

A transit line along the center of Langford Parkway has been considered for many years. In the Atlanta City Design book, it was proposed as a Bus Rapid Transit Line with potential for light rail.

A critical change proposed here is to extend the line east, past the current Lakewood-Fort McPherson station to the actual Lakewood site, where the Cellairis Amphitheatre and the EUE/Screen Gems studios anchor a destination that continues to see growth in the surrounding neighborhoods.


Newly Proposed Expansions:

Green Line expansion into northwest Atlanta (with potential to continue to Cumberland)

This proposal harkens back to the original MARTA plan for the Proctor Creek line, which proposed two stops, the existing one at Bankhead, and another one at Perry Homes, now West Highlands. Currently, expanding the Bankhead station to accommodate 8-car trains is a top priority for More MARTA (scheduled to be operational by 2025), given the growth anticipated in the area with projects like Quarry Yards. This proposal builds on the value of that anticipated growth as it expands around the Westside Park and communities farther northwest.

The original proposed alignment followed the transmission corridor, which now runs through the soon-to-be-opened Westside Park. This new route parallels an existing CSX freight track north to a large site on West Marietta Street slated for redevelopment (and proposed as part of an Amazon HQ2 site). It then continues west along Perry Boulevard to West Highlands, the mixed-income community with more than 1,000 units, (with additional housing under construction). The route then continues across the Norfolk Southern-Inman Yard to the site of the closed Tilford Yard, currently awaiting redevelopment, amidst the growing Bolton area.

If the day comes that Cobb County residents see the inherent value of (returning to) rail service to Atlanta, the line could be extended along the existing freight rail corridor across the Chattahoochee, paralleling Atlanta Road to the booming intersection at I-285, and then continue on I-285 to Cumberland (and potentially Marietta), similar to the River line streetcar/Atlanta-Marietta interurban route that was fundamental to the area’s growth in the early 20th century.

GoldLine expansion into southeast Atlanta/south Dekalb

This route presents an enormous opportunity to bring rail directly into southeast Atlanta neighborhoods, continuing (as previously proposed) via the I-20 corridor to south Dekalb County.

Beginning in 2012, MARTA explored options for I-20 East expansion including rail, but ultimately settled on a proposed BRT line with only three stops in the city (at Bill Kennedy, Moreland, and Glenwood). That proposal for Bus Rapid Transit along I-20 would do little to provide improved service to residents of neighborhoods including Grant Park, Ormewood Park, and East Atlanta, because it avoids primary destinations in those areas, including Grant Park/Zoo Atlanta and East Atlanta Village.

This proposal combines the benefits of a proposed BRT route to south DeKalb, while providing service truly integrated with the massive potential ridership in SE Atlanta intown neighborhoods.

Green Line expansion to Stone Mountain

This proposal follows an existing freight rail line to three underserved and growing communities: Scottdale, Clarkston, and Stone Mountain. While these cities may seem small to justify a heavy rail line, they are primed to become high-ridership areas based on their demographics and available land for Transit Oriented Developments (TOD). Stone Mountain also happens to include the most visited tourist destination in the state—Stone Mountain Park.


Notes on other transit proposals:

Beltline Streetcar

Arguably the most contentious question in Atlanta transit planning, the Beltline is now a true conundrum of its own success, demonstrating that with large public infrastructure projects, if you build it (and market it well to developers), they will come.

Despite the potential of the fully constructed loop to connect intown neighborhoods, there are definite questions about the value of the system given its constraints, namely speed, and its limited service area. The currently proposed routes for transit all have fundamental flaws.

Foremost, linking it to the disastrous downtown Streetcar is likely to continue that disaster rather than resolve it. Streetcars in mixed traffic on small streets with numerous turns are a recipe for especially slow service that simply adds to congestion. Similarly, components of even the full loop face the same challenge, including mixed traffic on Bill Kennedy Way and on sections in Northwest Atlanta.

The Beltline seems to represent the potential to try something truly innovative with regards to transit, as others have proposed.

Currently, it is serving two distinct categories of users: wheeled (including powered scooters and e-bikes) averaging around 8 to 10 miles per hour (up to 20 miles per hour), and walking (generally less than 3 miles per hour). Many people have begun to recognize the need to separate these categories, which leads to the conclusion that an additional path be created simply for foot traffic.

A possible solution would be to expand the paved area to 20 to 24 feet, creating two lanes to accommodate wheeled users (including small autonomous electric shuttles for up to 15 people) and adding a separate 12-foot crushed stone path for walkers and joggers, similar to the one in Piedmont Park’s active oval.

Memorial Drive BRT

Atlanta City Design proposed a Bus Rapid Transit line from Five Points east along Memorial Drive. While useful in theory, this concept lacks the most fundamental requirement of Bus Rapid Transit: full separation of vehicles. Long sections of Memorial Drive are currently three lanes, not wide enough to accommodate two BRT lanes in addition to two travel lanes.

A possible solution would be to have a single direction BRT lane, west for morning commute and east in the afternoon. However, this would still encounter significant challenges with Memorial’s recent reconfiguration, which has one east and one west travel lane, and uses the center lane as a turning lane.