If Atlanta votes to expand MARTA, will others follow?

A $2.5 billion expansion plan for MARTA in the city of Atlanta could be the prod that prompts other jurisdictions to vote to expand transit in the Atlanta region, the system’s chairman said Sunday at an event to support an upcoming referendum.

MARTA Chairman Robbie Ashe described an upcoming vote in the city as vital to continued economic development and quality of life, and should voters approve, other parts of Fulton County and neighboring DeKalb County could follow.

Ashe also said the recent re-election of state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, the driver of MARTA expansion efforts in the Gold Dome, is a sign that voters are ahead of politicians on the matter.

Though Beach’s original $8 billion plan to extend MARTA rail to north Fulton and south DeKalb didn’t succeed in the Legislature, lawmakers did approve a path for Atlanta to chart its own transit expansion.

And Beach fended off a self-financed opponent in the recent Republican primary.

Ashe said decisions by companies such as State Farm and Mercedes-Benz and many others to locate near transit will help win the argument.

What Atlanta decides, he said, “pulls the rest of the region along with it.”

The event at Park Tavern in Midtown was held by Advance Atlanta, a group formed out of the Atlanta Regional Commission that aims at supporting existing and expanded transit.

Ashe said MARTA will go before state lawmakers next year with a plan to further expand the system in other parts of Fulton and DeKalb.

Ashe said the system has overcome its operational challenges and has the credibility to go before “investors,” or in other words the taxpayers, to be entrusted to do more.

“To transform the way Atlanta lives, works and plays, we need more money,” Ashe said.

The Atlanta City Council is expected to decide by the end of June whether to put a referendum on the ballot for this November. The referendum, which would only be in the city, would add a half-penny sales tax for four decades.

A second transportation ballot item is likely to be included which would be for a separate five-year tax that would pay for roads, bridges, sidewalks and dollars to acquire the last remaining pieces of Beltline right-of-way.

The MARTA project list hasn’t been finalized, but it is expected to include an improved bus network, an expansion of the Atlanta Streetcar to the Atlanta Beltline and light rail in its own guideway around all or a large part of the 22-mile trail and parks system.

Infill stations at key points of the MARTA heavy rail network are also under consideration.

Ashe said he expects the Beltline rail network and a start to the “Clifton Corridor,” a rail line to Emory University from Buckhead, to be included. The Clifton project, however, would begin only if DeKalb votes in the future for its own new tax for expansion.

Ryan Gravel, the founder of the Beltline, said the region is expected to add 2.5 million people over the next two decades or so, and transit must be expanded to accommodate the surge. Great cities, he said, “have layered systems” of transit that involve bus, light and heavy rapid rail.

Gravel said approval by voters will help complete the Beltline loop of parks, trails and transit he envisioned as part of his master’s thesis.

Gravel said what has made the Beltline successful so far has been the community taking ownership of it and engaging in meetings over years to shape it. Transit was always at the core of the plan to connect 45 in-town neighborhoods.

The Beltline moves through both fast-growing neighborhoods and ones that have been forgotten for decades. Rail has always been critical for the mobility of all residents, he said.

“This is traffic-free transit. This is not going to be stuck in a traffic,” Gravel said.

Gravel said he travels the world over to talk about the Beltline and the world is watching. He said light-rail on the Beltline will serve to extend MARTA’s heavy rail capacity. The trains will move a slower speeds than the main line rail and stop about every half-mile, with connections to the heavy rail trunk.

But unlike the Atlanta Streetcar, it won’t tangle with traffic.

Ashe, Gravel and City Councilman Kwanza Hall, who represents District 2, each said the expansion needs to be distributed across the city for fairness and maximum impact.

Hall laid out a structure on his district Facebook page including a vastly expanded bus system, infill MARTA rail stations and fixes to the maligned Streetcar. A project he calls the "S-train," which includes rail on the east and west Beltline trails and a crosstown route.

“I think everybody understands for our region to move forward we have to expand transit,” said Advance Atlanta board president Nick Juliano.