Group questions whether light rail is best option for Atlanta Beltline transit

Rail has been part of the plan for the Atlanta Beltline since it was envisioned by Ryan Gravel in a 1999 master’s thesis at Georgia Tech. But now a group called Better Atlanta Transit is suggesting there are better options for the trail and park system, including scooters, bicycles and autonomous vehicles. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Rail has been part of the plan for the Atlanta Beltline since it was envisioned by Ryan Gravel in a 1999 master’s thesis at Georgia Tech. But now a group called Better Atlanta Transit is suggesting there are better options for the trail and park system, including scooters, bicycles and autonomous vehicles. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

A new community group has launched a campaign questioning the need for light rail on the Atlanta Beltline even as MARTA and Beltline officials move forward with their rail plans.

The group Better Atlanta Transit plans to sponsor an opinion survey, debates and other initiatives to “kick off a public debate on the wisdom of building rail on the Beltline,” the group announced in a press release Thursday. Spokesman Billy Linville said the debate is needed because changing transportation technology and priorities have cast doubt on long-standing plans for light rail on the Beltline.

“Our priorities continually evolve, and we cannot get stuck in a decision that was made 20 years ago,” Linville said.

Matthew Rao, chairman of the advocacy group Beltline Rail Now, said rail remains the best option.

“We have not realized the true dream of our city to connect the 45 neighborhoods through which the Beltline travels,” Rao said. “Rail transportation has the ability to grow in capacity as the city grows.”

Rail has been part of the plan for the Beltline since it was envisioned by Ryan Gravel in a 1999 master’s thesis at Georgia Tech. Gravel sketched plans for converting abandoned rail lines into a loop of trails, parks and transit around central Atlanta.

The idea captured the imagination of city officials and residents. Much of the trail and park system has been completed. But plans for transit have developed slowly.

MARTA selected light rail as its preferred alternative for transit on the Beltline in 2012. Rail also featured prominently in a transit expansion proposal that Atlanta voters approved in 2016. And a city task force affirmed light rail as the best option in 2019.

Recently, MARTA and the city board overseeing the development of the project — Atlanta Beltline Inc. or ABI — have advanced plans for rail transit along the loop.

In April, MARTA approved plans to extend the Atlanta Streetcar east to the Beltline, then north to Ponce City Market. The agency in July awarded a contract to design the $230 million project, which would be the first segment of transit on the Beltline. It’s scheduled to open in 2028.

Last week, ABI launched a high-level planning study of about 14 miles of transit on the Beltline. The two-year study will identify the preferred route alignment and station locations in the northwest portion of the Beltline. It also will solidify the preferred station locations in the southwest and southeast quadrants, where the alignment has already been determined.

At a public meeting last week, ABI officials made it clear they expect the transit to be light rail.

“We’re not going to be considering other (transit) modes,” senior transportation engineer Shaun Green told dozens of people who attended the meeting. “We are moving forward with streetcar light-rail transit technology for this transit planning study.”

But as plans for light rail have solidified, so has opposition. Some residents fear rail on the Beltline will adversely affect the already crowded trail. Now the new group is raising concerns about the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, the destruction of trees, greater traffic congestion and the high cost of building light rail.

A 2022 MARTA study found that rail on just one 3-mile segment of the Beltline, from Ponce City Market to Lindbergh station, would cost up to $448.2 million — more than twice as much as originally projected.

Some members of the MARTA board of directors also have questioned whether it makes sense to extend the streetcar to the Beltline. On Thursday, the agency issued a statement that was hardly a ringing endorsement of Beltline rail.

“As you know, MARTA is currently under contract with the city of Atlanta to deliver the projects in the More MARTA Atlanta Program, which voters overwhelming approved in 2016,” the agency said. “The system expansion includes the light-rail extension to the Beltline.”

The new group Better Atlanta Transit says there are better transit options for the Beltline, including scooters, bicycles and autonomous vehicles.

“Cleary, there are superior transit options that align with new technology and the future,” Renee Glover, a group member, said in Thursday’s press release. “Rail is the 20th century. We need to look forward, not backward.”

At last week’s meeting, ABI’s Green said autonomous shuttles would not have the capacity needed to handle the number of passengers that will come as Atlanta adds hundreds of thousands of residents in coming decades.

Green said the number of shuttles needed to accommodate growing demand for transit would be cost prohibitive. And he said the rail line can be designed to complement the trail, rather than detract from it.

“The trail has been more successful than we ever hoped,” Green said. “We’re expecting something similar with the transit.”

Nonetheless, the new group plans to force a debate over the best transit options. Linville declined to name the group’s financial backers, except to call them “prominent citizens” and “civic and business leaders.”

“They feel like we need to make sure that wise decisions are made,” Linville said.

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