MARTA board approves Atlanta Streetcar extension

Next up: Design decisions that some say will make or break the project
Some Old Fourth Ward residents oppose extending the Atlanta Streetcar's route to Ponce City Market, but the transit agency's board approved the plan Thursday. Construction will begin next year, and service on the extension is scheduled to start in 2027. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Some Old Fourth Ward residents oppose extending the Atlanta Streetcar's route to Ponce City Market, but the transit agency's board approved the plan Thursday. Construction will begin next year, and service on the extension is scheduled to start in 2027. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

MARTA has agreed to extend the Atlanta Streetcar east to Ponce City Market. Now it must decide how much money it can afford to spend making it aesthetically pleasing at a time of rising costs.

The MARTA board of directors Thursday approved a streetcar route that runs east along city streets to the Atlanta Beltline, then north along the trail to the market. The route includes five stations.

The move was a formality — MARTA and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens have made it clear for months that the project would move forward. But the project has drawn significant neighborhood opposition and questions about whether it makes sense to extend a streetcar that is considered by many residents to be a failure.

Several board members questioned the wisdom of the project. But the measure passed by a vote of 8-0, with two members abstaining. Critics on the board noted it’s a priority for the mayor, and the $230 million streetcar extension will be paid for with Atlanta taxpayers’ money.

“It’s Atlanta’s money and the mayor has made it a priority,” Chairman Thomas Worthy said.

The project now moves to the final design phase, where more controversy is expected. Supporters and critics of the project alike are concerned that MARTA will skimp on the design — favoring something utilitarian but ugly instead of spending extra money to design something attractive.

“Now is the time to assure that this thing is going to look beautiful,” said Matthew Rao, chairman of the advocacy group Beltline Rail Now. “The Beltline was not intended to be a nature trail. But it was not intended to be ugly, either.”

The Beltline was conceived as a 22-mile loop of transit, trails and parks around central Atlanta. Parks and trails have materialized, but the streetcar extension would provide the first transit on the loop.

But even transit advocates acknowledge the streetcar is not a perfect vehicle for their dream project. The existing 2.7-mile streetcar route between Centennial Olympic Park and the King Historic District, which began service in 2014, has been a disappointment.

It’s often stuck in traffic. Ridership has been anemic. In November, MARTA took the streetcar vehicles out of service because of safety concerns, though it began restoring rail service along the route last month.

MARTA, which took over the streetcar from Atlanta in 2018, says more people will ride if the line goes more places. The 2-mile extension runs along Edgewood Avenue, Randolph Street, Auburn Avenue and Irwin Street to the Beltline. It then turns north to the market.

A look at MARTA's proposed extension of the Atlanta streetcar to Ponce City Market.

Credit: Courtesy of MARTA

icon to expand image

Credit: Courtesy of MARTA

But neighborhood opposition has surfaced since MARTA unveiled its plans in September. Some residents worry the streetcar will lead to traffic disruptions, noise and other hassles. They’ve asked MARTA to consider autonomous vehicles or other alternatives along the route.

Jennifer Bentson, an Old Fourth Ward resident leading the opposition, wants to halt the project until after an expected audit of the agency’s Atlanta expansion program called More MARTA.

“Why do we have to move forward with it right this minute?” Bentson said. “There’s supposed to be an audit.”

MARTA has made it clear the project is moving forward with Dickens’ support. The streetcar made the list of nine priority Atlanta expansion projects recently negotiated by the mayor and the transit agency.

Thursday’s board action was the latest confirmation the project will move forward.

“Transit on the Atlanta BeltLine was part of the More MARTA package that voters approved in 2016 and delivery of Streetcar East Extension is another step in realizing that vision,” Carrie Rocha, MARTA’s interim chief capital officer, said in a prepared statement. “This project is one of the nine that the Dickens Administration wants to focus on delivering by 2028.”

Now comes the hard part: Designing a transit line that will live up to expectations. That may prove difficult at a time of high inflation and rising project costs.

For example, transit advocates want features such as grassy instead of concrete rail beds and shrubs or other greenery instead of fences to separate the trains from pedestrians on the trail. Those kinds of amenities could cost more at a time when MARTA may want to trim expenses.

Last week the Atlanta Business Chronicle reported that some businesses along the route might be willing to provide funding to pay for a better design. The article quoted concerns from Mike Greene, a vice president at Portman Holdings, which is developing property along the route.

Greene declined to comment. But at a recent community meeting, he said the project design could hinder or improve pedestrian access to local businesses.

“What I’m focused on is making sure the execution of the streetcar doesn’t sacrifice (pedestrian) activity,” Greene said.

The design of the streetcar extension is 30% complete. MARTA expects to seek proposals from companies to complete the design any day and begin final design in July.

MARTA plans to begin construction of the extension in 2024 and begin the service in 2027.

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