MARTA drops rail plans for Atlanta’s Clifton Corridor

Agency opts for bus rapid transit on line from Lindbergh to Avondale station
Emory University students cross Clifton Rd on Monday, Feb 13, 2023. The agency announced Monday that MARTA has opted to use rapid buses instead of light rail for its Clifton Corridor transit line in Atlanta and DeKalb County. Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Emory University students cross Clifton Rd on Monday, Feb 13, 2023. The agency announced Monday that MARTA has opted to use rapid buses instead of light rail for its Clifton Corridor transit line in Atlanta and DeKalb County. Miguel Martinez /

MARTA has opted to go with rapid buses instead of light rail for its Clifton Corridor transit line in Atlanta and DeKalb County, the agency announced Monday.

The agency plans to build an 8.4-mile bus rapid transit line mostly along the CSX rail line between its Lindbergh and Avondale stations, via the Emory University/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention area. In coming weeks, it will decide whether to add a second enhanced bus line along Clairmont Avenue to Decatur station as part of the project.

MARTA officials said a rapid bus line could be built far less expensively than light rail but would deliver comparable benefits to one of the region’s busiest job centers. Given the costs and benefits, they said bus rapid transit is more likely to compete successfully for crucial federal funding.

It’s the latest sign that MARTA is backing away from some of its plans for 29 miles of rail that it unveiled after Atlanta voters approved a half-penny sales tax for transit expansion in 2016. Last year it chose rapid buses over light rail for Campbellton Road in southwest Atlanta.

Even so, the prospects for completing the Clifton Corridor line any time soon are uncertain. MARTA is negotiating transit expansion priorities with Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, who has questioned whether the Clifton Corridor can be built with the money available from the transit sales tax.

Even if Atlanta advances the project soon, the line likely would stop at the Emory/CDC area in Atlanta for now. Extending it to Avondale as planned would require funding from DeKalb County, which has not advanced a plan to pay for transit improvements.

“It is very clear from the city (of Atlanta) and MARTA leadership that this is an important project, and we’re continuing to work on it,” MARTA spokesman Greg Giuffrida said.

MARTA has been working on plans for the Clifton Corridor for a long time. But it has faced significant hurdles.

In 2012 the agency approved plans to build a light-rail line from Lindbergh to the Emory/CDC area. But CSX was reluctant to grant access to its right of way. So MARTA proposed tunneling its line beneath Clifton Road, which would have disrupted businesses and residents in the area.

MARTA also struggled to find the local money needed to match federal grants. In 2016, Atlanta voters approved a 40-year, $2.5 billion sales tax to pay for transit expansion. Two years later, MARTA produced a project list that included 29 miles of light rail, including 4 miles along the Clifton Corridor.

But its plan only included $350 million for the project — not nearly enough to build it. And $100 million of the funding was contingent on financial support from other unidentified sources.

Though a formal agreement has not been reached, CSX has recently expressed a new willingness to allow MARTA to use its right of way. That jump-started the project, as did willingness by key stakeholders such as Emory to consider bus rapid transit.

Last year MARTA announced it would revisit its longtime plans for rail along the corridor, adding bus rapid transit to the mix of possibilities. Last summer it released six possible light-rail and four rapid bus routes for public comment. It narrowed the list to one rail and two bus options in November.

On Monday, MARTA announced light rail is no longer an option.

MARTA has narrowed its options for the Clifton Corridor transit line to two rapid bus options.

Credit: Courtesy of MARTA

icon to expand image

Credit: Courtesy of MARTA

The agency says rapid buses and light rail would perform about the same, according to its analysis. A light-rail line would operate 100% in its own right of way, compared with 97% for a rapid bus line. Travel from Lindbergh to Avondale would take 29 minutes by rail and 31 minutes by bus.

But a rail line would cost up to $2.9 billion, compared with a maximum of $1.3 billion for bus rapid transit, according to MARTA. Operating expenses for rail also would be significantly higher — as much as $25.7 million annually versus up to $8.9 million for rapid buses.

The Atlanta-only portion of the bus rapid transit line — from Lindbergh to Clifton Road — is expected to cost $550 million to $700 million.

MARTA Project Manager Bryan Hobbs said those statistics would make light rail “the least likely to get federal funding.”

MARTA must still decide whether to add an “arterial rapid transit” line along Clairmont Road to Decatur station. The line would operate mostly in regular traffic, but it would have special features — such as technology that gives buses priority at stoplights — to keep passengers moving.

Reaction to MARTA’s plans was mixed at a public meeting at Emory University. Ryan Janco, who lives near Lindbergh, said he’s encouraged that MARTA is going with bus rapid transit over light rail.

“I think it’s a better use of resources,” he said.

Steve Routt, another area resident, was disappointed with the decision, but he said he understands the financial reasons behind it. He thinks rapid buses could work if done right.

“I just hope something gets done,” he said.

MARTA expects to make a final recommendation to its board of directors this spring. The public would get 30 days to comment on the plan before the board makes a final decision in May.

MARTA’s Clifton Corridor

MARTA will have two more public meetings to discuss its latest plans for the Clifton Corridor: