MARTA rep on Atlanta Streetcar extension: ‘This project is happening’

MARTA plans to extend the Atlanta Streetcar east to the Beltline and Ponce City Market. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

MARTA plans to extend the Atlanta Streetcar east to the Beltline and Ponce City Market. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Supporters and opponents debated the merits of a proposed extension of the Atlanta Streetcar to Ponce City Market on Thursday as MARTA continues to move forward with the project.

Supporters said the project will begin to fulfill the longtime promise of transit on the Atlanta Beltline and improve the streetcar by extending it to more destinations. Opponents said the extension will disrupt businesses and residents during and after construction, and they questioned whether transit on the Beltline is needed or desirable.

But as the debate ended, a MARTA representative offered a polite but firm assessment of the status of the $230 million project.

“This is happening,” MARTA Project Manager Bryan Hobbs told dozens of people who gathered at Haugabrooks Funeral Home in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood. “I’ve heard from the mayor’s office this is a project they want to go forward. This project is happening.”

The debate is the latest indication that some of MARTA’s Atlanta expansion plans may generate significant community opposition as they move from proposals on paper to the shovels-in-the-ground stage.

Atlanta voters overwhelmingly approved a half-penny sales tax for transit expansion in 2016. Since then, MARTA has planned a slew of new transit lines across the city.

That project list is now in doubt. A former senior MARTA official recently said the agency faces a $1 billion shortfall in its Atlanta expansion program.

MARTA says a $1 billion shortfall is just one possible outcome based on one set of assumptions about future revenue and expenses. But it is renegotiating the project list with Mayor Andre Dickens and plans to release a list of priority projects soon.

Both MARTA and Dickens support the streetcar extension. MARTA plans to extend the streetcar 2 miles along Edgewood Avenue, Randolph Street, Auburn Avenue and Irwin Street to the Beltline. From there, it would turn north to Ponce City Market.

Some neighborhood residents and business owners question the wisdom of the project.

Opponents say the streetcar — which runs on a 2.7-mile route between Centennial Olympic Park and the King Historic District — has been a failure. It’s stuck in traffic, little used and — most recently — out of commission as MARTA replaces the vehicles’ wheels. (The first streetcar will return to service next week.) Some fear that adding rail on the Beltline will detract from the trail, which is already packed with pedestrians, bicycles and scooters.

“The city is wanting to marry one of the best things it’s ever done, the Beltline, with one of the worst things it’s ever done, the streetcar,” Old Fourth Ward resident Fred Duncan said at Thursday’s community meeting. “And it’s not a marriage made in heaven.”

Others worry about the impact of construction on residents and businesses. They fear the streetcar won’t benefit their neighborhood once it’s open, and they say MARTA has paid too little attention to their concerns.

“We’re concerned about how MARTA has engaged affected communities,” said Julie Neighbors, who lives along the route. “It feels performative, rather than really hearing from those impacted.”

Matthew Rao, chairman of the group Beltline Rail Now, said bringing rail to the Beltline would help fulfill the original vision for the 22-mile loop. He said adding transit to the Beltline will help Atlanta accommodate hundreds of thousands of new residents in coming decades.

“Is what we want a city full of more traffic and parking?” Rao said. “I say no. We want the original vision of the Beltline, to bring equity.”

MARTA’s Hobbs said the agency inherited the streetcar from Atlanta and wants to improve it. MARTA believes extending the streetcar east and, eventually, west to the Beltline is one way to improve it.

Hobbs said MARTA will work with residents and businesses to address their concerns. But, when pressed, he made it clear the streetcar is coming to the Beltline and the proposed route won’t change. MARTA plans to begin construction of the project in 2024 and open the streetcar extension in 2027.

“Unless we’re told otherwise, we don’t see this changing at this point,” Hobbs said.