MARTA unveils details of Atlanta Streetcar extension to Beltline

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

MARTA has released new details of a streetcar extension that includes the first stretch of transit on the Atlanta Beltline.

The agency this week unveiled renderings of stations, crossings and other details of the 2-mile streetcar extension to Ponce City Market. It also said the project will affect 150 trees along the route and announced plans to temporarily close a section of Irwin Street to test the effect of allowing the streetcar to operate in its own lane.

The design for the extension is only 30% complete. MARTA won’t begin construction until 2024, and the extension won’t open until 2027. But the new details paint a clearer picture of a project long sought by transit advocates.

“It seems kind of pie in the sky until you start having these conversations,” Atlanta City Councilman Amir Farokhi told about 100 people at a community meeting Monday night. ”This is a formative moment.”

The streetcar project is part of a MARTA expansion made possible when Atlanta voters approved a half-penny sales tax for transit in 2016. The expansion includes bus rapid transit along Capitol Avenue and Campbellton Road, a new transit line to the Emory University area and a renovation of the Five Points station.

It also includes 15 miles of passenger rail along the Atlanta Beltline. The streetcar extension includes the first segment of the Beltline transit loop.

The extension also could give new life to a streetcar with a troubled history. The city-owned transit line cost $98 million — including $47 million from a federal transportation grant. It debuted in 2014 to great fanfare, carrying passengers on a 2.7-mile loop between Centennial Olympic Park and the King Center.

But ridership plummeted when Atlanta began charging for the ride. And state regulators threatened to shut down the streetcar in 2016 over inadequate staffing, a failure to properly investigate accidents and other problems reported by auditors.

Atlanta addressed the audit findings, and MARTA took over the streetcar in 2018. But a more fundamental problem remains — the streetcar doesn’t operate in its own right of way and is often stuck in traffic.

On Monday city and MARTA officials said they’ll address problems on the existing streetcar route. Among other things, they plan to deploy technology to give the streetcar priority at traffic signals to keep it moving.

But most of the meeting was devoted to the expansion. It would run along Edgewood Avenue, Randolph Street, Auburn Avenue and Irwin Street to the Atlanta Beltline. From there, it would turn north to Ponce City Market. The extension would include five stations.

Credit: Courtesy of MARTA

Credit: Courtesy of MARTA

Project manager Bryan Hobbs said MARTA will “maximize green space” along the line, planting hedges, shrubs and grass. It will use various types of fences to separate trains from pedestrians on the Beltline trail. And pedestrian crossings will feature signs and, sometimes, gates for safety.

The new transit line will affect about 150 trees. Hobbs said 111 will be kept and trimmed back, and the rest will be replaced with species with smaller root zones.

MARTA and the city also plan to close one block of Irwin Street for a week in October, though it will remain open to bicycles and pedestrians. The idea is to study the impact on traffic in the area if the streetcar gets its own right of way on that part of the transit corridor.

Residents who attended Monday’s meeting expressed concerns about the transit line’s effect on traffic, parking and pedestrians on the Beltline. Some also wondered whether the money for the project — estimated to cost $176 million to $215 million — could be used for transit lines serving other areas of the city.

Former state Sen. Vincent Fort asked why the streetcar and Beltline will get rail when Campbellton Road in southwest Atlanta will get bus rapid transit.

“There’s a lot of inequities going on,” Fort said.

Others welcomed the streetcar extension.

Michael Fleming, treasurer of the group Beltline Rail Now, believes the designs MARTA unveiled can be improved upon. But he was “relatively impressed” with what he saw. And he’s eager for MARTA to move forward with rail along the rest of the Beltline.

“We wonder where the money is to stay on schedule,” Fleming said. “The important thing is, this is proof of concept for the entire Beltline.”