MARTA unveils revised Atlanta expansion plan

Some projects on track; others delayed indefinitely
MARTA plans to extend the Atlanta Streetcar east to the Beltline and Ponce City Market. It's one of nine priority projects the agency plans to advance with proceeds from a transit sales tax that Atlanta voters approved in 2016. (AJC file photo)

MARTA plans to extend the Atlanta Streetcar east to the Beltline and Ponce City Market. It's one of nine priority projects the agency plans to advance with proceeds from a transit sales tax that Atlanta voters approved in 2016. (AJC file photo)

MARTA will prioritize nine projects as it reshuffles its plans for expanding transit in Atlanta, the agency announced Wednesday.

By 2028, MARTA will build six transit lines and rehabilitate or build three transit stations with proceeds from a half-penny sales tax that Atlanta voters approved in 2016. Among the projects that will advance are the Summerhill, Campebellton Road and Clifton Corridor bus rapid transit lines; an extension of the Atlanta Streetcar to Ponce City Market; and the reconstruction of Five Points station and a platform extension at Bankhead station.

Other projects — including four segments of rail along the Atlanta Beltline and rapid bus lines along North Avenue and Northside Drive — will be postponed until 2035 or beyond.

The reshuffling of projects comes as inflation and unexpected costs have forced MARTA to rethink its plans for a $2.7 billion Atlanta expansion. CEO Collie Greenwood told the Atlanta City Council Transportation Committee on Wednesday that no projects will drop off its list. But some projects will have to wait until others are completed or other funding becomes available.

“The idea of spreading that peanut butter too thin and getting a little done in every area was not serving anyone,” Greenwood told council members.

Some council members questioned MARTA’s priorities, noting the agency has accelerated the timetable for the Clifton Corridor while other projects — including arterial rapid transit lines on Cleveland Avenue and Metropolitan Parkway — have been pushed back.

“People don’t feel like they got ‘More MARTA,’ ” Councilman Antonio Lewis said, referring to the title of MARTA’s Atlanta expansion plan.

The reshuffling of projects is the latest twist for an expansion program that has been a long time coming.

In 2018, MARTA approved a list of projects it planned to build with the proceeds of the sales tax. It included 29 miles of light rail, 13 miles of bus rapid transit and other improvements. A year later it approved a sequencing plan that put the rapid bus projects on a fast track.

But that plan has been evolving ever since. Over the past year MARTA has opted for bus rapid transit instead of light rail for Campbellton Road and the Clifton Corridor line from Lindbergh station to the Emory University area. MARTA says rapid bus lines offer travel times and amenities comparable to light rail but at a substantially reduced cost.

Meanwhile, rising costs forced MARTA to eliminate two proposed stations from its Summerhill rapid bus line along Hank Aaron Drive/Capitol Avenue. That project — the region’s first bus rapid transit line — is expected to begin construction in May.

Also limiting MARTA’s ability to spend money on new transit lines: It’s spent 46% of the transit sales tax proceeds to date on enhanced local bus service in Atlanta. That could change when the agency completes a redesign of its bus network next year.

In January a former MARTA administrator said the agency faced a $1 billion shortfall in its Atlanta expansion program. MARTA has said that is only one possible outcome, depending on revenue and expense assumptions. But the agency has been renegotiating its expansion plans with Mayor Andre Dickens.

MARTA unveiled the result of those negotiations Wednesday. It released a list of nine projects that will move forward for now — nearly $2 billion worth of spending over the next 10 years. The remaining projects are on hold.

MARTA has announced a new timeline for its Atlanta expansion.

Credit: Courtesy of MARTA

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Credit: Courtesy of MARTA

Council members grilled Greenwood about why some projects are moving forward while others aren’t. Lewis said he’s glad the Cleveland Avenue and Metropolitan Parkway projects are included in the priority list. But he noted their schedules have been pushed back a year or two, while the Clifton Corridor line has been accelerated by eight years from its original timetable.

Greenwood said the new schedules reflect where each project is in the development process. And he said the decision to pursue rapid buses instead of light rail on the Clifton Corridor was a big factor in its accelerated timeline.

“I would encourage you to see the positive in the fact that these projects are moving forward, rather than asking why some projects are moving forward faster than you think they should,” Greenwood said.

Atlanta Transportation Commissioner Solomon Caviness IV told council members the city would work with MARTA to ensure that equity and other concerns are addressed.

Nathan Clubb, a board member for the transit advocacy group Beltline Rail Now, said he’s glad the streetcar east extension to the Beltline is moving forward. But he’s concerned about the lack of detail about how projects that are on hold will move forward in the future.

“Is there going to be enough funding for that?” Clubb said.

The MARTA board of directors is expected to approve the revised project list in April.

MARTA’s Atlanta priorities: Summerhill bus rapid transit (BRT), Cleveland Avenue arterial rapid transit (ART), Metropolitan Parkway ART, Bankhead platform extension, streetcar east light rail (LRT), Five Points transformation, Campbellton Road BRT, Greenbriar transit center, Clifton Corridor BRT, enhanced local bus service.

On hold for now: Beltline northeast LRT, Beltline southeast LRT, Beltline southwest LRT, Beltline west LRT, Moores Mill transit center, North Avenue BRT, Northside Drive BRT, Peachtree Road ART, streetcar west LRT, Vine City station rehabilitation.