MARTA’s Atlanta expansion: Moving forward under scrutiny

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

MARTA has begun construction of its first new transit line in a generation — a milestone that heralds an age of expansion.

The Summerhill bus rapid transit line in Atlanta is just 2.4 miles from end to end. But it’s the first link in a regional rapid bus network that one day may dwarf MARTA’s 48-mile heavy-rail system. And it’s the first line for a $2.7 billion transit expansion that Atlanta voters approved in 2016.

It’s a moment that might have inspired unqualified celebration. Instead, MARTA finds itself under scrutiny.

Critics cite slow progress on the expansion to date and decry what they see as MARTA’s shrinking ambition: It’s scaled back plans for some transit lines and postponed others indefinitely. Some wonder whether the delayed projects will ever be completed, and they’re pressing for an audit to determine whether Atlanta taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.

“The pace of projects execution to date calls into question whether they will be able to get everything done,” Atlanta City Councilman Amir Farokhi said. “But I’m hopeful that they’ll deliver on their word, and the city will be here to provide oversight.”

MARTA CEO Collie Greenwood said the criticisms are misguided. He said transit lines are large, complex projects that take time to plan properly — time that will speed things up now that construction has begun.

Greenwood said MARTA will complete nine prioritized Atlanta projects by 2028 and will eventually complete all 17 projects it pledged to deliver — despite inflation, unexpected costs and other challenges.

“It’s unfortunate that there’s this kind of asterisk to the story,” he said. “The story is, MARTA is moving forward. We’re really excited.”

MARTA is, indeed, moving forward. It plans to break ground on two more transit lines and perhaps the renovation of Five Points station later this year. Other projects will follow in Atlanta and beyond.

But as the construction picks up pace, so will the scrutiny.

Why the wait?

MARTA hasn’t experienced such growing pains since it completed its last rail line in 2000. For years it mostly focused on maintaining the existing transit system serving Atlanta and DeKalb and Fulton counties.

That began to change in 2014, when Clayton County voters agreed to join MARTA. The agency launched local bus service there the following year and plans to build two rapid bus lines by 2030.

In 2016, Atlanta voters approved their own transit expansion. As it did in Clayton, MARTA launched additional bus service in Atlanta while it narrowed a list of 73 possible projects into a program it could deliver.

In 2018, MARTA unveiled a final list of 17 Atlanta projects that included 29 miles of light rail, 13 miles of bus rapid transit, station rehabilitations and other improvements. The next year, it approved a timetable to deliver those projects.

It took an additional four years to break ground on the Summerhill line. Other major transit lines are still years away.

Matthew Rao, chairman of the transit advocacy group Beltline Rail Now, attributes the delays to a lack of urgency on MARTA’s part. He said it took two years after the referendum just to complete the project list.

“We weren’t ready to hit the ground running in 2017 with these projects after we passed the referendum and funded it,” Rao said. “Should we have been? I think there’s a case that could be made for that.”

Greenwood disputed the suggestion that MARTA has lacked urgency. But he acknowledged the agency has faced challenges.

For starters, it’s had to staff up for expansion. Greenwood said it’s “a work in progress.” A recent staffing report showed a 44% vacancy rate in MARTA’s capital programs office.

MARTA has also seen plenty of turnover in key administrative posts — including the top capital expansion officer and the CEO. And the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the agency as it sought to expand.

But Greenwood said the biggest challenge is that transit lines are complex projects that require careful planning and refinement. The Summerhill line, for example, transformed dramatically as it moved forward.

Originally, it would have stretched 9.4 miles from the Turner Field area to MARTA’s Arts Center station. The final design runs 2.4 miles from the Atlanta Beltline Trail to downtown near Five Points station. Studies showed it didn’t make sense to build a rapid bus line that paralleled MARTA’s north-south rail service.

Credit: Courtesy of MARTA

Credit: Courtesy of MARTA

Unexpected costs, inflation and supply-chain issues also affected the project. The estimated cost rose nearly 49% to $91.3 million.

Greenwood said it also takes time to acquire property, solicit public input and consult with the Federal Transit Administration on federally funded projects. But he said time spent planning will mean fewer problems for businesses and residents during construction.

He said the result of all that work will be “gold standard bus rapid transit.”

“It’s so easy for the detractors to sit there and say it should have been done sooner,” Greenwood said. “My answer is, no, it shouldn’t. When the project is successfully completed and serves this city for decades, if it took a couple of extra years to get us there, a true partner would think it was worth it.”

Shrinking ambitions?

Summerhill isn’t the only Atlanta project to see major changes.

MARTA originally planned to build light rail along Campbellton Road and the Clifton Corridor. Instead, those lines will be bus rapid transit. In both cases, MARTA said rapid buses would deliver travel times comparable to rail at substantially less cost.

City Council President Doug Shipman sees competitors such as Los Angeles, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Portland, Oregon, build rail lines. He believes Atlanta should do the same, taking advantage of increased federal infrastructure funding.

“If we don’t do it in this window, it’s hard to see a window in which we can make those investments,” Shipman said.

More changes came in March, when MARTA revamped the schedule for the Atlanta expansion. It prioritized nine projects to be completed by 2028. Others are on hold until after 2035.

Greenwood said priorities may yet change. He said city officials aren’t sure the Clifton Corridor and a renovation of Five Points station are top priorities. He hopes for a final decision soon.

Mayor Andre Dickens’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

MARTA officials say the original project list was designed with the information available at the time, but periodic reassessments are built into the agency’s expansion agreement with Atlanta.

“We know things change,” MARTA Chief Capital Officer Carrie Rocha said. “We know prices change. Costs change. It’s always prudent to go back and take a fresh look.”

Some city officials wonder whether poor spending decisions contributed to the new schedule. Last year MARTA admitted it had dedicated more than half the proceeds of the expansion sales tax to enhanced bus service and Atlanta Streetcar operations.

Through March, that’s about $226.4 million. Critics say that’s money that could have been spent on new transit lines.

MARTA officials say not all of the money set aside for operations has been spent, and some of it may yet be devoted to construction. Greenwood said MARTA scaled back the bus service enhancements during the coronavirus pandemic and may reduce it further when it redesigns its entire bus network next spring.

City Council members are pushing for an audit of the expansion program. They’re especially keen on determining whether taxpayers got all the enhanced bus service they paid for.

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

MARTA initially accused the council of “playing politics.” But it later agreed to an audit and is negotiating the details with Dickens.

City officials aren’t the only ones who want the audit.

“It’s our money,” said Sherry Williams, a southwest Atlanta neighborhood activist. “We should see where it’s going.”

An era of expansion

Such concerns were set aside on June 15, when MARTA hosted a groundbreaking ceremony for the Summerhill line.

Scores of people cheered the occasion. City and MARTA officials smiled and posed for photographs together. The speeches were celebratory.

“Today’s events are part of what voters expected to see from us when they overwhelmingly approved the half-penny sales tax back in 2016,” Dickens told the crowd.

There was much to celebrate. The Summerhill line will be something new for metro Atlanta — a bus route designed to mimic a rail line. Passengers will board at stations that offer seating, shelters and real-time information about arrivals. They’ll pay at kiosks, speeding up the boarding process.

The buses will travel mostly in exclusive lanes, allowing them to pass other vehicles stuck in traffic. They’ll run every 10 to 15 minutes.

Restaurants, shops and a Publix supermarket have already sprouted along the route. Dickens said the Summerhill line will be a magnet for economic development — one that could be replicated across the city and region in coming years.

MARTA plans similar lines on Campbellton Road, the Clifton Corridor, North Avenue and Northside Drive. Beyond Atlanta, it plans to build such lines in Clayton County, along Ga. 400 in Fulton County and possibly along the top half of the Perimeter.

MARTA also hasn’t given up completely on rail in Atlanta. A streetcar extension east to the Atlanta Beltline is one of its priority projects. Other Beltline rail segments and another streetcar extension are included in the second tier of projects, which will be built sometime after 2035.

The vagueness of that timetable has fueled worries that the postponed projects may never be completed. Those concerns were heightened when a former MARTA deputy manager claimed the Atlanta expansion faced a $1 billion shortfall earlier this year.

MARTA has disputed that figure, but it has not released its own estimate of the shortfall. Agency officials say it’s far too soon to know how much more money will be needed to complete all 17 projects.

MARTA says none of the original projects have been dropped from the expansion plan. Despite the hazy timetable, Greenwood said they will be completed.

Shipman, the council president, expressed cautious optimism about the expansion’s future. He believes MARTA will get better at delivering projects as the expansion continues.

But he also believes city oversight of the expansion will be essential.

“I would argue that the council and the administration are very pro-transit,” Shipman said. “These are folks who want to see transit, who want MARTA to succeed.”

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