Debate over Atlanta Beltline rail heats up

Stakeholders on both sides agree more research is needed
Members of the Inman Park community gather for a panel discussion about transportation on The Beltline at The Trolley Barn in Atlanta  on Monday, March 11, 2024. (Natrice Miller/

Members of the Inman Park community gather for a panel discussion about transportation on The Beltline at The Trolley Barn in Atlanta on Monday, March 11, 2024. (Natrice Miller/

Editor’s note: The Trolley Barn was home to one of the country’s earliest electric car systems. A previous version of this story misstated the Trolley Barn’s historic significance. The story has been altered to reflect the correction.

Upwards of 200 people gathered Monday evening at the historic Trolley Barn in Inman Park — once home to one of the country’s earliest electric streetcar systems — to weigh in on what they want modern-day mass transportation to look like along Atlanta’s Beltline.

The crowd was filled mainly with residents against the long-standing proposal of installing a light rail line that would run along the popular 22-mile trail loop.

“We’re free to agree or disagree with each other,” said Bill Bolling, the moderator and founder of the Atlanta Community Foodbank. “I know that everybody here in the room doesn’t agree with one point of view and that’s part of the reason we’re here.”

But mixed in with the crowd were proponents of the plan, including city department heads, Beltline staff and supportive community members who want to see MARTA extend its eastside streetcar.

The $230-million project would lengthen the streetcar from downtown to Ponce City Market and is funded by More MARTA money — funds approved by Atlanta voters in 2016 to go toward transit expansion.

Supporters see rail transit along the city’s iconic trail as a way to alleviate pressure from the underused and unpopular MARTA public transportation system and as a way to connect dozens of Atlanta neighborhoods and reduce economic development disparities between them.

MARTA plans to extend the Atlanta streetcar east to the Beltline and Ponce City Market.

Credit: Courtesy of MARTA

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Credit: Courtesy of MARTA

But since the Beltline’s inception, residents have grown to love the easily-traversed corridor that — in its most bustling stretches — is often shoulder-to-shoulder with foot traffic. Community members against the idea of light rail share concerns over the system’s noise and speed, cost to ride and ridership levels.

In a Monday editorial board meeting with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Beltline leadership said the project’s design is only 30% done, so there’s ample time to engage with impacted communities.

“(Since) the More MARTA sales tax was passed about eight years ago, there’s just been a gulf of new information — perhaps misinformation out there — about what Beltline transit is to be,” Beltline CEO Clyde Higgs said. “I just think the general public needs the information.”

“In this calendar year for sure, you will see efforts from Beltline, from MARTA, from the city just to do some level-setting so that people are all working from the same set of facts,” he said.

Former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin speaks during a panel discussion about transportation on The Beltline at The Trolley Barn in Atlanta on Monday, March 11, 2024. (Natrice Miller/

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Organized opposition

When Mayor Shirley Franklin was pitched the Beltline project some 20 years ago by then-City Council President Cathy Woolard, Franklin said at the time that she didn’t want another massive infrastructure project with all the work she was pouring into the city’s water and sewer system.

Fast forward two decades to last weekend, the former mayor said she shared tea on the trail with a fourth-grade student who asked to interview her for Women’s History Month.

“We wouldn’t be in this room unless we were trying to protect something,” Franklin said Monday. “People will try to protect what they believe is good or advance something that they believe is good.”

Transit connected to the Beltline has been part of its plan since it was first proposed by Georgia Tech student Ryan Gravel in his master’s thesis. But a recent community campaign against the idea questions whether any new transportation is needed.

Members of the Inman Park community gather for a panel discussion about transportation on The Beltline at The Trolley Barn in Atlanta on Monday, March 11, 2024. (Natrice Miller/

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The group Better Atlanta Transit has begun posting regular, anti-rail newsletters, as well as enlisted Atlanta leaders — like former Atlanta Housing Authority President Renee Glover, who joined Franklin onstage at Monday’s event — to speak out against current plans.

Glover and Matt Bronfman, CEO of Jamestown which owns Ponce City Market, penned a recent AJC op-ed against the Beltline rail plan. And other prominent development community members, such as Portman CEO Ambrish Baisiwala, have made their skepticism more known in recent months.

“The Beltline is just going to get dominated by that rail, and I just feel like that’s a mistake,” Baisiwala told the AJC in December. “It’s like someone saying: ‘Let’s pick a really good coastline and then let’s put a highway right where the beach is.’ That’s what it feels like to me.”

But despite a crowded room Monday, supporters said the questions from the audience gave them optimism that transit along the Beltline will eventually be a reality.

“I’d love to see that questioning turned into advocacy for getting the project that we want,” said Matthew Rao, chair of Beltline Rail Now. “We won’t get to other parts of the city unless we start somewhere. And this is the place we can start.”

Atlanta leaders are pushing for a light rail along the city's 22-mile trail system that connects dozens of intown Atlanta neighborhoods.

Credit: Courtesy of the Atlanta BeltLine, Inc

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Credit: Courtesy of the Atlanta BeltLine, Inc

Where does the mayor stand?

Both rail proponents and opponents are keenly aware of the most important ally up for grabs in the fight: Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens.

“It is the mayor — who’s been a loud supporter of the project — who needs to remain behind the project if what we want to do is to extend opportunity, upward mobility and all the things in life that the Eastside trail has to offer to all of Atlanta,” said Rao.

With an engineering degree from Georgia Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in public administration from Georgia State University, the first-term mayor may be uniquely qualified to offer his opinion on the long-standing project.

Dickens had his own questions about the current proposal during an AJC editorial meeting in February.

The mayor said that he’s asked Beltline leadership to answer a myriad of important questions from how much Beltline rail would cost for riders, how fast will it move and how many residents are expected to actually utilize transportation along the trail.

“I have always been supportive of some transit on the Beltline, but I’m also sober and aware enough to know that our 20-year vision from when Ryan Gravel and company came up with it, now 20 years later, we’ve got to look at how real is it?” he said.

“If we find that that’s not viable, (there’s) no reason to build something that’s not going to be used,” Dickens said.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens at the ribbon cutting for the opening of Parkside, a new affordable housing community on the Beltline Westside trail on Wednesday June 1, 2022. (Natrice Miller /

Credit: Natrice Miller /

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Credit: Natrice Miller /

Higgs said the mayor — who he called “pro-transit” — has requested Beltline staff to dig deeper into the numbers attached to the plan.

“There’s going to be surveys just to get a better sense from the community about their desire for future Beltline transit and it’s going to give us an opportunity to do a lot of studying,” he said. “That is ridership, it’s public sentiment, it’s a number of things that we’re going to investigate.”

Higgs maintained that opposition to the project has been fueled by misinformation about what the transit system would actually look like.

“I respect what (opponents) are saying and that’s why we have to get people underneath the common tent and have this conversation,” he said. “But I just don’t believe we’re all working from the same set of facts.”