MARTA’s Atlanta Beltline study worries transit supporters

March 25, 2021 Atlanta - A Marta customer enters the Five Points MARTA station on Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
March 25, 2021 Atlanta - A Marta customer enters the Five Points MARTA station on Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

MARTA will spend the next six months studying light rail along the Atlanta Beltline – a move that has sparked suspicion among some of the transit line’s biggest supporters.

The agency’s board of directors last week awarded a $500,000 contract to Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. for a comprehensive engineering analysis of light rail along the proposed 22-mile transit loop. In announcing the study, MARTA billed it as “a major step toward bringing transit to the Atlanta Beltline.”

But the topic of the study – the feasibility of light rail – has prompted the group Beltline Rail Now to ask MARTA to affirm its long-standing commitment to light rail along the corridor.

Rail transit has been a part of the Atlanta Beltline vision since planner Ryan Gravel proposed the 22-mile trail and transit loop more than two decades ago. MARTA itself has said it prefers light rail along the route. And light rail on the Beltline was a big selling point when MARTA asked Atlanta voters to approve a half-penny sales tax for transit expansion in 2016.

MARTA approved the six-month study as part of its plans to extend the Atlanta Streetcar from Jackson Avenue to the Beltline at Irwin Street and up to Ponce City Market. As it reviewed previous Beltline studies, MARTA says it identified several “design gaps that warrant further investigation.”

Those gaps include parts of the Beltline between Ansley Mall and the Lindbergh Center MARTA station and between the existing streetcar and I-20. MARTA said it also needs more information about connecting the Beltline to other heavy rail stations.

MARTA said the study is necessary as it seeks federal funding for the project. CEO Jeffrey Parker said the study is not out of the ordinary.

“This is typical for a project of this size, and this feasibility study will examine technical issues and risks involved in building light rail on the Beltline and give us a better sense of overall project costs and feasibility,” Parker said.

But that kind of talk makes transit supporters wary. They have repeatedly urged MARTA to speed up construction of light rail along the Beltline. As it stands, MARTA plans to build just 15 miles of the transit loop by the 2040s. There’s no timetable for completing the full loop.

Now transit supporters worry the agency will withdraw its support for light rail altogether – perhaps in favor of a bus rapid transit line.

In a letter to the MARTA Board last week, Beltline Rail Now downplayed the “gaps” the agency says it needs to study. It noted one of them is a city-owned parking lot, which the group believes shouldn’t be much of an obstacle.

Among other things, the letter noted the Biden administration’s call for spending tens of billions of dollars to improve public transportation.

“We respectfully ask that you publicly affirm your commitment to delivery of light rail transit on the Beltline,” Beltline Rail Now wrote.

MARTA Board Chair Rita Scott sought to tamp down some of the objections with her own statement on the study.

“When people hear of another study, they may be tempted to criticize this as over-analysis, but this level of due diligence is paramount to providing safe, efficient and connected transit, which is the goal of everyone involved in this massive project.”

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