Mayor wants to delay Five Points construction amid MARTA audit

A rendering of the renovated Five Points station. Construction is scheduled to begin in summer 2024 and finish in 2028.

Credit: Special

Credit: Special

A rendering of the renovated Five Points station. Construction is scheduled to begin in summer 2024 and finish in 2028.

MARTA may be required to repay tens of millions of dollars to its own Atlanta expansion program – a finding that led Mayor Andre Dickens this week to ask the transit agency to temporarily postpone the renovation of Five Points station.

MARTA plans to close pedestrian and bus access to the downtown transit hub next month in preparation for four years of construction. But in a letter Thursday, Dickens asked MARTA CEO Collie Greenwood to postpone the construction until after the city receives a final audit of the Atlanta expansion program, dubbed “More MARTA.”

Dickens cited preliminary audit findings that include unspecified calculation “errors” that could require MARTA to repay $10 million to its Atlanta expansion program for fiscal 2022. The audit also found MARTA could owe an additional $59.9 million from the years 2017-21 – a figure that could rise.

“My team and I are in the process of reviewing these initial findings and we anticipate receiving the final report by late July,” Dickens wrote in a letter initially reported by Axios. “Given the significance of the insights expected from this report, I am requesting that MARTA temporarily halt the Five Points MARTA station project until we are in receipt of the final report and engage in subsequent discussions together to determine the best possible path forward for MARTA and the City of Atlanta.”

A MARTA spokesperson said the agency would not comment on the matter until Monday. A spokesman for Dickens also declined to comment.

City Council President Doug Shipman said he wants to see the final audit to understand the details of the financial concerns. But he supports Dickens’ call to halt Five Points construction.

“The preliminary findings are in line with the questions that I and other council members raised more than a year ago about the history of spending on More MARTA,” Shipman said.

MARTA is in the midst of a $2.7 billion Atlanta expansion made possible when city voters approved a half-penny transit sales tax in 2016. Two years later the agency unveiled a plan to spend the money on 29 miles of light rail, 13 miles of bus rapid transit and other improvements.

But those plans have changed over the years, with proposed rail lines on Campbellton Road and the Clifton Corridor evolving into rapid bus lines. Last year, MARTA revamped its expansion plan to focus on nine projects.

The agency cited inflation and other causes for the changes. But city council members suspected other reasons. Among other things, they found MARTA had spent far more than originally planned on expanded local bus service, which critics say came at the expense of new transit lines.

Last year the council requested an audit of the Atlanta expansion program. MARTA recently said it has turned over more than 24,000 pages of documents and submitted to hours of interviews for the audit.

Atlanta Chief Financial Officer Mohomed Balla outlined preliminary audit findings in a memo to Dickens Thursday. Balla said unspecified “errors in MARTA’s FY 22 calculations suggest a potential $10M transfer” to the agency’s Atlanta expansion account is needed. He said “discrepancies” from 2017-21 could mean MARTA owes the expansion programan additional $59.9 million – a figure that could rise as auditors complete their work.

Balla noted that many of the city and MARTA officials who made decisions about the program are no longer around, making it difficult to understand past decisions about the expansion. He also called for changes to the intergovernmental agreement that governs the Atlanta expansion.

“I look forward to the audit’s completion & Atlanta taxpayers receiving what they were promised by MARTA,” Councilman Amir Farokhi said on X late Friday.

Dickens’ call to postpone the Five Points renovation also comes amid criticism of the project, which includes some big changes to the transit hub.

MARTA plans to remove a concrete canopy over the station plaza, install a translucent roof, build new street-level bus bays and add green space. The agency has secured a $25 million federal grant and $13.8 million in state funding to help pay for the $230 million renovation.

To prepare for construction, MARTA recently announced plans to reroute buses that connect to Five Points beginning July 6 and to close the station to pedestrian access July 29.

Passengers would still be able to transfer trains at the station, and MARTA plans to temporarily reopen Five Points during the 2026 World Cup tournament. Construction is expected to be finished in 2028.

But MARTA’s plans sparked a backlash from city and community leaders. Some want the work delayed until after the World Cup and want Five Points to remain open during construction to ease the disruption for thousands of passengers.

Council members and downtown business leaders also have objected to MARTA’s design for Five Points. They say the street-level bus bays will hinder pedestrian access and detract from the kind of “city square” atmosphere they want for the area.

“Pausing the Five Points renovation is a smart move” in light of the audit findings and concerns about access to the station, Shipman said.

Five Points isn’t the only Atlanta project to spark controversy. MARTA’s plan to extend the Atlanta streetcar to Ponce City Market – a project that includes the first light rail on the Beltline – has prompted a backlash from some business leaders and residents.

Dickens himself has inched away from his longtime support of rail on the Beltline. In March he announced plans for four infill stations along MARTA’s existing rail lines – stations that were not in MARTA’s expansion plans. Dickens has not identified funding for the stations, though the half-penny sales tax is an obvious source.

In Thursday’s letter, Dickens suggested a delay in the Five Points project would give the city a chance to reassess its transit priorities.

“In addition to the audit, over the last year, we have identified other priorities that need to be considered before we move forward,” he wrote.

Staff writer Riley Bunch contributed to this report