MARTA hasn’t expanded its rail system since 2000. But MARTA is preparing to bring new types of transit to metro Atlanta. The first new rail project would be a commuter rail line from the East Point station to Jonesboro and Lovejoy. Later would come an extension of the Atlanta Streetcar and other light rail projects. In all, MARTA plans 51 miles of new rail in coming years.

After 40 years of rail service, MARTA poised for expansion

MARTA launched its passenger rail service on a short stretch of track 40 years ago this month, marking the dawn of an era of transit expansion that helped reshape the core of metro Atlanta.

For the next two decades, the fledgling rail network grew west and east, south and north. Office towers and shops sprang up around stations. The number of passengers grew to tens of millions each year. All the while, MARTA planned to extend its rail network deeper into the suburbs.

It never happened.

Financial problems mounted. Suburban counties rejected MARTA. The number of passengers fell.

Today, as the agency prepares to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its rail service, the prospects for a significant extension of its heavy rail service are slim. But MARTA is turning to other types of rail as it prepares for another burst of construction.

It plans 29 miles of smaller and less expensive light rail in Atlanta. It plans another 22 miles of heavier commuter rail in Clayton County. And if voters approve transit referendums in other counties, more rail projects could be on the way.

A lot will need to go right for MARTA to build those lines. But if the agency succeeds, it would more than double the size of the existing 48-mile rail system over the next 25 years.

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Not everyone is sold on MARTA’s vision. Some metro Atlanta residents want to extend rail to more places than the agency currently envisions. Others say rail is too expensive and inflexible – especially compared to rapid buses and developing technologies like autonomous shuttles that could carry plenty of passengers for a fraction of the cost.

“I think we ought to be trying to build a transit system that will reflect a state of the art for the middle of the century we’re in, not the middle of the century we’ve finished,” said Kyle Wingfield, president of the fiscally conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

MARTA officials say rail does have a future – just not necessarily the one the agency set out to build decades ago.

“What our future looks like is finding smart ways to build transit connections to the heavy rail system we have,” said CEO Jeffrey Parker. “The future is bright. We’re poised for massive growth.”

MARTA General Manager/CEO Jeffrey Parker boards a train at the Five Points station next to a map of the rail lines during a tour in March. MARTA rail service celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and the agency is poised for expansion. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

25 years of construction

Massive growth was business as usual in MARTA’s early years.

The General Assembly created MARTA as a five-county regional transit system in 1965. But only voters in Fulton and DeKalb counties agreed to pay a 1 percent sales tax to fund the system.

The plan voters approved called for a $1.3 billion, 53-mile rail network to be completed by 1979. Predictably, the timeline proved too optimistic and the cost ballooned.

Construction on what was then called the “East Line” began in 1975. The first segment – a 6.7-mile stretch from the Avondale to Georgia State stations – opened on June 30, 1979. By then, the estimated price tag for the entire network had grown to $3.5 billion.

But hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the opening of that first stretch of rail, many of them cheering.

“This is a much better ride than riding the New York subway,” one passenger told the Atlanta Constitution that day. “I’m used to a real rugged ride in crowded cars. But they’ve made these all nice and pretty.”

For the next two decades, construction was nearly constant as MARTA expanded, laying mile after mile of track through the heart of the region. Eventually, it grew to 48 miles and 38 stations.

It reached what is now the Hamilton E. Holmes station later in 1979. It reached Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in 1988. It reached Bankhead and Doraville in 1992 and Indian Creek in 1993.

All the while, developers were snatching up property around some MARTA stations.

“Traditionally, Peachtree (Street) is where you put your big buildings,” one developer said in 1984. “But the future is mass transit. Access to transit is going to be the winning edge in this town.”

Sizable commercial developments sprang up around the Peachtree Center, Lenox, Arts Center and other stations. Companies like IBM moved to nearby office towers. More recently, State Farm, Mercedes-Benz and NCR have done the same.

In 2000 – 21 years after rail service launched – MARTA crossed the top end of the Perimeter, opening its Sandy Springs and North Springs stations to great fanfare. It bought land for a future station at Windward Parkway in Alpharetta — now a park and ride lot.

Elsewhere, it considered a new line connecting the Emory University/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention area to Lindbergh station. And it planned to expand west beyond I-285 and east along I-20 as far as Stonecrest Mall.

The question on many lips wasn’t “should MARTA expand,” but “where should MARTA expand next”?

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Growth stalls

But federal funding for new rail lines dried up. Sales tax revenue declined. MARTA’s financial problems – many self-inflicted – mounted. Critics said it was poorly run and wasted millions of dollars. For a while it couldn’t even pay its phone bills on time.

Concerns about crime rose, while MARTA’s political support fell. Suburban counties like Gwinnett rejected MARTA.

Meanwhile, transit ridership has been declining in Atlanta and across the country — a trend experts say is fueled by ride-hailing services, telecommuting, cheap gasoline and other factors. In Atlanta, much of the population growth in recent decades has occurred beyond the reach of MARTA rail.

The result: Last year, passengers took about 64.9 million trips on MARTA trains – lower than any year since the early 1990s.

Wingfield said there are few places across metro Atlanta that have enough population density to justify a rail expansion today.

“Could you have built more originally? Would it have changed some of those (development) patterns?” he said. “Maybe.”

But Wingfield said buses and ride-sharing services now make more sense. He said they offer “flexibility, in terms of following where people choose to live, rather than trying to drive development with transit.”

Others say rail is needed in certain areas.

“We can’t build roads that will get us out of congestion,” said Brian Gist, an attorney who specializes in transportation issues for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We need to have other options.”

Gist cited heavily traveled highway corridors like I-85, I-75 and Ga. 400, as well as the proposed Atlanta Beltline light rail loop, which would connect dense urban neighborhoods with bustling commercial centers.

Rail would be very expensive – MARTA estimates light rail would cost $75 million to $125 million a mile to build. But, unlike Wingfield, Gist believes transit should be used to direct future development.

“They’re expecting a lot of growth in the city,” Gist said. “Rather than spread the peanut butter across the city, cluster it in growth corridors.”

A passion for rail

In fact, some of MARTA’s harshest critics want more rail, not less.

Supporters have been pressing for light rail on the Atlanta Beltline for years. And south DeKalb residents have demanded rail service they say they were promised decades ago. Instead, MARTA and DeKalb County have discussed a bus rapid transit line along I-20 east to Stonecrest Mall.

“We’ve been paying for this for 47 years,” said Joel Edwards of the group Restore DeKalb. “Rail has been in the plan. Keep it in the plan.”

That passion for rail has lasted long enough to see a revival in MARTA’s fortunes.

In recent years, the agency has improved its bottom line and taken steps to enhance customer service. It’s won’ new friends in the General Assembly, which cleared the way for regional transit expansion last year. And, after nearly two decades of stagnation, it’s preparing to build more rail – just not the kind most residents are familiar with.

In 2014, Clayton County voters agreed to join MARTA. The agency launched bus service in the county months later. And last fall it announced plans for a commuter rail line that would link its East Point station to Jonesboro and Lovejoy. Construction could begin in 2023, with the first passengers boarding in 2027.

In 2016, Atlanta voters approved a $2.7 billion MARTA expansion plan that includes 29 miles of light rail, 13 miles of bus rapid transit lines, the renovation of existing stations and other improvements.

Construction of the first new light rail project – an extension of the Atlanta streetcar – would begin by 2025. Other segments would follow, with the full 29 miles of rail completed after 2040.

Significant hurdles to those projects remain. Among other things, MARTA must strike a deal to use Norfolk Southern right of way for the Clayton line and secure federal funding for all the projects.

Other plans for rail exist on paper but lack funding. DeKalb County is finalizing a transit plan that could include a light rail line as far as Wesley Chapel Road on I-20 east of Atlanta.

And Gwinnett County wants to extend MARTA heavy rail from Doraville to Norcross. Gwinnett voters rejected a transit expansion plan that included that project in March. But county officials have said they will bring a plan back to voters, perhaps as soon as 2020.

Throw in possible transit referendums in Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb counties – which could pay for a slew of rapid bus lines and other improvements – and MARTA may be on the verge of a building boom that would dwarf its early growth spurt. Like the first one, it could reshape metro Atlanta – but on a grander scale.

Progress seems awfully slow to some transit advocates. But MARTA’s Parker likened today’s projects – like the troubled Atlanta streetcar – to the initial Avondale to Georgia State rail line that opened 40 years ago.

It was the beginning of a bigger system,” he said. “If we had stopped there, we’d all be saying why did we do that?”

“The real success,” Parker said, “is going to be the long-term system that we’re building.”

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