LOCAL UPDATE: MARTA plan boosts Atlanta Beltline, cuts funding for Emory line

MARTA will spend more than half a billion dollars to build light rail along the Atlanta Beltline if a final transit expansion plan unveiled Thursday is approved next week.

The agency also wants to add light rail along the Clifton Corridor to Emory University and along Campbellton Road in southwest Atlanta. And it wants to extend the city’s streetcar line west to the Atlanta University Center area and east to the Beltline.

The $2.7 billion blueprint for Atlanta's transit future – known as "More MARTA" – is up for approval by the agency's Board of Directors Oct. 4. It differs significantly from a preliminary proposal outlined in May. Among other things, it dedicates more money for the Beltline project and less for the Clifton Corridor.

However, it does not provide all the money needed to complete either project. MARTA hopes to land private funding for both, and it’s counting on the federal government to pay half the construction cost for most of the plan’s projects.

In a letter to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Thursday, MARTA officials called the plan “an important milestone,” but said more funding is needed to meet all of Atlanta’s transit needs.

“As the past months and years of public outreach have clearly demonstrated, there is an incredible appetite for more transit in and around Atlanta,” they wrote. “The More MARTA Atlanta program will go a long way towards addressing the pent-up demand, particularly for the core of the system, but there are other quality transit projects that will require additional funding in the years to come.”

Bottoms is reviewing the recommended project list. Though the MARTA board will make a final decision, the mayor’s support is crucial.  She appeared to offer that support in a statement released Thursday.

"The More MARTA plan would enhance our public transportation system in an exceptional way – providing better, more efficient service that will have a positive impact on both economic development and quality of life throughout our city," Bottoms said.

Like the initial proposal, the final recommendation includes $370.2 million to build seven miles of light rail along the northeast and southwest portion of the Beltline. The final version of the plan adds $200 million as a down payment on another eight miles of rail along the northeast, southeast and western portions of the proposed 22-mile loop around central Atlanta.

Though the extra money isn’t enough to complete the eight miles of rail, MARTA hopes private partners will step forward to help cover the remaining costs.

In recent months, Beltline supporters have lobbied for full funding of the entire light rail loop. On Thursday, the advocacy group Beltline Rail Now issued a statement saying the revised plan "better reflects a vision for integrated transit across Atlanta." The group said it's certain more funding will be found to complete the entire loop.

MARTA’s final plan reduced proposed funding for the Clifton Corridor by more than $150 million and counts on private partners to make up the difference. The letter to Bottoms indicated the agency is working with Emory and other interested parties to find funding.

The plan provides $250 million in public funding for the Clifton Corridor, plus another $100 million “contingent upon securing full local funding for the project” from other partners, according to the letter.

In a written statement, Emory President Claire Sterk said the plan unveiled Thursday would be “a historic commitment to public transportation and to the future of our community.”

MARTA also changed its plans for Campbellton Road. The initial proposal would have built a bus rapid transit line along Campbellton before eventually building light rail. The final plan skips the bus service and focuses solely on light rail.

In all, the plan calls for building 29 miles of light rail across Atlanta, counting the partially funded lines. It also includes 13 miles of bus rapid transit lines, three arterial rapid transit routes, the renovation of existing rail stations and other improvements.

The release of the plan follows months of debate about how MARTA should spend the proceeds of a transit sales tax approved by Atlanta voters in 2016. The agency had $11.5 billion worth of projects to choose from, but the sales tax is expected to generate just $2.5 billion over the next 40 years.

“While it is important to recognize that this program is an important milestone in Atlanta’s history, it is not the finish line,” the MARTA officials wrote in the letter to Bottoms.