MARTA plan may boost Atlanta Beltline, cut Clifton Corridor

Some people in other areas of metro Atlanta are concerned after the decision to expand MARTA into Gwinnett County.

MARTA’s priorities may be changing as it finalizes its $2.5 billion plans to expand transit in Atlanta, and the Atlanta Beltline may be a beneficiary, a document obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.

Amid intense public lobbying, the agency is considering reducing – but not eliminating – funding for the Clifton Corridor light rail line from Lindbergh Station to Emory University, according to a presentation MARTA made to a group of community stakeholders in a closed meeting Thursday. It also may eliminate a proposed bus rapid transit line along Campbellton Road in southwest Atlanta, but would still build a light rail line along the route.

Money from those projects could be reallocated to transit along the Atlanta Beltline and to the rehabilitation of existing MARTA rail stations, according the presentation. The document did not say how much money would be shifted among the projects, though it’s unlikely it would be enough to complete the full 22-mile Beltline light rail loop, as many supporters want. MARTA’s preliminary plans, unveiled in May, were to build just a third of the proposed transit loop, but supporters have pressed the agency to build more.

MARTA issued a statement saying no final decisions have been made, and the agency continues to analyze public feedback.

“There are many complex factors still being considered and meaningful dialogue is ongoing,” the statement said. “At this point, it is premature to assume that any firm decisions have been made.”

MARTA Board of Directors Chairman Robbie Ashe confirmed agency leaders met with Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Wednesday to discuss the transit expansion. He also said no final decisions have been made about the list of projects.

“We all recognize that we have an impending deadline,” Ashe said.

Still, the presentation reviewed by the AJC shows MARTA’s plans for may be solidifying.

Former City Council President Cathy Woolard, a Beltline supporter, welcomed the news.

"We are heartened that community voices might finally have been heard,” she said. “We believe the money is available for light rail on Campbellton Road and a reasonable contribution to a future Emory line while building rail on all parts of the BeltLine now owned by Atlanta.”

MARTA has been hashing out the specifics of the Atlanta expansion since city voters approved a half-penny transit sales tax in 2016. In May, the agency unveiled a proposed project list that includes 21 miles of light rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit lines, new bus routes, renovation of existing transit stations and other improvements.

Public debate about the list has focused on the Clifton Corridor. At $503.6 million, it’s the single largest project on the list. Supporters say the Emory/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention area desperately needs access to MARTA rail service. But some city residents say the project shouldn’t be a top priority because Emory annexed into Atlanta last year – after voters approved the transit tax.

MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker has called the Clifton Corridor the agency's best shot at crucial federal funding.

On Thursday, Betty Willis, an Emory senior associate vice president, issued a statement noting that more than 40,000 people work in the area, and some two million patents visit Emory University Hospital and the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center each year.

“The Clifton Corridor is the healthiest portion of what Atlanta needs to compete for national (transit) funding as the largest employment center in Atlanta that is not connected to MARTA’s rail system or an interstate,” Willis said. “Current workforce and population centers are critical factors in the federal funding evaluation process.”

MARTA’s Atlanta expansion

Previously: In May, MARTA unveiled plans for 21 miles of light rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit lines and other improvements.

What's new: The agency has discussed shifting money among various transit projects.

What's next: The MARTA Board of Directors will make a final decision Oct. 4