Clifton Road’s light rail proposal

It’s no secret that the Clifton Corridor is home to some of metro Atlanta’s most high-profile, high-impact addresses. The attractive and historic neighborhoods along the corridor, which extends through the city of Atlanta and DeKalb County, make it a desirable residential area, and it’s also one of the region’s largest employment centers.

As many people who live and work there will tell you, traffic congestion is a chronic problem that would benefit from a long-planned expansion of MARTA as an effective and timely alternative to commuting by car. Earlier this month, MARTA hosted two public meetings that will be critical to moving this significant project forward – and with good reason.

Consider these statistics: On any given day in the corridor, approximately 15,000 students travel to class at Emory University, more than 300 patients are seen at the Emory University Hospital complex, 1,400 veterans are treated at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Hospital, and nearly 30,000 staff members report for work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Emory University and its hospital, Atlanta’s third-largest employer.

The CDC campus in unincorporated DeKalb is a vital link in our nation’s homeland security network. Along with Emory University Hospital, the CDC has been on the front lines responding to the potentially deadly Ebola virus.

Despite the signal importance of these public health institutions, they’re not strategically situated near a major interstate or rail station that would, if needed, help facilitate an evacuation. That vulnerability was underscored recently when a suspicious package found near the CDC snarled traffic for more than an hour. Fortunately, it was a false alarm, but the resulting traffic problems lasted long after authorities had cleared the scene.

While traffic in the corridor is bad today, it could easily grow worse. Area employment is expected to increase by 60 percent from 109,000 in 2010 to a projected 174,000 by 2040.

Granted, residents and workers have some limited travel options. The Clifton Corridor Transportation Management Association provides a Cliff Shuttle Service for students and employees, and MARTA has three bus routes serving the area. But these are hardly adequate to address the demands of daily commuters or to accommodate the area’s projected growth.

MARTA has long recognized the necessity for more transit in this densely populated and heavily traveled thoroughfare. In 2000, MARTA released the South DeKalb-Lindbergh Major Investment Study that identified transit needs in the area that includes the Clifton Corridor.

Since then, MARTA has been working closely with corridor stakeholders including Emory University, the CDC and surrounding communities. Together, we have identified a viable light-rail solution that would be less costly and less intrusive than the traditional heavy-rail technology of our existing transit system while improving mobility and connectivity.

That proposed light-rail alignment would connect MARTA’s Lindbergh Station in Buckhead and the Avondale MARTA station in DeKalb County via the Emory/Clifton Corridor. The projected ridership for this light-rail line is well over 24,000 riders per day.

During public meetings Dec. 4 and 9, MARTA received valuable public input and shared the schedule for future project activities, including detailed environmental studies mandated by the Federal Transit Administration. Upon completion of the environmental analysis and project development phase, MARTA can seek funding under the federal “New Starts” program, which supports the planning, implementation and operation of major transit capital investments.

More than 100 attendees at this month’s hearings expressed interest and enthusiasm for the proposed light-rail expansion. Others were wary of the property impacts the project may cause and curious about CSX, which operates a busy freight rail line in the corridor.

At this point, no one has all the answers. MARTA is still gathering information and working with supporters and critics of the project. What we know for certain, however, is that this project will be successful only if it has widespread community support. Regardless of your opinion on the Clifton Corridor initiative, MARTA wants to hear from you.

If there’s an upcoming meeting or event that you would like MARTA’s planners to attend, please contact the Clifton Corridor Project Management Team at MARTA will also continue to accept public comments on the purpose and need for the project, and possible alternatives, until Jan. 23 at the same e-mail address.

Tameka Wimberly is MARTA’s senior regional planner and project manager of the Clifton transit project.