With two decades of public input and environmental studies since Gravel first proposed it in 1999, the Beltline is closer to being shovel-ready than any other rail project on the More MARTA list. At $55 million per mile, it’s also the cheapest.
We’ve heard the calls to wait and re-think all that planning, because autonomous vehicles are going to change everything in a decade or two. But we can’t wait that long to trade in our jet packs for a self-driving bus when we have a proven technology ready to deploy. And while light rail is designed to run in a green railbed alongside the Beltline pedestrian path, autonomous shuttles would mean paving much more of that green space, turning a transformative project into just another road.
Nor can we wait any longer for a regional solution when Atlanta streets are filling up with newcomers eager to live in the heart of the city. If other communities want to join later, as we hope, they could tie in at new stations on the Beltline, like the Armour railyard north of Midtown or the now-vacant Hulsey Yard, the CSX freight transfer station along DeKalb Avenue, where commuter rail passengers could transfer to light rail or MARTA’s existing heavy rail.
That’s why we were disappointed to see the More MARTA construction timetable sidelining much of the project until the 2030s and ‘40s. That’s not what Atlantans voted for in 2016, and getting this wrong risks their support in the future. Other transit projects may have deep-pocketed, well-connected champions, but the Beltline has a record of public support that decision-makers ignore at their peril.
It’s time for MARTA and the city to explore different ways to finance transit faster. It could look to public-private partnerships, for instance, or issue bonds funded by sales tax revenue to start construction on the Beltline and speed up the planning and engineering work on other projects.
When John F. Kennedy committed America to going to the moon in 1961, he didn’t say, “I have this pot of money — tell me how far we can get with it.” He said, “Let’s put a man on the Moon before the end of the decade,” and told NASA and Congress to figure out how. That’s the kind of attitude we need to see from our leaders. Anything less is unacceptable.
Matthew Rao is chair of Beltline Rail Now, and Patty Durand is Beltline Rail Now vice chair.