Opinion: Speak out on speeding up Beltline rail timeline

Passengers board an Atlanta Streetcar in 2015. It uses similar vehicles as those planned for future rail transit on the Atlanta Beltline. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Passengers board an Atlanta Streetcar in 2015. It uses similar vehicles as those planned for future rail transit on the Atlanta Beltline. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Like most parents, I spend quite a lot of time thinking about the future city that awaits my four-year-old daughter. Right now, Atlantans have a chance to weigh in on a 30-year, $172.6 billion Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) designed to improve mobility across metro Atlanta. Federal dollars to support construction will only be available to projects that the Atlanta Regional Commission includes in the plan.

The plan, as proposed, includes Atlanta’s $2.7 billion More MARTA program, which is funded by the 0.5% More MARTA sales tax that voters approved in 2016. One of the fatal flaws in the design of the More MARTA program is the timing of completion for the transit on the Atlanta Beltline. The plan, as proposed, won’t deliver the light rail on the Beltline until at least 2045 – the same as saying never. This timeline is far too long, considering that the Atlanta Beltline is the most shovel-ready project in the More MARTA list of transit projects, with completed environmental studies on the eastside streetcar expansion and the East and Westside trails of the Beltline.

Atlanta Beltline rail was featured prominently during the campaign to increase the MARTA sales tax. I, like many voters, supported the increase because I believed that the city and MARTA’s leadership was committed to quickly completing the Beltline light rail loop.

The fact that gentrification is now associated with the project is unfortunate. The More MARTA list, with its decades-long proposed construction timeline, is a failure of city leadership to advocate for affordability and equity. The MARTA sales tax is regressive, meaning the burden of paying the tax is higher on low-income people. Prioritizing Beltline rail ensures that this community of people can benefit from transit service that truly connects them to opportunities around the city, especially in tandem with the Campbellton Road light rail project.

Unfortunately, MARTA has decided to prioritize the Emory Clifton Corridor, socking away millions of dollars to for a project that serves a mostly suburban, wealthy, and white population at the expense of the residents of Atlanta who are paying the tax now.

The Emory Clifton Corridor is a regionally significant project, and needs regional funding partners to participate. To date, those funding partners have not emerged. It is not reasonable that the burden of paying for this project has fallen on the residents of Atlanta when the project does not serve the low-income communities of the city.

The original vision of the Beltline promised more than just 22 miles of light rail. The Beltline provides a broad, inclusive vision for Atlanta’s future, one that has a robust and reliable transit core that connects to MARTA’s existing heavy-rail system and allows access to the best parts of our city. Beyond transit, people who supported the Beltline’s original vision did so because of its commitment to deliver 5,600 affordable units and to uplift and connect communities that have long been left behind.

That vision is slipping further away the longer we wait to put light rail on the Beltline corridor. Without light rail, development on the Beltline will continue as it has been, with most new construction taking place on the east side of town, exacerbating affordability issues, and making the project the poster child for displacement in the city.

Atlanta BeltLine Inc. (ABI) is the organization that oversees all aspects of planning, developing, and execution of the Atlanta Beltline project. Their almost entirely new executive leadership team has stated their commitment to delivering on the full vision of the Beltline, which includes both transit and affordable housing. That will make our city indeed an equitable, world-class city. But without transit funding there can be no rail on the Beltline, and that funding is provided by MARTA.

It isn’t too late to turn things around. Citizens can contact the Atlanta Regional Commission and ask for Beltline rail to be prioritized. The public comment period ends Friday, December 13th at midnight.

City of Atlanta and MARTA leadership should work to move up the timeline for delivering rail on the Beltline in the RTP. My daughter and all the other children in Atlanta deserve to grow up in the best city possible.

Brionte McCorkle is director of the Georgia Conservation Voters. She is also co-chair of the Atlanta Beltline Tax Allocation District Advisory Committee and is on the board of Citizens for Progressive Transit.