New Rail Plans for Atlanta’s Eastern Suburbs

New Rail Plans for Atlanta’s Eastern Suburbs

Transit projects currently under discussion for the Atlanta region are a mixed bag in terms of necessity and cost effectiveness. None, however, will be implemented without the passage of a 1 percent sales tax increase later this year.

Despite a lack of funding, Atlanta may extend its light rail system into suburban DeKalb County. Credit: Jeff Muceus on Flickr

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Solving regional disagreements in the Atlanta way, apparently, means making sure that anyone who makes a loud enough stink gets a piece of an expanding pie. Even if the pie isn’t expanding.

The Atlanta Region Commission (ARC) is already fighting to convince a skeptical electorate of the necessity of increasing the local sales tax to pay for transportation improvement projects — an issue that will be put before voters on July 31. The Transportation Investment Act (TIA) would raise the sales tax across regional counties by 1 percent over the course of 10 years. ARC’s announced list of priority investments would bring new rail and bus links throughout the region thanks to more than $8.5 billion expected to be raised (about half of which will go to roads projects). MARTA, the operator of urban bus services and the city’s metro rail line, would be the single greatest beneficiary of the funds thanks to line extensions and renovations of the existing network.

Yet as previously described, plans for new rail lines extending to Emory University, into the northern suburbs and along streets through the center city have been contested as inadequate by residents and political leaders in DeKalb County, just east of central Atlanta. Most bothered are residents of the county’s southern section, led by the local NAACP, who argue that they have been paying for the functioning of the system for years but never received the benefits of rail service.

ARC’s plans for fund distribution, as documented in the map above, would provide for the implementation of a rapid bus line along I-20 East from downtown Atlanta to this area, but South DeKalb inhabitants want something else in exchange for their votes: An extension of the MARTA heavy rail line from Indian Creek. DeKalb County’s residents must vote in favor of the referendum in large numbers in order for it to pass because of the probable strong resistance to the tax from residents of counties further from Atlanta, despite the fact that ARC’s priority list specifically includes funding for lines running in all directions into the suburbs.

Last week, MARTA seemed to make an effort to realize the rail project. The agency’s board approved continuing the advancement of two projects — a light rail line along the Clifton Corridor in west DeKalb and a $2 billion, two-pronged strategy for serving South DeKalb. The latter would include both the 12.8-mile I-20 East rapid bus line previously discussed and a 12-mile rail extension along I-285 and I-20 to the Mall at Stonecrest, with four other new stations as requested by South DeKalb groups. The projects would, like most American transit capital programs, require federal funding.

But they would also need a source of funds above and beyond those being distributed by TIA, raising questions about whether MARTA’s move is designed primarily to give voters in South DeKalb the sense that rail is planned for their area, rather than actually offering funding for it. In order to construct this rail extension, an additional $800 million in local funding is required beyond that being raised by TIA. No one seems to be clear about how this money would be raised.

It is also worth questioning the value of extending rail to South DeKalb County. The area is, like much of metropolitan Atlanta, automobile dependent and lacking in significant density. The alignment of the rail corridor in the median of interstate highways seems unlikely to produce any significant transit-oriented development. The BRT project, which would rely on HOV and HOT lanes to transport people between the area and downtown Atlanta, would not be much better from any of these perspectives, but at least it would be more economical. A total of 28,700 daily riders are expected to use the two services ($70,000 per rider), at the very high end for similar new transit capital projects.

Serving a denser section of the region is the Clifton Corridor, which will bring 8.8 miles of light rail between the existing Lindbergh Center and Avondale Stations, via 10 to 13 new stations, including at Emory University and the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control. Its $1.1 billion cost (also rather high) would be enough to connect the stations in 26 minutes, about 8 minutes less than is possible today on the MARTA rail system with a transfer at Five Points. Service to this area of DeKalb County has been a priority for MARTA since the agency’s first plan was developed more than 40 years ago. Though the use of heavy rail connected to the remainder of the MARTA system was considered, the lack of adequate right-of-way makes a through-running connection between Lindbergh and Avondale impossible with fully grade-separated rail. So light rail has been the focus.

The first phase of the corridor, from Lindbergh to the CDC headquarters near Emory Campus, can be paid for fully through TIA funding, but the rest of the line will require federal aid.

A significant portion of the Clifton Corridor would be built in a subway, as documented below in a map distributed by MARTA. This results from two factors: One, (wealthy) homeowners in several of the areas through which the line would pass would likely legally contest a surface line that would require significant use of eminent domain in residential neighborhoods; two, CSX (the freight railway) owns the track right-of-way that the corridor parallels and MARTA has been loath to consider negotiating with the company, likely because of CSX’s hostility to passenger rail projects in other parts of the country.

Fortunately, other sections of the line would be built in the median of arterials, a construction method that would deliver most of the benefits at a far lower cost.

The focus on projects for DeKalb County here should not imply that the City of Atlanta itself has been ignored in the proposed funding allocation. Indeed, TIA would fund a significant expansion of the city’s diminutive streetcar project, which is currently under construction. The streetcar line would be expanded both east and west to meet the first stages of the Beltline project, which is a proposed combined transit and park system along existing freight railway rights-of-way that would encircle central Atlanta. A new crosstown corridor on North Avenue would connect Georgia Tech directly to Midtown.

Though the full Beltline would not be funded through TIA, these first stages serve the city’s densest neighborhoods in which people are most likely to take advantage of transit. Later phases may be sponsored by the revenues from the tax increment financing district that is funding other elements of the project.

The projects being promoted in the Atlanta region are thus a mixed bag in terms of necessity and cost effectiveness. None, however, will be implemented without the passage of the sales tax increase later this year. Will MARTA’ move convince voters from South DeKalb?

Yonah Freemark is a journalist who writes about cities and transportation. He created and continues to write for the website The Transport Politic, and has also contributed to Next American City, The Atlantic Cities, Planning, and Dissent.

Tags: infrastructuretransit agencieslight railatlantastreetcarsbus rapid transitanchor institutions

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