Almost three out of every four Atlanta voters agreed to a half-penny sales tax in 2016 to generate $2.7 billion over 40 years for an ambitious public transit expansion plan, known as More MARTA. Seven years later, some local elected officials and members of the public seem less than enthused with the transit agency’s pared down, bus-heavy agenda, which one observer nicknamed “Just a Bit More MARTA,” at a public update meeting April 20.
The mood was ‘meh’ at All Saints Episcopal Church in Midtown on Thursday evening—one of three public meetings that the Atlanta transit agency convened in April to discuss More MARTA’s revised project list. After what transit agency management has called a “resequencing” process, More MARTA is down to nine new projects from the original 17, and it is more bus-centric than the prior project list, which called for 26 miles of light rail, along with new rapid bus lines, new streetcar extensions, and new stations.
Many residents expressed frustration at the scaled-down version of MARTA’s expansion plan, which, among other economies, substitutes bus rapid transit (BRT) for light rail on the congested Clifton Corridor and Campbellton Road–and the lack of progress made on existing ones. So far, no BRT projects have broken ground.
“In December 2000, the newest section of MARTA’s North Line opened and there hasn’t been anything significant since. What’s the reason for the gap?” asked one of about two dozen Atlanta residents who spoke at the meeting.
A little of everything, according to Carrie Rocha, who became MARTA’s interim chief capital officer in February.
“I haven’t been around long and I don’t have all that history … I would just say that projects take time,” said Rocha. “We do a lot to engage the public. We have a lot of voices at the table for some of these projects [and] we want to make sure that they’re progressing along [and] incorporating their input. Sometimes it’s funding issues. Sometimes it’s the political will of a project to move forward.”
To Councilmember Amir Farokhi, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, that’s a lot of words that don’t actually say much. “There may be some truth to that, but it’s a lot of word soup. And voters are right to expect tangible action at this stage of the More MARTA program,” Farokhi told Atlanta Civic Circle after the meeting.
Farokhi and the Atlanta City Council, along with Mayor Andre Dickens, approved a resolution in March demanding increased financial transparency for More MARTA, including an audit. MARTA responded by posting a statement on its website that called the decision “disappointing and disingenuous” and accused the council of “playing politics.”
That spat between the council and MARTA management didn’t come up during Thursday’s meeting. Instead, Atlantans wanted to know: What new transit is coming and when?
“We need some action”
“What are other cities doing right, and what Atlanta is doing wrong?” asked Brian Sumlin, a Southwest Atlanta resident who’s on the board of MARTA Army, a transit advocacy nonprofit. “Atlanta is always like, ‘we have to study and study and study’–but at some point we need some action.”
That action, MARTA says, will start soon and be delivered by 2028. Current plans call for two tiers of projects. In May, MARTA expects to break ground for the Summerhill bus rapid transit line along Hank Aaron Drive and Capitol Avenue.
Other rapid bus lines on the initial to-do list include Cleveland Avenue, Metropolitan Avenue, the Campbellton Corridor, and the Clifton Corridor, which are now in design stages. Also in the planning phase are a redesign of the Five Points Station, which is MARTA’s downtown rail hub, and a new Greenbriar Transit Center, a multi-modal hub for the Campbellton Corridor–plus the eastward extension of the downtown streetcar to the Beltline Eastside corridor—a project that has drawn some vocal opposition from local residents.
So far, MARTA has spent about $181 million of the $371 million raised from the half-cent tax on enhanced bus service and related capital costs, plus $15.3 million to operate the Atlanta Streetcar, according to its report to the Atlanta City Council in March.
MARTA has a second tier of projects on its long term list—very long term. Public engagement and planning would begin in 2028, and the program timeline goes all the way to 2057.
“There’s lots of different factors that impact the list, right?” said Rocha. “We’ve got external factors,” such as increased costs, she said.
Sumlin, the MARTA Army member, believes Atlanta residents are sympathetic to many of the external factors affecting MARTA and other transit agencies nationwide—including ridership declines from the COVID-19 pandemic, construction delays, and higher costs for materials and labor from inflation.
Historically, MARTA has also been the only transit system for a major U.S. city to receive no state funding. In a first, the Georgia Legislature in 2021 appropriated $6 million toward the $50 million renovation of MARTA’s Bankhead rail station, located next to a proposed new Microsoft campus.
But Sumlin says the feedback he’s heard from his community is that many projects that survived MARTA’s resequencing are intended for tourists and transplants. “What about our legacy residents? That’s a lot of where the pushback is coming from,” said Sumlin.
Faroki also questions MARTA’s wisdom in project selection. “Look—most people understand that inflation means we can’t do everything at once. And decisions had to be made. Whether the nine projects we see in this first phase are the right ones is fair for debate.”
GET INVOLVED: MARTA’s board of directors will meet Thursday, April 27 at MARTA headquarters at 2424 Piedmont Rd. at 9:30 am. You can watch here: https://bit.ly/MARTAPublicStream
To contact MARTA directly with feedback, email: townhall@ItsMARTA.com