Atlanta’s Raising $2.5 Billion to Invest in Transit. Will It Be Money Well-Spent?

The Atlanta BeltLine -- a circumferential trail network and rail line -- is the city's most high-profile transit proposal. Other potential transit expansion projects in the city should be higher priorities, however. Image: Atlanta BeltLine
The Atlanta BeltLine -- a circumferential trail network and rail line -- is the city's most high-profile transit proposal. Other potential transit expansion projects in the city should be higher priorities, however. Image: Atlanta BeltLine

For many Atlantans, the problem with their transit system boils down to this simple fact: It’s too scarce. “The number one complaint I hear about MARTA,” says Robbie Ashe, the transit agency’s board chairman, “is that there’s not enough of it.”

Atlanta transit, as we explored in earlier installments of the Getting Transit Right series, has been hampered by the region’s history of highway-building, sprawl, and racially-motivated antagonism the suburbs feel toward the city. After the failure of a regional transportation referendum in 2012, the city set out to go it alone. In some ways, this has been a blessing.

getting-transit-right-logo-600Over the next few years, Atlanta transit will become less scarce. Last November, the residents of the city endorsed a new, half-cent sales tax that will raise $2.5 billion for transit over 40 years.

Because the 2016 referendum was a city ballot measure, the projects approved by voters are concentrated in the center of the region, where the demand for transit is strongest. And while one of Atlanta’s first moves after the failed 2012 vote was to build a low-ridership, mixed-traffic streetcar downtown, the city seems to have learned from those mistakes and is looking to give future transit lines dedicated rights of way.

Still, there are many more decisions ahead that will determine whether Atlanta spends its transit revenue well or not.

What can the new revenue fund?

The list of improvements eligible for funding from the new tax is far larger than the revenue it will produce. The list covers $6.3 billion in capital projects and $4 billion in operations and maintenance — compared to $2.5 billion the tax is expected to bring in over 40 years.

So Atlanta faces big choices about which projects to fund. Benjamin Limmer, MARTA’s assistant general manager of planning, told me about the set of “guiding principles” that are supposed to inform these decisions. These are the goals, in full:

  • “Deliver equitable service improvements and other benefits to communities across the city.”
  • “Support fast, efficient service by prioritizing transit investments in dedicated guideways.”
  • “Focus on investments that will shape future growth to create a more livable Atlanta.”

These are good criteria, though “livability” is always a slippery target. It’s also worth adding one more to the list: “Build transit where it will get used.”

Here’s a look at how Atlanta’s upcoming transit investments can deliver on these four goals.

Building transit where people will use it

The potential expansion projects include eight within the city and two partially in the city. (Two other heavy rail extension projects have been proposed, but are located entirely outside the city.)

One way to understand these projects is to look at the number of residents and jobs within a half-mile of each of the lines, as shown in the table below.

riders-chart

This provides a useful framework for evaluating these projects, since the density of origins and destinations around a transit route is the best indicator of how many people will ride it.

A few conclusions stand out: Atlanta is best served by prioritizing the in-city projects on this list, and among those, the Capitol Avenue and Irwin-AUC light rail lines provide the best bang for the buck in connecting people to jobs. The BeltLine and I-20 West projects, on the other hand, have relatively few people living and working around them.

This is especially noteworthy since the BeltLine is the city’s best-known sustainable transportation project and seems to be near the front of the line for funds. That preferential position should be reconsidered.

Improving service equitably

Like most American cities, Atlanta is heavily segregated by race and income. As the following map illustrates, household incomes are far lower south and west of downtown than they are north of it.

map-new-lines-income-zoom

Brionté McCorkle of the Georgia Sierra Club noted that people on the Southwest side of town “feel like they’ve gotten a lot of promises and no investment.” Will that change with the upcoming round of spending?

Among the major projects proposed by MARTA, a majority serve poorer neighborhoods, which are also predominantly African-American. Two clear exceptions, however, are two of the proposed projects with the most vocal constituencies — the northern half of the BeltLine and the Clifton Corridor.

Also worth noting are the large sections of the city where more than 20 percent of households do not own cars, as shown in the below map. The southern half of the BeltLine and the Southwest rail corridor would significantly improve access in those places. These areas coincide, not surprisingly, with the places where people are currently most likely to use transit to get to work.

map-new-lines-no-vehicles-zoom

Faster transit

Officials I spoke with talked about transit investments in terms of the potential to reduce travel times — a major issue in a city where transit riders are taxed by long commutes.

“We worked with the city to develop a whole host of things to make the speed of the system a priority,” said MARTA General Manager Keith Parker. “Ultimately we want people to be able to ride the system as fast or faster than in an automobile.”

This translates into a commitment to dedicated lanes for transit, which will help avoid the disaster of slow and unreliable service that the Atlanta Streetcar has come to symbolize.

It won’t be easy, especially since it will entail repurposing car lanes on roads controlled by the state DOT. Ultimately, getting that street space for the exclusive use of transit will determine projects’ viability, said Brian Gist of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “If the DOT won’t cede the space to get the dedicated right of way, is it still worth it to build the BRT there?”

MARTA will also have to limit the number of stops along its lines so as not to slow service, and incorporate transit signal priority systems at traffic lights so trains and buses aren’t needlessly delayed. These are planning and engineering decisions that will have to get fleshed out as projects are developed.

Shaping future growth

“Who are we building the city of Atlanta for?” Gist asked me. “People who live here, or people who drive in and out of here to work?” He pointed specifically to the proposed extension of the MARTA line to the west, which would include a park and ride “serving people from outside the city,” as an example of the latter. Such projects encourage car-based growth and traffic rather than walkable, transit-oriented development.

But with the exception of the I-20 East and West lines, all the projects on Atlanta’s list prioritize infill development over suburban commuting. None are located along unwalkable highway rights-of-way, and each would serve relatively compact neighborhoods with the potential to support transit-oriented development.

MARTA’s proposed improvements to the existing rail and bus system would also strengthen service in areas well-suited for future development. These changes include upgrading five bus routes as “arterial rapid transit” with more frequent service and nicer stops, adding service to five other routes so buses come every 15 minutes during peak hours, and building five infill rail stations between existing stops, which could spur new growth in existing neighborhoods.

Darin Givens of Thread ATL noted that these investments are “changing the way we interact with transit… it’s a big change because of what it says about how our city grows.” They point the way toward growing up, not out.

Grading Atlanta’s transit expansion plans

For the most part, Atlanta is on a good trajectory with its transit expansion plans. It will beef up existing bus and rail service and build new lines in central areas with good concentrations of people and jobs. As the expansion projects take shape, planners will have to fight for dedicated lanes, especially on state-controlled roads, and it seems they intend to do so.

MARTA has already added bus service to improve frequency and reliability in several parts of the city. People I spoke with suggested that the light rail line to southwest Atlanta and the BeltLine could be the first rail expansions to receive funding. There are worse projects on the list approved by voters, but also ones that will serve more people and jobs — like the Capitol Avenue and Irwin-AUC light rail lines — which should be higher priorities.

A broader problem is that $2.5 billion isn’t enough to fund all the projects that the city imagines. Nor can it substantially improve the quality of day-to-day service on most of the region’s transit network. As the following chart illustrates, even if all of Atlanta’s new sales tax money went to paying for operations — the cost of employing drivers and paying for fuel, primarily — the Atlanta region would remain behind peers like Denver and Minneapolis, and light years below Boston and Seattle.

graph-per-capita-funding

As encouraging as Atlanta’s recent transit progress has been, the region still has a long way to go.

atl_plans_b+

Strengths

  • Clear goals focused on delivering fast transit, serving the city equitably, and spurring walkable development.
  • Expansion projects under consideration are mostly in the region’s denser residential neighborhoods and employment clusters.
  • Widespread recognition that transit should run in dedicated rights of way, not mixed-traffic lanes.

Weaknesses

  • The citywide half-cent sales tax increase will not produce enough revenue to deliver good transit service for a major urban region.
  • Some projects at the front of the line for funding, like the BeltLine, won’t connect as many people and jobs as other projects with less name recognition.
  • cqholt

    ‘Nor can it substantially improve the quality of day-to-day service on most of the region’s transit network.’ Sorry but this is a City of Atlanta tax-only and should be spent on projects within and will help Atlanta residents. If other jurisdictions want better transit, then hold a sales tax referendum for increase to fund expansion or join MARTA.

  • FrankATL

    I disagree with the article on many fronts. Here is the list:

    1.
    The author was looking at population and jobs per mile to see where all
    the people are to determine which project should be funded. When you
    combined jobs and population together, you
    will give biased measurement to job centers of the city where no one
    currently lives. That means the lines are very likely run idle when
    everyone is off from work.

    2. The beltline project
    is 20 miles long and all the other projects within the city limits are
    under 10 miles. Naturally, the Beltline project gets a lower jobs and
    population number per mile. It distorts the picture.

    3.
    The goal of the Beltline project is to bring transit around the city.
    That is not being served by MARTA’s existing raillines and none of the
    other projects can achieve this either. If we don’t fund it, our public
    rail transit will remain very limited.

    4. The two
    projects the author thought should be of priority, Capital Ave and
    Irwin, go nowhere without the beltline and other projects. They may
    have good statistics but it would just be a waste.

    5.
    The author has not considered the growth factor of the beltline. How
    many people will live along the Beltline when it’s mostly completed?
    That does not seem to have been considered. I do believe the numbers
    would be a lot higher as Beltline loop becomes more complete.

    6.
    The author thinks the south half of the beltline would serve the poor
    but the north half only serves the rich. I don’t know how that logic
    works because when the beltline is not a complete loop, it serves
    nobody. It would end up like Freedom parkway, a half built project that
    gets no one anywhere. Allowing the Beltline be completed means people
    of lower income wouldn’t need a car to get to more affluent areas to get
    a job.

    7. The author criticized the I-20 rails but
    not 400 rail extension. What’s the point? if the author cared about
    projects that serves the city not people who only come here for work,
    why criticize only the I-20 rails but not the 400 one?

    8.
    The article concluded that the Beltline does not serve as many people
    as it may appear. Again, are we talking about jobs or population?
    Mixing the two together is just wrong.

  • Great writeup, Yonah! I have to admit that I’ve got some concerns about those comments on the Beltline, in regard to transit on that route being less important since it wouldn’t serve as great of a commuting need as other transit lines.

    According to a report on the Census site, commutes make up less than 20 percent of all trips in the US. Do we focus a little too much on commuting with our transit investments?

    https://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/acs-15.pdf

    I think there’s room for decreasing a lot of car trips intown and serving a range of access needs through transit on the Beltline. Also, keep in mind that the project’s entire growth and funding strategy is based on development within its Tax Allocation District. New residences and new retail and offices basically *have* to grow on the route as it gets completed. So a snapshot of that the area looks like today is not indicative of the future, when the rails are complete years from now.

  • Chad Newton

    More bus service! More bus service!

    The Atlanta region built a great heavy rail system in MARTA, but it is underutilized compared to its peers (DC Metro, BART, Philly SEPTA). Low density is the main reason, but a lack of frequent bus service compounds it. Since few live within walking distance of a MARTA station, connecting bus service would be needed for more people to utilize the system.

    My first priority with this new funding source would be to incrementally beef up local bus service — until every arterial in city limits has at least 15-minute frequency bus service, not just at peak hours but all day long, 7 days a week, late into the evening. Call it “arterial BRT” and leverage federal funds if you can, but by all means run more buses. Run them fast and efficiently, with signal priority, streamlined stops, and dedicated lanes through chokepoints.

    Then over time, with future funding sources, convert the highest riderships lines to light rail, streetcar or MARTA extensions/spurs. But develop and demonstrate the market with frequent bus service first.

  • stepthrough

    As a community member who has been extensively engaged in transit advocacy and BeltLine planning, I have to dispute Mr. Freemark’s assessment of the potential reach of the proposals. The Capitol corridor looks like it has high potential ridership, but really that is mostly the downtown employment center, which is already served by two heavy rail lines and by the notorious streetcar. Not that the Summerhill and Peoplestown neighborhoods don’t need better transit, but they are not major population centers. That is likely to change, with the development proposals around the old baseball stadium and the BeltLine, which is going to serve as the logical terminus of the Capitol route. Likewise, the Irwin/AUC route has roughly the same density as the others, except that it hits a couple of employment centers – and the BeltLine serves as a terminus at both ends. Otherwise, the eastern end does not have a justifiable terminus. But most importantly, the question is to what extent do they serve existing need, and to what extent do they shape future job and housing opportunity? The important thing about the BeltLine is that it comes with a redevelopment program to take a lot of underutilized land and build it up with transit oriented jobs and housing (including affordable housing). Given Atlanta’s goals to triple its population in the next few decades, it’s really important to enable livable, higher density, hopefully affordable development, and to connect the existing neighborhoods to it. After all, one of the best ways to reduce travel times for transit users is not just to make the transit go faster, but also to bring more jobs, services, and housing closer together, especially in areas that are currently experiencing an imbalance (see the job/population ratios in the chart). From this perspective, the BeltLine is an essential backbone of transit and destinations, and the connecting corridors such as Capitol, Irwin/AUC, Campbellton, etc. are the network that it supports.

  • David Aldinger

    One goal should be to find ways to build ridership on the streetcar line.

  • Chris Winters

    Central Atlanta (like many other parts of urban America) has quite a number of fairly dense, theoretically “walkable” neighborhoods with hardly any pedestrians–and only modest transit use. See my post at

    http://www.liberallandscape.org/2016/11/19/walkable-urbanism-without-many-walkers/

    Are you sure that more transit in these areas would actually get used?

    Chris Winters
    Chicago

  • Kyle Montgomery

    I like the premise of this article, but I feel it misses several points. One of the primary goals of the Beltline as an infrastructure project is to increase development along an underutilized corridor with high potential. This development corridor, with lower population density now, is expected to absorb a big chunk of Atlanta’s anticipated future population growth. Given the last 5 years’ development in Atlanta, where a large chunk of dense housing has concentrated in areas currently served by rail transit (e.g. Midtown), or where it was anticipated rail transit will be built (e.g. Beltline), this seems like a good strategy to me.

    The suburban lines, such as I-20 West and Connect 400, have a slightly different design. They are designed to be suburban lines, hence the stations are far apart to promote speed. With Suburban people generally not embracing density, most suburban transit customers tend to drive, most several miles, so judging the worthiness of a suburban line without accounting for this in my mind if flawed logic. Like the intown Beltline project, the connect 400 project (and less so the I-20 West project) are also designed to spur transit oriented developments along the route, which will provide job centers and pockets of density along the corridor. Connect 400 and I-20 West projects were both built with the criteria of underutilized develop-able land being available near stations (I’ve read the environmental studies for both projects) and we have already seen a few proposals along those routes.

  • Kyle Montgomery

    To sum up what I said below- since Atlanta has a lot of sprawl and not a lot of current density outside the core of the city, the idea of infrastructure building to promote future density and connectivity seems to be the only way to promote smart growth going forward.

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