Where It All Went Wrong: If only we could undo the MARTA Compromise of 1971

Doug Monroe for Atlanta Magazine
8/1/2012

Like ghosts rising out of a Confederate cemetery, Atlanta’s past lapses in judgment haunt the region today, leaving a smoky trail of suburban decay, declining home values, clogged highways, and a vastly diminished reputation.
At the heart of the rot eating at metro Atlanta is the Mother of All Mistakes: the failure to extend MARTA into the suburbs. It wasn’t just a one-time blunder—it was the single worst mistake in a whole cluster bomb of missteps, errors, power plays, and just plain meanness that created the region’s transportation infrastructure.

As we look at the future of Atlanta, there’s no question that battling our notorious traffic and sprawl is key to the metro area’s potential vitality. What if there were a Back to the Future–type option, where we could take a mystical DeLorean (heck, we’d settle for a Buick), ride back in time, and fix something? What event would benefit most from the use of a hypothetical “undo” key?
The transit compromise of 1971.
Before we get into the story of what happened in 1971, we need to back up a few years. In 1965 the Georgia General Assembly voted to create MARTA, the mass transit system for the City of Atlanta and the five core metro counties: Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett. Cobb voters rejected MARTA, while it got approval from the city and the four other counties. Although, as it turned out, the state never contributed any dedicated funds for MARTA’s operations, in 1966 Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment to permit the state to fund 10 percent of the total cost of a rapid rail system in Atlanta. Two years later, in 1968, voters in Atlanta and MARTA’s core counties rejected a plan to finance MARTA through property taxes. In 1971—when the issue was presented to voters again—Clayton and Gwinnett voters dropped their support, and MARTA ended up being backed by only DeKalb, Fulton, and the City of Atlanta.
In 1971, given the lack of support for MARTA by the five core counties, then Mayor Sam Massell came back with a new plan: to provide an ongoing subsidy for MARTA through a sales tax levied in Fulton, DeKalb, and the City of Atlanta. No other jurisdiction in Georgia had a local option sales tax, so the General Assembly had to approve the idea. When the notoriously anti-Atlanta legislators gave the go-ahead, Massell called a press conference that featured a flatbed truck pulling up in front of city hall, facing the Capitol, with a large billboard that said, “Thank You, Georgia Lawmakers!” Massell then dug a hole in the city hall lawn and buried a hatchet to symbolize his appreciation for the state’s rare support of the city.
In a promotional stunt worthy of Mad Men, Massell sent a bevy of young women to the Capitol in pink hot pants with little keys to the city, a proclamation expressing the city’s gratitude, and invitations to city hall for a lunch featuring fried chicken (for Lieutenant Governor Lester Maddox), peanuts (for Governor Jimmy Carter), and, of course, Coca-Cola. “We got a four-column picture—the biggest exposure we ever got from the Atlanta newspapers,” recalls Massell, now president of the Buckhead Coalition.
After getting the legislative approval for the sales-tax option, Massell had to persuade voters to pass the sales tax. “We were going to buy the existing bus company, which was then charging sixty cents and a nickel transfer each way—$1.30 a day—and they were about to go out of business. I promised the community we would drop that fare to fifteen cents each way immediately,” Massell says. The daily fare would plunge from $1.30 to thirty cents. Not everyone believed him. City Councilman Henry Dodson cruised the city in a Volkswagen with a PA system that blared, “It’s a trick! If they can’t do it for sixty cents, how are they going to do it for fifteen?”
Massell countered the VW with higher visibility, chartering a helicopter to hover over the Downtown Connector, congested even then, while he called through a bullhorn, “If you want out of this mess, vote yes!”
“This being the Bible Belt, they thought God was telling them what to do,” Massell quips today. Still, to make sure Atlantans voted his way, he rode buses throughout the city, passing out brochures to riders, and he visited community groups with a blackboard and chalk to do the math on the sales tax. Voters approved the plan by just a few hundred votes.
Another of the blunders that crippled MARTA at the outset—and haunts it to this day—was engineered behind closed doors by the segregationist Lester Maddox, according to Massell, who believes Maddox’s intervention was even more devastating than the vote not to extend MARTA into the suburbs.
After the Georgia House of Representatives approved funding MARTA through the sales tax, Massell had to approach the Georgia State Senate, where Maddox held sway. Maddox told the mayor he would block the vote in the senate unless MARTA agreed that no more than 50 percent of the sales tax revenue would go to operating costs, Massell recalls. “He called me into his office and told me that was it. Either I swallowed that or he was going to kill it and it would not pass.”
That has meant that whenever MARTA needed more money for operating expenses, it had to cut elsewhere or raise fares. As a result, MARTA has raised the fare over the years to today’s $2.50, making it one of the priciest transit systems in the country.
Although the 50 percent limit has resulted in higher fares, few people realized the ramifications of the so-called “Maddox amendment” at the time, Massell says. In fact, it actually was viewed favorably by DeKalb legislators because they were afraid MARTA would spend all its money in Atlanta before extending rail service to DeKalb, according to a thirty-six-page history of MARTA written by former State Treasurer Thomas D. Hills.
Hills’s MARTA history also illuminates why the state never contributed funds for MARTA, despite that 1966 vote that would have allowed it to. One early plan was for the MARTA sales tax to be three-quarters of a penny, with the state chipping in up to 10 percent of the cost of the system as approved by Georgia voters. But early in his administration, according to Hills’s history, then Governor Carter called MARTA attorney Stell Huie—who was on a quail-hunting trip—and said the state couldn’t afford its $25 million share for MARTA. Carter offered to raise the sales tax to a full penny if the state didn’t have to pay, and Huie agreed. The lawyer said the 1 percent sales tax plan came out of the House Committee on Ways and Means and “there was a tag end, not even part of the act, that just said the state won’t put any money in.”
Hills wrote that the events help to “explain why some representatives of state government and others in the community understand that the state’s support in allowing the local option sales tax for MARTA was a bargain in exchange for a reprieve for the state from future funding for MARTA.”
The 1965 and 1971 votes against MARTA by residents of Cobb, Clayton, and Gwinnett weren’t votes about transportation. They were referendums on race. Specifically, they were believed to be about keeping the races apart. Consider the suburbanites voting back then. The formerly rural, outlying counties had exploded with an astonishing exodus of white people fleeing the city as the black population swelled during the civil rights era. This mass migration came at a time when Atlanta was known through its public relations bluster as “The City Too Busy to Hate.”
The 1960 census counted approximately 300,000 white residents in Atlanta. From 1960 to 1980, around 160,000 whites left the city—Atlanta’s white population was cut in half over two decades, says Kevin M. Kruse, the Princeton professor who wrote White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Kruse notes that skeptics suggested Atlanta’s slogan should have been “The City Too Busy Moving to Hate.” “Racial concerns trumped everything else,” Kruse says. “The more you think about it, Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure was designed as much to keep people apart as to bring people together.”
In the early 1970s, Morehouse College professor Abraham Davis observed, “The real problem is that whites have created a transportation problem for themselves by moving farther away from the central city rather than living in an integrated neighborhood.”
The votes against MARTA were not the only evidence of the role of race in Atlanta’s transportation plans. The interstate highways were designed to gouge their way through black neighborhoods. Georgia Tech history professor Ronald H. Bayor, author of Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta, says the failure of the 1971 MARTA referendum in Gwinnett and Clayton was the beginning of the region’s transportation problems because of the lack of mass transit in the suburbs. Yet his research goes back to the racial reckoning behind the route of the interstate highway system that began construction in the 1950s.
The highway now called the Downtown Connector, the stretch where I-75 and I-85 run conjoined through the city, gutted black neighborhoods by forcing the removal of many working-class blacks from the central business district. It could have been worse. The highway was first designed to run smack through the headquarters of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, the city’s major black-owned business. “The original intention was to destroy that black business,” Bayor says. A protest by the black community saved the structure and moved the highway route a few blocks east, where it still managed to cut through the black community’s main street, Auburn Avenue.
Interstate 20 on the west side of town is a particularly egregious example of race-based road-building. Bayor wrote: “In a 1960 report on the transitional westside neighborhood of Adamsville . . . the Atlanta Bureau of Planning noted that ‘approximately two to three years ago, there was an “understanding” that the proposed route of the West Expressway [I-20 West] would be the boundary between the white and Negro communities.’”
The strategy didn’t work, of course, as whites fled by the tens of thousands. One of the unintended consequences of the race-based road-building is today’s traffic jams. “What happened didn’t change the racial makeup of the metro area but led to congestion within the metro area,” Bayor says.
Aside from political vengeance and racial politics, another enormous factor was at play in transportation policies of the 1960s and 1970s: Atlanta’s love affair with the automobile. The great migration out of the city started in the late 1950s—just as workers at General Motors’ vast Lakewood assembly plant in southeast Atlanta put the finishing touches on one of the most iconic cars in history: the 1957 Chevy.
The allure of roaring around Atlanta in cool cars took over and never let go. Once MARTA started running, who would ride a bus or subway when they could drive a sleek, powerful car and fill it with cheap gas? Only the people who couldn’t afford the car. MARTA became an isolated castaway, used primarily by poor and working-class blacks. Racist suburbanites brayed that the system’s acronym stood for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”
While MARTA was struggling to crank up the bus and rail system, the State of Georgia and its powerful highway department had other, bigger ideas.
David Goldberg, a former transportation reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, says the road-building binge that led to the gigantic highways that course through metro Atlanta—some of the widest in the world—diminished MARTA’s potential. “It’s not a single mistake but a bunch of decisions that add up to one big mistake—the failure to capitalize on the incredible success we had in winning funding for MARTA by undermining it with the incredible success we had in getting funding for the interstate highways,” says Goldberg, now communications director for Washington-based Transportation for America. “We were too damn successful—it was an embarrassment of success. Like a lot of nouveau riche, we blew it before we knew what to do with it.”
As metro Atlanta’s geographic expansion grew white-hot, developers had to move homebuyers—those fleeing the city and others moving South from the Rust Belt—in and out of the new subdivisions they were carving from the pine forests and red clay. Georgia started “building highways expressly to enrich developers,” Goldberg says. “A whole lot of land owners and developers who knew how to do suburban development had the ear of state government and the money to buy influence. They took all that money we had and put it into developing interchanges way out from town. A lot of what was new suburban development back then is now underused, decaying, and part of an eroding tax base in the older suburban areas.”
The vast highway system sucked up billions of federal dollars while the state refused to put a penny into MARTA—until the past fifteen years, during which it helped buy some buses. “The sick joke of it all is that we built the place to be auto-oriented and designed it about as bad as we could to function for auto use,” Goldberg says. “The highway network we did build was designed in a way almost guaranteed to produce congestion—the land use around all that development put the nail in the coffin.” He refers to the neighborhoods full of cul-de-sacs that force cars onto crowded arterial roads lined with commercial activity, then force them to merge onto the freeways, which eventually funnel down to one highway through the heart of Atlanta.

More than forty years later, what does the failure to create MARTA as a regional system mean for Atlanta? Christopher B. Leinberger, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution and professor at George Washington University, has been watching Atlanta’s growth—and decline—for decades. In January he declared, “Atlanta is no longer Hotlanta.” He cited the free fall from the number eighty-ninespot on the list of the world’s 200 fastest-growing metro areas to ranking at 189 in just five years. Not to mention the plunge of 29 percent in average housing price per square foot between 2000 and 2010. Not to mention that Atlanta has the eleventh-most-congested traffic of 101 metro areas in the country.
“The big mistake was not taking advantage of MARTA,” Leinberger says. “Atlanta was given by the federal taxpayers a tremendous gift that they squandered as far as MARTA. It’s not just that Atlanta did not take advantage of it. They didn’t expand it and they didn’t recognize that it could allow them to build a balanced way of developing.”
Leinberger agrees that part of the region’s blindness toward MARTA’s potential was the belief “that the car was the be-all and end-all forever. The other part was the basic racism that still molds how Atlanta is built.”
The most maddening realization is that the once virtually all-white suburbs that voted against MARTA years ago are today quite diverse and reflect Atlanta’s evolution from a biracial city to a multiracial, multiethnic one. Today’s suburbs are not only home to African Americans, but also Latino, Asian, and Eastern European immigrants. The city’s diversity is projected to increase over the coming decades (see page 68). Many of the people who voted against MARTA decades ago are dead or retired. The suburban lifestyle they were so eager to defend has lost much of its cachet as gas prices soar and houses don’t sell. Smart young people up to their necks in college debt don’t want to spend their money and time driving cars back and forth; they want to live in town. Atlanta’s only neighborhoods to gain inflation-adjusted housing value in the past decade, Leinberger notes, were Virginia-Highland, Grant Park, and East Lake.
The Georgia Sierra Club’s opposition to the July 31 referendum on a regional transportation sales tax—on the grounds that the plan, despite including a majority for transit, was a sprawl-inducing road expansion—troubled Leinberger. “That’s a dangerous strategy. From what everybody tells me, this is a one-off.” He says the state legislature has traditionally treated Atlanta like a child, and is saying, “Finally, one time only, children, are we going to let you decide for yourself. This is it.”
The July 31 vote is “an Olympic moment,” he says. “If the vote fails, you have to accept the fact that Atlanta will continue to decline as a metro area.” Forty years from now, will we look back at failure to pass the referendum as a mistake as devastating as the 1971 MARTA compromise?
Atlanta faces a classic problem. It boomed in the go-go decades at the end of the twentieth century when everyone zoomed alone in their cars from home to office to store. Now it must move beyond what worked in the past to a new era that demands a new way of building, with up to 70 percent of new development oriented around transit, Leinberger says. “Atlanta has a lot of catching up to do, but it’s hard for old dogs to learn new tricks.”
The never-ending ramifications of a race-based transportation infrastructure, built to accommodate a suburban driving lifestyle that has started to die off in a state that has traditionally refused to embrace mass transit, could doom Atlanta to a future as a newer, sunnier Detroit.
“It only takes a generation-plus of yinning when you should have yanged to wake up and say, ‘Oh my God! How did it happen?’” says outgoing MARTA General Manager Beverly A. Scott, who watched from afar the decline of her hometown, Cleveland.
Atlanta’s failure to build out MARTA looks even more shameful when compared with what happened with similar transit systems in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., which started at the same time as MARTA, she says. “The reality is, this region got stuck. We have about half the build-out of what it was planned to be.” But San Francisco and Washington “kept building and moving . . . they had plans regardless of whether folks were red or blue. They had a vision and the fortitude to make purple and keep moving. We just got stuck.”
MARTA was born out of Atlanta’s giant ego in the days when the city was entering the major leagues across the board—baseball, football, international airport—bolstered by a racially harmonious reputation unmatched in the South, deserved or not. “You said to yourself, ‘We’re top-notch. Everybody’s got to have a rail system,’” Scott says. “But it was built as a manifestation of ‘we have arrived’ without a bigger vision of ‘what do we want to do for our region?’ You built it like a trophy.” Indeed, some of the Downtown MARTA stations were built on a scale that would please a pharaoh.
Yet Scott says she is no doomsayer. During her tenure at MARTA, she has seen marked progress in forging the civic- political infrastructure necessary to build an integrated transportation network. Her concern is that the region is at a critically urgent juncture in the process and can’t afford to lose focus or momentum.“There’s still much work to be done,” she says.
Word about Atlanta’s transportation muddle has gotten around. Scott says she’s been privy to meetings during which corporate relocation experts tell Chamber of Commerce members: “Hey, Atlanta is not only not at the top tier anymore, we’ve got companies saying, ‘Don’t put the Atlanta region on the list.’” It’s not just the congestion and pollution—“they’re not seeing leadership or plans to get yourself out of the fix.”
Atlanta’s leaderless transportation fix is the ultimate example of the admonition, “Be careful what you pray for.”
“This is the irony: The majority of whites in Atlanta wanted to be isolated when they thought about public transportation,” says historian Kevin Kruse. “As a result, they have been in their cars on 75 and 85. They got what they wanted. They are safe in their own space. They’re just not moving anywhere.”

Clifton Corridor Transit Initiative Announces Locally Preferred Alternative

by Jane P. Rawlings, LLCC Transportation Coordinator
 

MARTA Planning staff has completed the review of community feedback and technical analysis and have finalized a recommended locally preferred alternative (LPA) for the Clifton Corridor. The LPA is the alternative that, based on technical analysis and stakeholder input, would most effectively address the needs of the corridor and goals and objectives of the project.
The recommended LPA includes 8.8 miles of new light rail transit (LRT) service connecting the Lindbergh MARTA Station to the Emory/Clifton Corridor and beyond to the Avondale MARTA Station. The recommendation for the locally preferred alternative includes several tunnels and one of those tunnels extends from an area west of Lenox Road to an area just west of Briarcliff Road.
MARTA Planning staff will present the LPA recommendation to the MARTA Planning and External Relations Committee on March 26 at 10:00 a.m. and to the MARTA Board on April 9 at 1:30 p.m.  There will be a public comment period prior to the Board meeting only.  Both meetings will be held at:
MARTA Headquarters, 6th Floor Board Room, 2424 Piedmont Road, Atlanta, GA 30324.
Upon MARTA Board approval, the agency will present the LPA to the Atlanta Regional Commission for adoption and incorporation into the long-range transportation plan. Afterwards, the LPA will be advanced through the next step in the federal project development process which is the completion of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). This study will go into much more detailed level of analysis as compared to the Alternatives Analysis (AA).
The Lindbergh LaVista Corridor Coalition (LLCC) in conjunction with the Morningside Lenox Park Association (MLPA), and the Woodland Hills Neighborhood Association (WHNA) hired Heather Alhadeff, Senior Transportation Planner with Perkins + Will, to assist us in disseminating information to the public, collecting this input, and preparing a formal document for inclusion in the AA. This document which includes a summary along with all results and comments from our surveys is included. To view this report click HERE. Inclusion in the report best positions our communities in the federal process moving forward.
The Fact Sheet recently released by MARTA has concerned some in our community as it did not mention tunneling of the project or a Morningside station. The purpose of a Fact Sheet is to comment ONLY on the alignment and technology preferences for the project. It is not intended to address the project in great detail. For this type of information one will have to review the study document. I have reached out to Jason Morgan, Project Manager, for the CCTI requesting additional summary details regarding the second segment (from Cheshire Bridge to Briarcliff) as I have received emails with questions. I share below his comments in an effort to address some of these matters and provide clarity to the public.
Email correspondence from Jason Morgan, Project Manager MARTA:
The fact sheet that has been distributed does not preclude the tunnel.  The tunnel is part of the proposal. In fact, there are three tunnels that are included with the proposal. The second and third tunnels are further east along the alignment. The fact sheet is not intended to go into the details regarding where every tunnel or elevated structure is located.  We have other materials which illustrate the specific station concepts and tunnel proposals. We have done our best to balance the comments from members of the community throughout the entire project corridor with our best technical analysis. The LLCC report has provided valuable insight into the perspective of residents in this section of the corridor, but the project team must consider cost and potential construction issues as well.
With that said:

  • A bored light rail tunnel is proposed to run parallel to and beneath the northside of CSX  right-of-way.
  • The tunnel depth will be a  minimum of 55 feet.  The specifics of the tunnel design will be  determined during the Environmental Impact Study which has been targeted to begin later this year.
  • Specific impacts and compensation are quantified during the Environmental Impact Study and in accordance with guidelines identified within the National Environmental Policy Act. Keep in mind, this corridor is 8.8 miles long and most of the potential impacts or displacements we can estimate at this stage are in areas where the alignment is above ground.
  • While a station at Lenox Road was requested to be examined, ultimately many residents expressed trepidation about having a station close to their homes.  In addition, there was a significant additional estimated cost associated with building a subway station at this location.  The suggestion from attendees at the October 25 meeting as well via many comments was to add a walking trail that would connect Lenox Road to the station at Cheshire Bridge.  This trail could be integrated with the South Fork of Peachtree Creek trail as well as others.

Revised station concepts and alignment concepts are currently being updated to the project website (www.itsmarta.com/clifton-corr.aspx). MARTA hopes to have everything activated by later this week.

Local Voices – Why a Clifton Corridor Transit Line is Long Overdue

by Nenad Tadic for Virginia Highland/Druid Hills Patch
I wrote an article in August on a recent development to bring MARTA rail service directly to Emory’s Druid Hills campus. Unfortunately, I haven’t kept up with the initiative since then so I don’t know the current status of it.
But it’s a shame that when MARTA was constructed, it bypassed plans to service the Druid Hills/ Clifton Corridor area with a rail line. These are some of the biggest commercial centers in all of Metro Atlanta, which include Emory University, Emory University Hospital, Emory Point (coming soon) and the CDC, to name a few. These prominent institutions are located just 4-5 miles from Downtown Atlanta, yet because of the absence of a rapid transit line near them, travel times from the CDC to the Five Points station, per se, can take upwards of an hour.
Convenience. Convenience. Convenience.
That’s the first buzz word that comes to mind for me when I think of what a MARTA station off Clifton Road would bring to our entire community. Getting around town would be no hassle at all.
It’d be safer. It’d make exploring Atlanta neighborhoods more of a possibility. It would diminish the prevalence of the “Emory Bubble,” coined because a freshman at Emory is so limited because of unreliable and oftentimes confusing public transit options that he or she makes his own little bubble on campus.
Emory sponsors Cliff Shuttles which operate on a fixed schedule to/from Emory and various nearby business sites. Emory also has special shuttles that run to shopping districts like Lenox Mall or Atlantic Station. These usually operate on weekends, but not every weekend.
These shuttles are great! I use them often. But they are just too limited and run too infrequently to satisfy the student who has an internship Downtown and commutes everyday, or the cafeteria worker whose home in Southwest Atlanta can’t realistically be reached without a car, especially late at night or early in the morning.
As the 9th largest metropolitan area in the country, Atlanta’s public transportation is a nightmare compared to #10 Boston, #18 St. Louis, or even #23 Portland, Ore.
Of all the cities I have visited during my college visits (these include New York, Philadelphia, Houston, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and of course Atlanta), getting from Hartsfield Jackson to Emory was the hardest airport-school commute.
I myself am from Chicago and can attest to the fact that you can get anywhere in the city with public transit. Anywhere. Especially the University of Chicago and Northwestern University – Emory’s peer institutions. In fact, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) runs the “Purple Line,” named after neighborhing Northwestern which the line runs near.
That’s not to say better public transportation would necessarily make Emory a better school. Not at all. Sure it may make it seem more of an attractive option to prospective students, but that doesn’t get at the bottom line.
The bottom line is this: Atlanta is famous for its urban sprawl and consequently, its traffic. Its infrastructure is severely lacking for a city of its size.
Those opposed to transit lines cite that they bring crimes to otherwise safe and wealthy white neighborhoods. Policymakers need to address their concerns.
It is time for Atlanta to develop a plan that suggests it really is the forward-thinking city it once prided itself on. Better public transit is only going to improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods. And in important districts like the Clifton Corridor, a transit line is crucial.

Transportation Roundtable job is much harder because the state doesn’t fund transit

From SaportaReport.com
 

It all boils down to this.
All the hand-wringing that’s going on this week with the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable can be traced back to one player — the State of Georgia.
The Roundtable has until Oct. 15 to submit its final list of projects that will be included on a penny sales tax referendum that will be presented to voters next year. The tax is estimated to generate $7.2 billion over 10 years with 15 percent of that will go directly to local governments, leaving $6.1 billion to be divvied up by the Roundtable.
The leaders in the 10-county region are agonizing over whether it should add $80 million (in addition to the current $100 million) to fully fund the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s Xpress buses over the next 10 years by taking away from four other transit investments.
The Roundtable will meet on Oct. 11 to try to find consensus on the four toughest amendments that must be addressed before the Oct. 15 deadline.
An amendment proposed by Henry County Chair B.J. Mathis would remove that $80 million from MARTA’s allocation to keep its system in a state of good repair, from the Atlanta BeltLine streetcar project, from the Clifton Corridor transit line and from Cobb County’s light rail line.
Also on the table is another amendment proposed by Douglas County Chair Tom Wortham to shift $34.5 million from MARTA’s state of good repair to go to fund GRTA’s Xpress buses.
A third amendment, submitted by DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, would shift $297 million of funding along Georgia 400 towards expanding MARTA east line along I-20 corridor.
The fourth amendment was proposed by Clayton County Chair Eldrin Bell to invest $350 million in the Atlanta to Griffin commuter rail line, and the proposal has called for reducing all other transit projects by 10 percent to pay for commuter rail.
Watching this agonizing tug-of-war between the various jurisdictions chipping away at proposed transit projects is painful.
And while regional leaders are tempted to turn on each other, the real culprit here is the state and its lack of funding for transit, in particular, and transportation in general.
GRTA is a state agency that was created to be a vehicle for the state to become a regional player in transit. But GRTA has been lobbying to get $180 million from the metro Atlanta tax to fully fund its system rather than rely on any financial support from the state to pay for the regional bus system.
Earlier in the Roundtable process, a dramatic moment occurred when Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Roundtable Chairman Bucky Johnson took advantage of a break in a meeting to go see Gov. Nathan Deal. At that meeting, Deal assured Reed and Johnson that he would help the state invest $80 million in GRTA over the next 10 years.
That’s how the GRTA allocation in the project list was reduced from $180 million to $100 million.
Now GRTA backers are trying to restore that $80 million because they say the governor can not make a financial commitment to support the regional bus system because it would be up to the legislature.
Mathis actually called on state Sen. Doug Stoner (D-Cobb) to describe the appetite for GRTA funding in the legislature.
“The state has not shown a commitment at this time,” Stoner said. But Stoner added that he did not believe that funding for GRTA should come out of MARTA’s state of good repair, which is essential to having a regional transit system.
Atlanta Mayor Reed said that when the economy recovers, the state will be in a much better financial position than local governments that have a ceiling on what they can collect on property taxes. And he continued to believe the state would rise to the occasion to invest in a regional transit system.
“The governor was willing to try to get it figured out,” Reed said.
The mayor also added that on Wednesday, Oct. 5, the state had “a wonderful meeting around transit governance” — an effort that would create an umbrella entity to oversee all the transit operations in the Atlanta region.
“I think the transit governance conversation really is the key to getting the state interested in long-term funding,” Reed said.
Speaking about the entire Roundtable experience, Reed said: “I never expected this to be an easy process. I focus more on results than the journey.”
For decades, metro Atlanta has been under-investing in MARTA — the region’s largest transit system by far. Most of that can be attributed to two facts — the lack of state funding and the fact that only two counties (Fulton and DeKalb) provide financial support for the system.
Until the state becomes a significant player in transit funding, the region’s leaders will continue fighting over the limited dollars that exist.
And while it would be easy to get frustrated by the situation, MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott has managed to remain hopeful that the process will lead to a favorable outcome for the transit backbone of the region.
“There’s a solution,” Scott said. “We have come too far to have it fall apart now.”

Metro Atlanta turning winning transit season into losing one

By Guest Columnist COLLEEN KIERNAN, director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club for SaportaReport
The way the Transportation Investment Act (TIA) is playing out in the Metro Atlanta Region feels a lot like the 2011 Braves season. It started out with a lot of hope and promise, primed with new leaders at the helm who would be able to undo years of disappointment.
In the early stages, it stumbled a bit, but by mid-season, it was in good shape.  After the All-Star Break, aka the August 15 deadline for a draft project list, boosters claimed the list was about 55 percent transit, 45 percent roads.
Although I’m not aware of anyone who thought the draft list was perfect, it did represent the first time that the 10-county region, as a whole, was going to make a significant and (somewhat) ongoing commitment to funding transit. That commitment, like the ballclub, is starting to crumble in the home stretch.
The team that blew a long lead was the same team that had been looking good enough to run up that long lead.  The TIA showed a similar appearance vs. reality profile: the 55 percent transit number was always a bit misleading.
That figure considered only the 85 percent of the pot that the Roundtable is allocating, omitting the other 15 percent that local jurisdictions get to spend on their own local projects – almost certainly roads.

The 55 percent also counts federal money that is tagged for projects, which makes the transit percentage appear higher than it is. The true final breakdown is likely to be around 40 percent transit / 60 percent roads – a discouraging result in light of the fact that road projects have a dedicated revenue stream, the gas tax; transit has limited regional and no state funding.

Even if the TIA were dedicated entirely to transit, overall regional spending on transit expansion would still fall short of projected roadway spending over the life of the tax. That long lead was not so long after all, not so long it couldn’t be blown when confronted by determined opponents.  The difference between the Braves and TIA is that the opponents are supposed to be members of the TIA team.
But the most troubling element of the TIA draft list is that a segment of the Northern Arc expressway, an intensely controversial road that was repeatedly contested finally defeated by a diverse coalition of organizations (including Sierra Club) nearly a decade ago, was quietly slipped onto the list as project TIA-GW-060 with little public discussion regarding the true impact and ramifications of this decision.
The connection between TIA-GW-060 and the historical Outer Perimeter / Northern Arc concept is undeniable when properly articulated (click here  for a visual explanation), and we are concerned that once voters fully appreciate the magnitude of the decision to resurrect a divisive proposal that was resoundingly rejected by the public years ago, this project will become a poison pill that could endanger passage of the tax next year.
While no amendments were offered that would strip the Northern Arc, Roundtable members have started hacking away at the transit component. Cobb County, which got the biggest allocation of transit money, proposed moving $271.5 million from their transformative rail project from Atlanta to Cumberland to making a portion of Windy Hill Road an expressway and adding bus service from Acworth to Atlanta.
While Cobb insists that the feds will step in and keep the rail project viable, the project will “live” on a wing and a prayer instead of a reliable stream of revenue.
More encouraging was a proposal from DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis to  redirect road money from a massive widening and reconstruction  of GA-400  to the proposal for rail along I-20, but the amendment received little support from fellow Roundtable members. It was then revised to take from the Clifton Corridor rail project instead, and was ultimately tabled until next week.
If this “robbing Peter to pay Paul” exercise is approved, it may be enough to satisfy South DeKalb constituents who have promised a “Vote No” campaign if I-20 East rail is not on the list, but will seriously jeopardize the viability of the Clifton project and likely lose another constituency that otherwise  could have enthusiastically supported the tax.
The more offensive example of “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” however, is the proposal to fully fund Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s (GRTA) Xpress buses at the expense of MARTA maintenance and the Beltline and Clifton Corridor rail projects.
As Senator Doug Stoner pointed out, it’s time for the State to step up to the plate on GRTA funding. And finally, despite  overwhelming  support from all corners for adding the Griffin commuter rail line, all it got was $20 million for additional studies, which while taken from another bad road project (the Tara Boulevard “super arterial”) is good, but not enough.
Sierra Club can’t see any major public constituency that will be truly excited about supporting the T-SPLOST as the project list currently stands — not just on election day but also during the critical campaign season leading up to the vote.
Anti-tax activists and Tea Party types will oppose this new tax simply because it’s a tax.
Should the T-SPLOST fail to inspire significant support from environmental and pro-transit voters, this could be the death knell for passage of the 2012 referendum. The Roundtable would be much better served by focusing on gaining the support of the ever-growing and varied group of pro-transit voters.
If they do, Atlanta can take its place among other forward-looking metropolitan areas that have positioned themselves for enduring success in the 21st century. And then the Roundtable’s last regular season game, despite dragging on for 13 innings, will end up in the “W” column, and we won’t have to once again “wait ‘til next year.”

Atlanta-to-Griffin rail line getting second look

Dave Williams
Staff Writer – Atlanta Business Chronicle

A commuter rail line linking Atlanta with Griffin, Ga., that appeared to be out of contention for funding through a proposed regional transportation sales tax may get a new life.
The committee of metro-Atlanta mayors and county commissioners that has been assembling a list of highway and transit improvements to submit to voters in 10 counties next year will reconsider the commuter rail project on Wednesday.
An amendment to the $6.1 billion project list proposed by Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, a member of the regional “roundtable” developing the list, would set aside $350 million to build the rail line.
The roundtable had rejected the Atlanta-to-Griffin line last summer as too expensive. But Bell’s amendment, seconded by Union City, Ga., Mayor Ralph Moore, contends the work could be done for more than $900 million below original estimates by scaling back the scope of the project.
“As the first investment in the corridor between Atlanta and Savannah, this is the only project of significant regional and state impact,” Bell wrote in the form he submitted requesting the amendment. “This will be the only rail investment south of I-20, has strong support in the corridor inside and outside Atlanta, and meets every roundtable criteria.”
Supporters, including commuter rail advocates, complained vigorously when a five-member subcommittee of the roundtable recommended a project list that did not include the commuter rail line.
Under the 2010 state law that established the roundtable process and next year’s referendum, the full 22-member roundtable has until Oct. 15 to finalize the project list that will appear on the ballot.
Bell’s amendment recommends a series of cuts to the list to offset the $350 million that would go to the rail line. The largest would involve reducing the funds that would go toward a planned light rail line from Midtown Atlanta to the Cumberland Mall area by $85.7 million and cutting the proposed Clifton Corridor rail line by $70 million.

Atlanta Forward / Another View: A smart regional plan must prioritize transit

By  Burrell Ellis

At 5.5 million people, the Atlanta region makes up the 10th-largest  metropolitan area in the United States. Over the last 20 years, our region  has been one of the fastest-growing urban centers in the country. This is  largely the result of investments in infrastructure that have not only  created new jobs, but which have afforded us access to the global  marketplace. Our transportation investments, in particular, have kept us  economically competitive and enhanced our quality of life.

Traditionally, cities and counties have individually invested local tax  revenues in infrastructure and then leveraged those investments with  matching contributions from the state and federal governments.
As the federal government grapples with the deficit and the state government  deals with its own revenue reduction, the competition for matching funds has  become fierce. It is no longer Atlanta versus Cobb County, or DeKalb versus  Gwinnett.
With fewer federal funds available to disburse, our key competitors are other  metropolitan communities such as Charlotte, Dallas-Fort Worth, Phoenix and  Seattle. It is those regions that address their needs collaboratively and  smartly that are the most competitive, both in securing federal funds as  well as new industry.
That’s why a smart regional transportation plan … one that addresses the  transportation patterns of the people within the region irrespective of  which city or county they may reside in … is a necessity. A smart regional  plan is vital to our growth, economic prosperity and quality of life.
The most vibrant and sustainable metropolitan areas throughout the world have  regional transit systems. While a 1-cent sales tax cannot fund all of our  region’s transportation needs, a smart plan should prioritize a transit  system that is regionally funded … if that plan is expected to reasonably  reduce traffic congestion and gain the trust of the people it is designed to  serve.
Over the past several months, the Atlanta Regional Roundtable has put together  the framework for such a plan.
Over the next two months, there will be more opportunities for public input  before a final plan is put before the roundtable members for a vote.  Ultimately, the voters within the 10-county region will decide whether they  like the plan and are willing to fund it.
We have a tremendous opportunity to show that Atlanta has grown, not only in  size but also in progress. That will require shared sacrifice and regional  thinking.
 
Burrell Ellis is DeKalb County CEO.

Clifton Corridor Residents Worry About Compensation, Quality of Life

By Eden Landow for Virginia-Highland/Druid Hills Patch
Neighborhood groups involved in planning for a MARTA expansion through the Clifton Corridor say residents are worried they might not be adequately compensated for their property or that the right-of-way would extend virtually to their doorsteps and harm their quality of life.

Planning consultant Heather Alhadeff, who has been hired by Lindbergh LaVista Corridor Coalition Inc. to aid in the communication process, discusses the proposals with LLCC board member Rosalie Townsend, former LLCC president Henry Batten and NPU-F chairwoman and LLCC transportation coordinator Jane Rawlings. Credit Eden Landow

The public got another chance Wednesday night to comment on a proposed $1 billion project to expand MARTA rail through the  Clifton corridor and link Lindbergh Center with Emory, the CDC, Decatur  and Avondale.
The latest configuration proposes heavy rail, including some  underground tracks, from Lindbergh Center to the intersection of  Clairmont and North Decatur roads and then light rail or bus rapid to  the Avondale MARTA station. Three possibilities were detailed among the  presentations up for comment.
Jason Morgan, MARTA

Jason Morgan, regional planner for MARTA and project manager for the Clifton Corridor Transit Initiative, said Wednesday night’s Station Area Planning and Alignment Workshop, held at Torah Day School of Atlanta, concludes the public meetings that will be held during the Alternative Analysis phase of the project development process.
“It’s important that people’s concerns are documented at this stage   so they can be flagged for inclusion in the environmental process and   then we can be ready to mitigate them,” Morgan said.
Three previous formal public-input meetings were held, including this one, two last year and one in May. In addition, several community meetings have been held, including one called by the Lindbergh LaVista Corridor Coalition on July 12 that was attended by more than 200 people.
Neighborhood groups involved in the Clifton Corridor transit development process, so far, have included Morningside/Lenox Park Neighbhorhood Association, Lindridge/Martin Manor Neighborhood Association and Woodland Hills Neighborhood Association.
Planners had explored at-grade options including light rail and bus rapid transit and to utilize the CSX right-of-way, but neighborhood concerns, development density and refusal by CSX to share their space, open up the possibility for subterranean tracks.
Rather than blasting, Morgan said, builders would use a tunnel-boring machine.
“We want to avoid the ‘cut-and-cover’ method, which involves a lot of disruption, which is what we’re trying to avoid,” he said.
LLCC and Lenox Park/Morningside have hired consultant Perkins+Will’s Urban Design practice and their senior transportation planner, Heather Alhadeff, to assist them in getting their concerns heard.
“I am here to coordinate, advise and manage the dialogue between MARTA and their partner, CCTMA, and the neighborhoods,” said Aldaheff, “to communicate things in a meaningful, understandable and productive way, in both directions.”
MARTA and CCTMA boards are expected to vote in November on the proposal, which would send the process to the environmental stage, during which historic and ecological studies would be made, as well as impact studies on what effect would be felt by property owners. Once the environmental stage is cleared, the process moves on to preliminary engineering and then the final design stage.
All four stages of the development process must include public input as well as local and federal approval, Morgan said.
On Thursday, the Atlanta Regional Roundtable’s executive committee meets to adopt a list of transit priorities in the Atlanta region, which will be reviewed and approved by the full roundtable before going to voters as part of the statewide referendum in July or November called the Transportation Investment Act.
“We are trying to position the project so that it will qualify for any federal funds that might be available,” Morgan said, “regardless of what happens with TIA.”
This part of MARTA’s planning process began in 2009. Construction is likely to take upwards of 10 years, unless TIA passes, in which case, Morgan said, the process would speed up by a year or even two.
On one side of the room were posters and flipcharts for community comments on MARTA proposals for heavy rail from Lindbergh Center, through the Emory campus to the intersection of North Decatur and Clairmont roads, then bus rapid transit (BRT) or light rail (LRT) along Scott Boulevard and then to the Avondale MARTA station. Linking to the Decatur MARTA station, for the moment, appeared to be off the table.
Also off the table seemed to be utilizing the right-of-way held by CSX railroad, though one of the planners at the meeting speculated that, once funding is identified and the project moves closer to being a reality, that the company might be willing to discuss the possibility.
On the other side of the room were placards describing how the stations might be designed for optimal entrance and access and amenities.
“We’re trying to find the right balance between having stations placed far enough apart that the trains can move faster, yet making sure we have enough stations so that people can get where they need to go,” Morgan said.
Ridership estimates were included on the posters, indicating that in 2030 about 27,000 “boardings,” or the number of people getting on the train at any given station along the way, each would be expected for heavy rail, about 17,000 for light rail and about 11,000 for bus rapid transit.
“None of the expansion projects could be done the way things are structured now,” said MARTA spokesman Lyle Harris. “Federal funds require that operating funds be available. The current ’50-50′ funding structure probably needs to be revisited.”
Also attending the meeting was DeKalb Commissioner Jeff Rader, who said he did not feel he had a direct role in this portion of the process but that these types of improvements could substantially reduce automobile traffic in his district and the impact of the traffic.
Later, he said, the DeKalb Commission would likely weigh in on land use and development proposals along the corridor.
“I haven’t heard anyone here say that we don’t need transit,” Rader said. “It’s just a matter of how we can get there.”
MARTA also is in the alternatives analysis phase of an expansion plan for an I-20 East Corridor to serve south DeKalb.

Perkins+Will Hired to Provide Technical & Strategic Expertise

By Jane P. Rawlings, LLCC Transportation Coordinator

 

Heather Alhadeff, Senior Transportation Planner

The Lindbergh LaVista Corridor Coalition is pleased to once again engage the services of Perkins+Will’s Urban Design practice and their Senior Transportation Planner, Heather Alhadeff. Ms. Alhadeff is uniquely positioned to offer expert, independent analysis on the current Clifton Corridor proposals. This consulting work will begin immediately, and continue on a contractual basis.
Our Board of Directors has committed the necessary initial funding, while also reaching out to other impacted parties in order to help offset the costs involved. We’re seeking assistance, and would be pleased for you to consider making your own special contribution at this time of $10, $50, or $100.
Donations are 100% tax deductible, and can be made online through our PayPal secure website by clicking here.
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Don’t have a PayPal account? Look for this wording on the left side of the donation page, “Use your credit card or bank account,” and click Continue.

Regional transportation tax panel puts off projects vote

Atlanta Business Chronicle – by Dave Williams, Staff Writer

A subcommittee of local elected officials is delaying its decision on which transportation improvements should be funded by a proposed regional sales tax right up to a state-imposed deadline.
The Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable’s executive committee had been expected to vote Thursday on a list of highway and transit projects to be built with $6.14 billion that would be available regionally if voters in the 10-county metro area approve the tax next year.
But the five-member panel is still trying to whittle down a $6.56 billion list of projects unveiled late Wednesday by the Atlanta Regional Commission staff. That’s as far as ARC staff members could get in cutting a project list that started with nearly $23 billion in requests from Atlanta-area cities, counties and transportation agencies.
The list the executive committee is working from includes partial funding for the Atlanta Beltline project and extensions of MARTA rail service along the Clifton Corridor, north to Holcomb Bridge Road in Fulton County and east to Wesley Chapel Road in DeKalb County.
It also incorporates a planned light rail line connecting MARTA’s Arts Center station with the Cumberland Mall area of Cobb County.
But it doesn’t include funds for a commuter rail line linking downtown Atlanta with Griffin, Ga., an omission that drew protests from political and business leaders from the south side of metro Atlanta and from commuter rail advocates.
Of about $3.5 billion in transit projects on the list as proposed, less than 3 percent would go to the area south of Interstate 20, said Gordon Kenna, CEO of Georgians for Passenger Rail.
“We are about to do the biggest thing we’ve ever done as a region, and you are completely ignoring half of the region,” Kay Pippin, president of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce, told the executive committee. “You’re going to have to open the door and let us come in.”
The executive committee will meet on Monday – its deadline under legislation passed by the General Assembly last year – to finalize the project list it will recommend to the full roundtable. The 21-member roundtable then will have until Oct. 15 to submit the projects voters will asked to approve next year.