Since it was chartered in 1965, expansion and funding have been among MARTA’s most formidable opponents. MARTA was designed to serve the entire metro Atlanta region, but Cobb County and Gwinnett County never agreed to participate. Fulton County, DeKalb County, and now Clayton County have footed the bill through a 1 percent sales tax, but without regular funding coming from the state of Georgia, MARTA’s footprint has been constrained to an Atlanta that existed four decades ago. In the meantime, the metro area population has grown larger than that of 30 states.
It is perhaps unsurprising that a city which has become the posterchild for urban sprawl and congestion cannot expand its public transportation system. The northern suburbs have been particularly hesitant. In 2016, representatives from north Fulton watered down a plan offered by Senator Brandon Beach that dedicated $8 billion for MARTA expansion. The plan would have used bond issues, increased sales taxes, and matching federal funds to extend heavy rail lines up 400 North to Alpharetta and along I-20 East to Stonecrest and a light rail line through the Clifton Corridor to Emory University. The final bill only allows referendums on increasing MARTA funding in Atlanta and some parts of Fulton County.
The reluctance to invest in MARTA comes from the notion that Atlanta is not cut out for a robust public transportation network. The low-density suburbs encourage residents to own cars and commute. Moreover, MARTA has only 38 stations, which are spread out over a large, three county area encompassing everywhere from Sandy Springs to Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. The chances of living or working near a station are miniscule. Weak usage numbers ensure that MARTA’s revenues stay low, demand sinks, and the focus remains on road projects, which in turn encourages less public transportation.
To combat this cycle of doom, MARTA is taking steps to increase the density around its stations. MARTA’s Board of Directors recently authorized negotiations on a six-acre development project at the Arts Center Station in Midtown. It would be a four-tower project that brings in office space, residential housing, retail outlets, and maybe even a hotel. The project nicely complements other development in the area including the Whole Foods Market coming in at 14th Street and West Peachtree and the construction of the city’s second tallest skyscraper at the Symphony Center.
The Arts Center Station project is transit-oriented development (TOD), a planning model that brings business and residential development into areas with public transportation. CEO Keith Parker has been advocating for TOD since he began running MARTA in 2012. Parker currently has plans for development at seven transit stations with the most ambitious plans being at the stations in Avondale, Brookhaven, Chamblee, Edgewood, and, now Midtown. TOD projects usually convert unused parking areas or vacant lots into business or residential areas. The Arts Center Project would be the first project to develop the air rights over a station, a game-changer for urban stations with limited surrounding space. MARTA is negotiating with Atlanta developers Cousins Properties and the Integral Group to lead the construction. Success here could open up opportunities for more development in the urban core stations.
TOD is a win-win for urban areas concerned with traffic congestion and suburbs worried about higher density. Metro Atlanta’s population and, thus, its roadway traffic is expected to soar between now and 2040. TOD encourages people to settle in the urban core instead of the sprawling suburbs. If these residents can use public transportation to access their homes, workplaces, and amenities, there will be fewer vehicle-commuters, decreasing the time that residents from far-off counties like Forsyth and Cherokee spend waiting in traffic. TOD will also increase ridership, which should boost revenues and demand for station access. MARTA can use this cash infusion to improve services to existing stations and invest in new stations as well.
Most Georgians don’t want to become like Europe (or the Northeastern United States for that matter). Investment in public transportation has historically been low because metro Atlanta was designed for vehicles, not a rail network. But with current traffic problems and the expected population growth show, a change in strategy is in order. TOD does not address the long-run issue of regional integration (Cobb and Gwinnett will have to be on board for that), but it is a promising way forward on short-run issues.