MARTA's Northward March

The planned expansion of MARTA transit into North Fulton has been floating around the news over the past couple of months.  Dubbed the Connect 400 initiative by MARTA (follow the Facebook page for info), it is looking at expanding transit service north 11.9 miles from the North Springs station to Windward Parkway via either Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), Light Rail or Heavy Rail (the current MARTA rail).  

MARTA’s public outreach department held three meetings in North Fulton in July gathering resident and stakeholder feedback.  The way it looks now, the vast majority of people favor expansion with 76% of both residents and employees surveyed either approving or strongly approving the initiative. Amongst residents, 11% disapprove and 8% strongly disapprove.  Light or heavy rail were the favored modes.  Amongst residents, preference is roughly split with 37% favoring light rail and 40% heavy rail while employees surveyed were 68% in favor of heavy rail.  (detailed report)

The overwhelming support by both residents and employees shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who commutes on GA400.  That said, don’t view transit as a panacea for traffic problems.  Transit only works properly in areas that are congested and it serves as a transportation option rather than a cure for congestion.  A transit line along a non-congested corridor is doomed to fail unless there is extreme subsidy to support high ridership as motorists will always choose the easier option in the absence of financial rewards or penalties.  Now that we are clear that transit will not cure congestion, let’s take a look at some of the issues and obstacles to getting MARTA rail.

Route Alignment - One of the first obstacles to overcome is whether to align the route to the east or west of GA400.  Through Dunwoody and Sandy Springs, the east side of the highway is lined by subdivisions and schools while the west side is mostly lined by apartments and commercial uses.  My money is on a west of 400 alignment but it is a point of contention to watch.

Transit Mode - The cost estimates are roughly $460M for BRT, $1.8B for light rail and $1.6B for heavy rail.  You can write off light rail immediately as it is more expensive, slower and has the mode shift disadvantage.  The real debate will be between the cheaper BRT and the logical heavy rail.  The one thing to point out is that modal shift is a VERY difficult challenge to overcome and it will cut ridership due to unnecessary inconvenience.  And before you start to balk about $1.6B, you may want to consider that the Georgia DOT is currently planning to spend just shy of $1B (one full year of DOT budget) to revamp the GA400 I-285 Interchange.  That spend could become less of a need if a robust rail solution were in place for that corridor.  They are obviously not mutually exclusive but which is the wiser investment for North Fulton and the region, $1B for 1 interchange ‘improvement’ or $1.6B to expand MARTA rail to Windward?  

Station Location - Finding the right spots for stations will prove to be a challenge.  Will the stations be dedicated to parking decks or to Transit Oriented Development (TOD)?  The current heavy rail alignment shows stops at Northridge, Holcomb Bridge, Mansell, North Point Mall, Haynes Bridge and Windward. No stop at Old Milton? Ahem..  AVALON? Gwinnett Tech?  Will North American Properties have another massive walkable development with no direct transit connections like they have with Atlantic Station?  

Crime - The boogie man of transit.  At a recent public meeting in Sandy Springs, an anonymous attendee was quoted in Creative Loafing as saying “I think it’s the lower-income people who are going to come up and start stealing.”  Even if that’s not a real quote, it’s a legitimate mindset that we have to get past.  The study Rail Transit and Neighborhood Crime: The Case of Atlanta, Georgia published in the Oct. 2003 edition of the Southern Economic Journal concluded that “there is no evidence... that suburban residents should fear that crime will rise in their neighborhood if rail lines are extended beyond central city boundaries.”

Competition - The race for more MARTA rail may just be starting.  In November, Clayton County is set to vote on whether to join Fulton and DeKalb counties as MARTA counties by opting into the penny sales tax.  If this passes, they will most certainly be dreaming about rail into Clayton county and the North Fulton line would then be competing for federal funds.  Don’t forget the Beltline transit initiative as well as other in-town corridors such as I20 and the Emory CDC area that are looking to get MARTA rail.  There will probably be a lot of hands reaching for limited dollars.  

So, if we can work through these challenges, the best case scenario is a 6-12 year implementation.  Realistically, if funding is secured and the project gets the green light, we might be riding trains in North Fulton by 2030 which will be around the same time that light rail is circling the city via the Beltline and potential rail will be going out to Clayton County if funding is there.  So, in the next 15 years, the future is looking bright for a more transit friendly metro area where we have more mobility options than we have today.