2016 Legislative Session

In Rejecting MARTA Expansion, North Fulton Hands Atlanta a Major Gift

Atlanta is set to take a major step forward in creating desirable development while North Fulton and the rest of the northern suburbs continue along the path of roads and traffic. After the surprising failure of SB-330, the bill that would have funded a major MARTA expansion, the Georgia Senate came up with SB-369, a “watered-down” version of SB-330 that would ask only Atlanta voters to approve tax hikes to pay for transit within the city.

This is certainly a limited version of the original plan. SB-330 would have asked voters in Fulton and Dekalb Counties to raise the sales tax to pay for an $8 billion MARTA expansion plan. That plan would have extended rail into Northern Fulton County, extended rail and bus along I-20, and added light rail along Clifton Road in Dekalb County. Though over 70% of residents of the two counties thought MARTA rail should be extended, including a majority in North Fulton, politicians in the northern suburbs voiced opposition to transit and the bill died.

Politicians then compromised and came up with SB-369 so that voters in North Fulton wouldn’t be subject to voting for higher taxes. The compromise bill, if passed, would only ask voters in the City of Atlanta to raise taxes with the projected $2.5 billion in revenue going towards funding transit in the city.

This is clearly a major loss in terms of regional transportation when we desperately need better regional transit. But this is a huge win for Atlanta. Under the original bill, Atlanta would have seen very little as most of the infrastructure would have occurred in Dekalb and Fulton Counties. Now the city possibly raises $2.5 billion just for transit projects within the city.

This means we may actually be able to equip the Beltline with light rail. Though we won’t get the Clifton Road Corridor light rail since the project area lies mostly in Dekalb County, the Beltline light rail is the jackpot. While the Beltline is currently a tremendous tool for recreating, it really isn’t a practical mode of transportation without rail.

We’ve already seen massive amounts of development in and around the Beltline, but transit is a whole new ballgame. It offers the ability for people easily, comfortably, and quickly commute between a number of walkable communities within the city; this is important in the middle of July when it’s 95 degrees with 90% humidity.


The Beltline winding its way through new development in Inman Park

For instance, it would dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes to go from Midtown/Piedmont Park to the quickly developing areas around the Inman Park sections of the Beltline. We should also expect to see a massive increase in the amount of development in the area beyond the development we are already seeing without transit.

Connecting walkable developments to transit is critical. Such developments are in high demand as more and more people want to shop and do errands by foot. But while these developments are often touted as solutions to traffic, it isn’t often mentioned that without transit connection people are still largely reliant on cars. Walkable developments can generally be defined as developments that allow pedestrians to easily access a number of different services. If developments do not include residential units and do not include transit access then access is dependent on a car.

It’s great to see more walkable developments in the area and it’s great to see that many studies show Atlanta is one of the hottest markets for walkable developments, but we need to do a much better job of connecting these developments to transit. In order for us to keep traffic in check while also accommodating massive population growth, we must allow more people to get to where they need to go on a regular basis without the use of a car.

Chris Leinberger, who was a fellow panelist on Tuesday’s “On Second Thought”, authored a renowned paper on walkable developments. It’s a great read, but a major flaw is that it doesn’t take into account residential units or transit access when determining whether a development is “walkable.” He did find that office space in walkable areas is 74% more expensive than traditional suburban office space. Another study showed a 23% premium on office and retail space in walkable neighborhoods in the Washington, DC area pre-recession and a 44% premium during the recession.[1]


The blue jay near the Beltline in the Old Fourth Ward

And so is property near transit. Charlotte has also seen a positive correlation between housing prices and access to their new light rail system. Clearly this type of development is in demand. A 2013 study by the National Association of Realtors and American Public Transportation Association of five metro areas across the country found that residential properties located near transit outperformed the rest of the region by 41%  in retaining their property value between 2006 and 2011. So the market really loves walkable areas with transit access. And on top of that, the combination of walkable neighborhoods and transit will potentially allow more people to move here while limiting the number of new cars on the roads.

With the new funding for transit, Atlanta will continue to separate itself from the rest of the region. The northern suburbs can still build walkable developments, but it’s likely they will only contribute to more traffic and congestion; people will still need cars to get to the developments and those people lucky enough to live in such developments will still need cars to get to work. The reluctance by North Fulton, Cobb, and surrounding areas to support transit is baffling when so many economic indicators point to it as overwhelmingly positive. While this hurts the region, Atlanta will happily take the deal and continue to progress.

  1. Found on page 8 of the article.


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