Atlanta needs advocates for transit riders, not just transit plans
BeltLine Rail Now! recently marched along the BeltLine in support of making light rail transit on the entire BeltLine loop a higher priority in the More MARTA program, claiming that they’ve been subject to a “bait-and-switch” by MARTA. I recently called them out for spreading inaccurate information, whether intentional or not. I also shared my opinion that the City of Atlanta lacks sustained and effective transit advocacy.
My gripe about BeltLine Rail Now! stems from the fact that I am disappointed that such an energized and committed group of people is so focused on modes rather than getting people from A to B. Their members are engaged, energetic, and show up to public meetings to influence decision making. It's a shame that we don't see this effort on behalf of transit riders, rather than plans alone. Plans are meant to serve people, and should grow and change as cities do. As such, advocates would do well to remember that the intended outcome (better transit!) of plans is the purpose, not the plan itself.
A few people rightfully called me out and asked me what better transit advocacy would entail in Atlanta. I've tried to dig into the topic a bit here. In my opinion, Atlanta transit advocates are primarily motivated by expansion and referenda, but lose sight of improving service. I've tried to diagnose why referenda are such a focus for advocates, why that creates division, and how we can do a bit better. I've also tried to briefly explain how transit funding works in Atlanta, as this is key in understanding transit decisionmaking.
It’s worth walking through some recent Atlanta transit and BeltLine history. In short, the BeltLine was to be funded through a Tax Allocation District (TAD) in addition to federal, state, regional, and local funding mechanisms. In 2005 when the BeltLine project was “officially” launched, the TAD was expected to generate about 60% of the $4.3 billion needed to build out the system of trails, parks, affordable housing, and transit by 2030. The Great Recession, and several lawsuits made that an overly optimistic assumption. As of the 2013 Strategic Implementation Plan, about half that (33%) of BeltLine funds are expected from the TAD. If there was any bait-and-switch, I’d argue it was that the mere promise of the BeltLine could generate enough “economic development” to fund the lion's share of a transit system without needing to levy additional taxes. Figure 1 below designates ABI’s goals for different funding sources.
Atlanta BeltLine Inc. thus found itself needing to find other sources of money to build out the system of trails, greenspace, and light rail. ABI has been fairly effective pursuing some federal funds. To date, the BeltLine has benefited from $18 million in Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funds, $2.8 million in Transportation Enhancement Grants, and an $18 million TIGER grant (Note: TIGER is now known as BUILD). The Strategic Implementation Plan has a nice overview of relevant federal funding sources for curious readers. See Appendix B, starting on page 101. I’d also note that the Department of the Interior’s Land and Water Conservation Fund (recently permanently reauthorized and named after John Dingell in 2019) also includes grant programs for trails and parks, and theoretically another promising federal program for BeltLine construction.
However, building light rail typically requires a lot of money. Since light rail is so expensive, it requires Capital Improvement Grants from the Federal Transit Administration. In the current policy environment, transit capital funds are sparse, competitive, and the federal cost share is increasingly small. Any hope of receiving these funds requires a large amount of local match funding. Every CIG project is competing against many other worthy projects. Being awarded these funds requires a combination of solid planning, congressional representatives in the right places, local match funds, and luck, amongst other things. Transit agencies can’t control most of these factors, but they can plan, and in MARTA’s case, levy local funds.
MARTA generates most of their funding from local sales taxes (about $500 million per year). They also generate some revenue from fares, but it is relatively small compared to the sales tax revenue (about $150-200 million per year). MARTA receives no money from GDOT, and about $150 million from the federal government for various projects. That revenue funds operations, maintenance, debt service, and some relatively capital projects. It may sound like a lot, but that doesn’t leave much money to fund the major expansion projects that many Atlantans hope to see. So, MARTA has the ability to ask voters if they’d like to levy additional taxes against themselves tp generate additional revenue to finance and fund expansion projects.
After a failed regional referenda in 2012, MARTA decided to put a referendum on the ballot to increase sales tax by .5 percentage points in the City of Atlanta in 2016. At the same time, the City of Atlanta asked voters to approve a .4 percentage point sales tax for transportation improvements. During the 2012 regional referenda, Atlanta voters overwhelmingly supported increased sales taxes, while sub-and-exurban areas did not. By restricting the tax to Atlanta alone, it was very likely that the referenda would pass.
After the successful RENEW Atlanta bond vote in 2015 and MARTA and TSPLOST referenda on the ballot in 2016, there was a groundswell of support for transit and sustainable transportation in Atlanta. The Reed administration (a big supporter of the 2012 referendum) and MARTA were keen to get a win, and mobilized many groups to support the sales taxes. Sierra Club, Citizens for Progressive Transit, and Partnership for Southern Equity all stepped up to the plate to galvanize support for the referenda. Around the same time, MARTA Army and Advance Atlanta formed. These organizations and countless others worked to promote a new vision for Atlanta's transportation system.
To give voters an idea of what the sales tax might support, MARTA presented many potential projects. Major capital projects on the list were already progressing through the planning process, including the Clifton Corridor, BeltLine Light Rail/Atlanta Streetcar System Plan (see page 8 for those projects progressing to environmental review in 2015), and Summerhill BRT. Similarly TSPLOST/RENEW published a long list of transportation improvements. The TSPLOST/RENEW issues are an entirely different discussion, but the point is that there were many different transportation projects being floated around at the time.
Throughout the engagement process, MARTA and city officials attempted to make clear that these were potential projects rather than what would result from the referenda. However, it’s difficult to look at that list and remember that it is a vision rather than a plan. When those project lists inevitably get cut down, people get upset, and those that agree on a broad vision find that they might agree in principle but not in practice. This is basically what’s happened in Atlanta since these referenda. Most citizens have probably forgotten about the referenda, but advocates are continue fighting each other over their own pet projects.
As I noted above, Atlanta’s transit advocacy tends to be focused on referenda and expansion projects. I think this exacerbates division between advocates when referenda pass and decisions are made. While it's important to mobilize people for major votes, I'd argue that it is just as important to show up to public meetings to demand service improvements. I don’t know of any marches for increased frequency, dedicated bus lanes, or all door boarding. Transit expansion is exciting. Making existing systems function better isn’t nearly as exciting, but that's all the more reason to advocate on behalf of system improvements.
Advocating for improving the current system does preclude advocating for larger projects. In fact, I’d argue that if you believe that Atlanta needs to invest in a multi-billion dollar expansion, you absolutely should advocate for short term improvements.
In addition, I’d argue that advocating for major projects requires understanding the decision-making process, and how projects get built. Transportation funding is complex and at times convoluted, but if you’re advocating for projects that cost billions of dollars, you should at least be informed at how things work. BeltLine Light Rail is a good example.
I’d venture to guess that there are many reasons that the BeltLine light rail loop was not very high on MARTA’s phasing sequence. One of the main reasons is that the full loop is unlikely to be competitive for federal New Starts funds. The segments of the BeltLine prioritized in the More MARTA sequencing are furthest along in the planning and environmental process. Further, the full BeltLine loop, without other supporting lines, would do a very poor job of getting people places. Completed Environmental Review, ridership projections, and cost effectiveness per trip are major factors when FTA decides on which projects to fund. Without federal funding, these projects don’t happen. Last, the sequencing isn’t all that surprising. The northeast and southwest BeltLine light rail segments were identified as Phase 1 or 2 in Atlanta Streetcar System Plan, published in February 2014. Public engagement on that implementation strategy and suggested phasing goes back many years, and is pretty easy to find on ABI’s website.
When I see BeltLine Rail Now! advocates marching on the BeltLine, I’m reminded of an excellent post-mortem on the failed Nasvhille transit referenda in 2016 by Jeff Davis. In it, Jeff notes that Nashville transit advocates “may have lost sight of the fundamental question that has been inherent in discussions of mass transit since the beginning of the federal role there – what’s the point?”
Answering the fundamental question is critical here. What do we want our transit system to do? Jeff points to two primary objectives:
1. Moving [many] people safely and efficiently
2. Promote better urban development, better land use, and more “livable communities”
As Jeff wrote, no transit referenda is going to be focused on one of these items alone, but will almost certainly prioritize one over the other. BeltLine Rail Now!, in advocating that MARTA prioritize light rail on the BeltLine over all other projects is advocating for item 2. While this is important, I tend to fall into those that believe that the first objective is the primary purpose of a transit system. If you are moving people safely and efficiently, it is also possible to promote better urban development. If the primary focus is #2, then moving people safely and efficiently doesn’t necessarily follow. BeltLine light rail does well to accomplish objective #2. It does not accomplish objective #1.
So what’s a transit advocate to do?
I’d recommend Steven Higashide’s excellent piece in Streetsblog USA about the importance of advocating for buses (and his new book!). I won’t try to rewrite that post here, but will emphasize some of Steven’s point in an Atlanta context. Steven writes “In many cities, buses and the people who ride them have been ignored for so long that it takes a fight just to get on the public agenda.”
This is absolutely correct and relevant in Atlanta. Of the myriad groups working on transit in Atlanta, few are focused on improving bus service. Citizens for Progressive Transit has long been active in the space, but has focused on many other worthwhile goals. MARTA Army has done some amazing work improving ridership experience, but was not formed as an advocacy organization. Their love for the bus is real, and they’ve made riding the bus better in this city. They deserve a great deal of credit for that. Thread ATL have also persistently pointed out the benefits of improving bus service for years. However, Thread is fighting many battles concurrently and it’s time for transportation specific groups to step up to the plate and start advocating on behalf of riders instead of plans.
To quote Higashide again:
To win better buses in more cities, we need more wonky transit blogs, more faith-based organizing, more riders’ unions, and more state budget watchdogs. Local foundations that care about climate change, wealth inequality, and social inclusion must work for more sustainable and equitable public transit.
We have some of these things here in Atlanta, but I haven’t seen the level of sustained, persistent advocacy on behalf of the bus here in Atlanta. Frankly, I’d love to see something akin to a Transit Riders Union form in Atlanta: a group that advocates on behalf of transit riders, rather than modes.
To their credit, MARTA has shown an interest in improving bus service in the city of Atlanta. They’ve declared this to be the “Year of the Bus” and hired a Director of Bus Operations from one of the largest cities in North America. That being said, there needs to be strong and sustained pressure from the advocacy community to hold MARTA, the ATL, the City of Atlanta, and GDOT accountable for improving transit on behalf of riders.
What would better transit advocacy in the City of Atlanta look like? Here are a few specific ideas:
1. Dedicated space
Buses can move faster, and more reliably if they aren’t stuck in traffic. Unfortunately, MARTA doesn’t control street right of way. Advocates can pressure the City of Atlanta and the Georgia Department of Transportation to work towards their stated goals to
2. Signal priority
The City of Atlanta and Georgia Department of Transportation have invested a large amount of money in their traffic signals. Those signal improvements should help transit operate better. With some dedicated space at intersections, bus can jump the queue and make buses more reliable and useful.
3. Better maps
Riding the bus can be intimidating for people trying new routes, or riding for the first time. Better maps can help potential riders understand how they can travel from A to B.
None of these ideas are new. Many have suggested them repeatedly, but there needs a sustained effort on improving MARTA as it currently exists in addition to expanding it.
And some general ideas:
1. Don’t think about your own ride
One pitfall that many people fall into is advocating on behalf of efforts that benefit them personally. If you focus on only those things that will improve transit for you individually, we fall into arguments about who “deserves” a project more. Focus on improving the system.
2. Focus on service
Much of the transit advocacy in Atlanta is focused on expansions and referenda. That’s understandable. However, we lack transit advocacy that focuses on the day-to-day experiences of riders and what effects them. Yes, advocates must organize during referenda and around long term plans, but there is an overemphasis on long term improvements with little focus on improving the system as it current exists.
3. Be informed
Understand the basics of transit operations and funding. You don’t need to know the intricacies of federal funding programs, but they should be familiar enough that one understands how they motivate decisions. The major decisions in the More MARTA program
In closing, I’ll quote Higashide again:
In every American city where buses improve, it has happened only through the efforts of reformers working in concert inside and outside of government. That’s because the barriers to better bus service are not technical or technological — they’re political and institutional.
I hope that transit advocates in Atlanta heed Steven’s advice and use and understand networks of power to improve our transit system.