A rendering of the Atlanta Streetcar running along the Atlanta BeltLine loop.

The advocacy group BeltLine Rail Now has issued a proposal it says would complete the loop’s transit element decades sooner than the current 2050 target date. But MARTA calls the idea an unrealistic “wish list” that would harm other transit projects.

The disagreement comes amid a flurry of political activity regarding funding and completion of the Atlanta BeltLine, including a push for a commercial tax increase to pay for its trail element, which BeltLine Rail Now also opposes, and concerns about affordable housing goals and gentrification.

The BeltLine is a proposed 22-mile system of multiuse trails and an accompanying light-rail mass transit line that would encircle Intown, largely using old railroad corridors. The transit has yet to be built, while several segments of the trail have already opened.

The roughly $2.5 billion plan for BeltLine transit includes funding from the “More MARTA” half-penny sales tax as well as many other sources, some of them to be determined. BeltLine Rail Now emerged in 2018 amid concerns that MARTA was putting the transit element on the back-burner or considering replacing the light rail with buses. The group’s co-founder is Ryan Gravel, who conceived of the BeltLine and several years ago resigned a board position at Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, ABI’s nonprofit funding arm, in disagreement with its work on equity and affordability.

With renewed talk of funding the trail, BeltLine Rail Now on Jan. 28 issued a “white paper” saying that the transit can and must be funded as well and both elements created together.

“Current More MARTA plans target completion of BeltLine rail for 2050, and we are here to remind our mayor and city council that the BeltLine is a visionary equity project and not simply a concrete path,” said Matthew Rao, co-chair of BeltLine Rail Now, in a press release. “Without the density and mobility that transit allows, there can be no significant affordable housing. And without transit built in from the beginning, displacement of long-time residents is accelerating. The promotion of a tax-subsidized trail without BeltLine rail has worsened problems like these.”

The proposal says the transit could be completed by 2030 using a mix of federal funding, special assessment districts, sales taxes and tax increment financing.

“We have looked at other cities’ successes, and illustrate how Atlanta can do the same,” says the group on its website. “Yet the argument is not about funding scarcity. It is about our leaders’ political will. We cannot settle for a park and trail system that gives a bonanza to developers while sidelining equity, affordability and sustainability.”

MARTA said in a written statement that it is fully aware of how to fund transit projects.

“MARTA wholeheartedly agrees with Beltline Rail Now … that additional funding sources are necessary in order to expand the MARTA system and provide better connectivity across the city and region,” the transit agency said. “… That said, the BRN white paper is less a blueprint for funding and more a wish list.”

Among the proposal’s problems, MARTA said, are that it “glosses over steep legislative and policy hurdles” in getting other funding and that it “conflates financing and funding, a common but serious mistake.” MARTA said the proposal also would require eliminating transit projects planned for Campbellton Road in southwest Atlanta and the Clifton Corridor light rail between Buckhead’s Lindbergh Center Station and the Emory University area.

For a longer version of this story, visit Reporter Newspapers.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.