MARTA has signed a contract to begin a feasibility study for adding the light rail component to the Atlanta BeltLine loop.

The transit authority’s board of directors authorized a contract for a comprehensive engineering analysis for light rail that would connect to current MARTA heavy rail stations. The feasibility study will be conducted by VHB/Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. at a cost of $500,000.

According to a press release from MARTA, the six-month study is an important step towards requesting federal funding support as well as taking a close look at design gaps in connecting the BeltLine to existing transit.

“MARTA appreciates that advocates for BeltLine rail are eager to see dirt turned, but upon analysis of initial environmental and engineering studies conducted by ABI [Atlanta BeltLine Inc.], we identified significant gaps that must be addressed,” said MARTA General Manager and CEO Jeffrey Parker in a press release. “This is typical for a project of this size and this feasibility study will examine technical issues and risks involved in building light rail on the BeltLine and give us a better sense of overall project costs and feasibility. Right now, we have lines on a map with little to no connectivity. For this project to progress and ultimately succeed, it must connect to the existing MARTA system.”

The press release said the draft environmental study documents released by ABI were primarily trail-based and did not address several areas of rail transit concerns. The planning review of the documents revealed transit connectivity gaps to the north between Ansley Mall and Lindbergh Center rail station and to the south between the existing Streetcar and I-20. Additionally, alignment options to MARTA heavy rail stations and alongside existing private railroad tracks have not been adequately addressed and require more evaluation, the press release said.

Advocacy group BeltLine Rail Now maintained in a post on its website and social media that light rail was the only answer and questioned MARTA’s “hand-wringing and doubt.”

In the post on its website, the organization asked, “Why are we still talking about this 20 years after the BeltLine vision captured the hearts and minds of our city? Since 2005, at least three separate expert reviews came to the same official conclusion: the best transit mode for the BeltLine is light rail.”

ABI recently announced that, along with the PATH Foundation, it was starting work on establishing a route for the Northwest Trail segment of the BeltLine through Buckhead and other areas, with a study of the matching transit on that segment to start in the spring. That Northwest transit study will still happen as planned and is not affected by the overall MARTA feasibility study, said Stephany Fisher, a spokesperson for the transit agency.

For more about this story, see coverage in Atlanta Intown.