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Advance Atlanta Hosts First Annual Transit-Fest to Support Transit Expansion

Over 100 transit supporters joined MARTA Chairman Robbie Ashe, BeltLine creator Ryan Gravel, Advance Atlanta board members and several local transit organizations last Sunday to help push transit expansion in the City of Atlanta this November.  Advance Atlanta, a citizen-driven grassroots advocacy coalition, hosted their first annual Transit Fest at Park Tavern drawing the large crowd to learn more about the opportunity city residents will have this November to vote on a referendum to expand transit.  The planned referendum is the result of the efforts of State Senator Brandon Beach (R – Alpharetta), who sponsored pro-transit legislation in the General Assembly earlier this year.

The event was free and open to the public.  Guests had the opportunity to donate funds that will be used to promote the November referendum through various mediums of communication and grassroots organizing events.

Speaking at the event, Atlanta BeltLine creator Ryan Gravel encouraged attendees to support the upcoming transit vote to enhance the city’s growing connectivity and walkability, stating, “The world is watching what we’re doing”.  Gravel’s vision for the BeltLine includes eventual light rail parallel to the current walking trails and connecting to MARTA’s heavy rail system.

Joining Gravel in speaking to the group was MARTA Chairman Robbie Ashe.  An Atlanta native, Ashe grew up using MARTA trains and buses and now chairs the nation’s eighth largest transit system.  He explained the importance of passing the additional funding stream this fall that will provide an additional half-penny for much needed transit expansion.  The funding stream will assist in leveraging additional federal and bond funding for capital projects.  He also announced the utilization of stretch buses that will serve greater numbers of long distance commuters.

Atlanta City Council members Caesar Mitchell and Kwanza Hall also attended the event, providing their support to Advance Atlanta and this November’s transit referendum.  Stressing increased equity in transit development, the council members explained the importance of a transit list that promotes doing the most good and creating opportunity for Atlanta’s diverse citizenry.  As the transit vote draws closer, the city council will oversee the development of the project list that will be funded through the proposed additional revenue stream.

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62, 66 and 73. 1957, 1996, and 2016. Remember those numbers.

To be a transit-enthusiast in metro Atlanta is a position often fraught with disappointment and frustration. It is certainly not for the faint of heart, nor those who are not prepared for a constant, uphill battle. However, from the point of view of this eternal optimist, the tide seems to be turning (as I continue to hold my breath, and furiously “knock on wood”).

As a Sandy Springs native, MARTA trains and buses were constants in my childhood, yet only viewed from the window of a car. It was only after four years in Washington, DC that I realized cities were meant to be experienced on foot, bike, bus, or train, and not, as had been my singular experience, behind the wheel of a car from parking lot A to parking lot B. After returning to Atlanta for graduate school in 2011, residing in Midtown was the logical choice in order to maintain the newfound transportation independence and quality of life to which I had grown accustomed. Just take one look at the Atlanta Business Chronicle, or the cranes that dot the skyline, and clearly the business community agrees.

Heartbreak after TSPLOST’s defeat in 2012 ultimately led to my involvement with Advance Atlanta, and the 12 other like-minded individuals who comprise our Board of Directors. Our traction with metro Atlanta residents, the business community, civic leaders, and elected officials has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my adult life, ultimately leading to the passage of SB 369 a mere 3 hours prior to the close of the 2016 Georgia General Assembly session (this is complicated work for those of us prone to anxiety).

For those unfamiliar, SB 369 offers the City of Atlanta the opportunity to ask its residents for a ½-penny tax increase this November for the purpose of funding a massive expansion of transit within the City limits unlike any this region has seen since MARTA’s inception in the 1970s. Advance Atlanta supported the initial vision of Senator Brandon Beach, SB 313, which would have allowed all of Fulton and DeKalb counties to vote on an even more extensive $8 billion expansion. However, due to obstructionism by an extreme minority of elected officials from North Fulton county (against the evidence of current polling), only the 450,000 residents of the City of Atlanta (as opposed to the approximately 2 million residents of Fulton and DeKalb) will get the historic opportunity for the additional transit we so desperately need and want.

Make no mistake, transit expansion inside the city limits will be a complete game changer for what is consistently described as one of most sprawling and poorly designed cities in America. While the project list will not be completely finalized until this summer, it will likely include some combination of light-rail on the BeltLine (which many of us thought was decades away from becoming a reality), the expansion of the Streetcar outside of Downtown, and infill stations on current MARTA lines.

Ultimately, the success of this expansion will not only benefit the City of Atlanta, but will strengthen the case for growth into Cobb and Gwinnett counties as density builds and demand increases. Currently, the voices calling for transit outside of the urban core have been drowned out by the naysayers. For the opposition to change their tune, they’ll have to feel the prolonged pain of businesses and residents leaving those communities for a more transit-rich environment (which is already occurring, just not to the degree needed for a complete change in attitude).

If you have walked the streets of Midtown and seen the numerous cranes in the sky, driven through Central Perimeter and noticed the Fortune 1000 businesses within a half-mile of MARTA stations, or walked the BeltLine through previously forgotten neighborhoods (which now boast townhomes that cost in the mid- to high six figures), then you understand how connectivity can transform a region.  Now, think about what happens to our City when $2.5 billion is invested in the largest expansion of transit since MARTA’s establishment.  For those of you who lament that Atlanta is not as easily traversed as cities such as Chicago, San Francisco, or Boston, now is your chance to make a difference.

Even if you are not a regular MARTA rider, or even a resident of the City, you have a stake in this.  Proximity to transit increases property values, attracts businesses, and injects culture and walkability into a City’s fabric. One of the reasons that I love Atlanta so much is that we do not have a fully formed identity. Unlike the more established Northeastern cities in this country, we are experiencing growing pains, and still coming into our own. To me, that is extremely exciting, and allows residents to have a much more active role in shaping what we will become. This City is a very different place than during my childhood. On all fronts – culture, business, vibrancy, food, music, and art – we are firing on all cylinders like we never have before. The last piece of the puzzle is a more easily navigable community. Mark my words – the best and the brightest will only put up with mediocrity on that front for so long before leaving for greener pastures. We have put up with extreme traffic for so long that we have collective Stockholm Syndrome. This is a wake-up call – easy and healthy transportation options are not a privilege of a select few Northeast and West Coast metropolises – they are human rights, and we need to expect nothing less from our own beloved City.

Oh, right, those numbers I mentioned:  62 percent of metro Atlanta views MARTA favorably, 66 percent of Fulton and DeKalb county residents favor dealing with traffic congestion by improving transit, not roads, and a whopping 73 percent would vote for a tax increase to fund transit expansion.

In 1957, our airport became the busiest in the world; 1996 is when Atlanta hosted the Centennial Olympic Games; and 2016 is the year that Atlanta takes its next giant leap onto the world’s stage by voting to expand transit this November. If you love this City, and support its continued progress, join the Advance Atlanta movement.

Joey Kline is the Treasurer and a Board Member with Advance Atlanta and he is a Commercial Real Estate Broker with Jones Lang LaSalle.


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The History of MARTA

Transit 101: How MARTA became MARTA

MARTA is engrained in the fabric of Atlanta. The system’s routes and rail have shaped the story of our region and influenced development.  However, few Atlantans know the history of MARTA and the challenges it has and continues to face today.

MARTA is primarily funded via fare collections and a 1% sales tax levied in Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton counties, in addition to a limited pool of federal funds.  

Atlanta benefits from the eighth-largest transit system in the United States by ridership.  In 2014, approximately 440,000 daily riders relied on MARTA’s trains and buses for transportation.  As of 2014, MARTA ranked 6th in the U.S. for average daily riders per rail station (9,915 riders), following New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and San Francisco.  The system is comprised of 38 rail stations that cover 48 miles of track in Fulton and DeKalb counties. But, MARTA’s original vision called for a network that reached far beyond its current footprint.

The proposal for a system linking the burgeoning region was introduced by Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen’s administration in the early 1960s. In 1965, the Georgia General Assembly voted to create MARTA as the transit system to serve the City of Atlanta and its surrounding five counties (Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett).  The act required local approvals and which were received from all counties with the exception of Cobb County.  

In addition to seeking approval, funding for the system was another significant challenge.  In 1966, Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to fund up to 10 percent of the cost of the system. The original plan for the local portion of funds was to finance the system through property taxes, though the measure was handily defeated in 1968. Following Ivan Allen, Mayor Sam Massell developed a proposal to fund the system through a special sales tax. Local option sales taxes were new to Georgia and the creation of one would require legislative approval, something that was not easily gained for city-centric legislation.

Backers worked to see the legislation advance and it gain approval, but at a cost. As the bill made its way through the Georgia Senate, Lieutenant Governor Lester Maddox communicated to supporters that if they wanted to see it pass, they would have to accept an amendment requiring MARTA evenly split the sales tax revenues between operating costs and capital expenditures. From the beginning, this restriction would hamstring the system by forcing a significant increase in fares and cuts whenever operating shortfalls arose.

Though the legislation emerged with stipulations, the eventual approval by the Georgia House and Senate were nonetheless celebrated. Massell called a news conference on the City Hall lawn, facing the capitol, where he unveiled a flatbed truck carrying a billboard that read “Thank You, Georgia Lawmakers!”. He also reportedly dug a hole in the City Hall lawn and ceremoniously buried a hatchet as a symbolic gesture of thanks.

Now that backers had won legislative approval, they had to define the terms of the ballot measure. One of the early sales tax proposals was for Fulton and DeKalb to levy a 3/4 penny tax and rely on the state for the 10 percent which was approved in 1966. Then Governor Jimmy Carter called MARTA officials to inform them that the state could not afford the $25 million contribution at that time.  Instead, Carter offered to allow MARTA to collect a full penny in local revenue if they did not lean on the state for dedicated funding. At the time, this revision put MARTA in a better financial position so leaders readily accept the alternative, but it was a decision that many would regret in years to come.

When the penny sales tax came to a vote in 1971, voters in Fulton and DeKalb narrowly approved the measure by a few hundred votes. Voters in Gwinnett and Clayton soundly defeated the measure.

Over the years, additional opportunities for MARTA expansion have unfortunately failed. Nevertheless, in a sign that old attitudes toward mass transit are evolving, Clayton County reversed its 1971 decision.  In 2014, a resounding 74% of the county voted in support of allowing expansion of MARTA service into Clayton County. This was the first expansion of MARTA outside of Fulton and DeKalb counties. Recent polling data in other surrounding counties shows shifting views in support of MARTA. Another survey shows the organization’s favorability within Fulton and DeKalb is as high as it’s ever been.

Part of the system’s renewed community support can be attributed to a financial turnaround engineered over the past several years, leaving MARTA operating with a budget surplus. The 50/50 restriction on the system was also removed in 2015, thus providing MARTA with more creativity and discretion on how it allocates funding.

As the region faces decisions on expanding our transit network, we at Advance Atlanta find it constructive to take stock of the successes and failures of those who have come before us. One thing is certain, the Atlanta region’s decisions on transit have had a significant impact (for better and for worse) on the development of our region. There is no doubt that improving transit access and mobility will leave a lasting legacy.

The Coalition to Advance Atlanta is a citizen-driven grassroots advocacy coalition dedicated to building support for regional transit and championing existing transit resources. Advance Atlanta brings together businesses, residents, and other community partners to advocate for transportation solutions that will advance the region we are all proud to call home.

We believe that the future of the metro region will be driven in large part by strategic investments in transit. If metro Atlanta is to remain competitive it will need to provide residents with  comprehensive transit options capable  of efficiently moving residents where they need to go when they need to be there.

For Atlanta to continue its position as a dominant economic force in the U.S. (and the world), a comprehensive, modern transit system is crucial.  We at Advance Atlanta invite you to join us.  To stay informed on our progress and to get involved, sign up for email updates here.  

Thank you for your support!

Joey Kline is an Atlanta native, Midtown resident, commercial real estate broker with Jones Lang LaSalle, and Board Member of Advance Atlanta. 


Transit 101 series:

This blog post is the third installment in a comprehensive series of stories discussing components of Georgia transit systems, transit decision makers, and regional transit opportunities.  We hope you find this series educational, entertaining, and insightful.


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Georgia Transportation Summit 2015

The Transportation Funding Act, House Bill 170, was at the forefront of the discussion at the Georgia Transportation Summit last week. The mood among many transportation officials was celebratory, praising the state legislature for their leadership in passing the bill to add nearly $1 billion in new transportation funding. The event brought together over 700 attendees to hear what transportation initiatives are in the works for the state and Metro Atlanta. Presentations by GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry and GDOT Chief Engineer Meg highlighted how significant the new legislation will be to the state’s transportation network.

But will House Bill 170 be the magic bullet for transportation in Georgia? While it is certainly a huge step forward in improving our transportation network, some panelists suggested that we cannot rest on our laurels. There is still work to do, particularly in the realm of transit. David Allman, Chairman of Regent Partners, said the critical next step to follow up on the success of House Bill 170 will be MARTA expansion. Panelist Craig Lesser of the Pendleton Group spoke from an economic development perspective, saying access to MARTA is critical for business in Metro Atlanta. The next panel, featuring MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe, discussed expanding freight and commuter mobility. Ashe highlighted the fact that companies such as State Farm, Mercedes Benz, and Kaiser Permanente have chosen to locate near MARTA and described expansion plans, including the Connect 400, I-20 East, and Clifton Corridor projects.

Among the breakout sessions was a presentation by Keith Parker, General Manager and CEO of MARTA, about MARTA’s success in focusing on an improved customer experience. Now that MARTA has gone through rebuilding efforts and has turned a budget shortfall into a surplus, he discussed plans for expansion potentially funded by an additional half penny sales tax so that the Atlanta region can attract federal matching funds for transit expansion.