MARTA board members are to decide today whether to move forward with plans for its first major expansion since it ran rail to North Springs in 2000. They have to find an estimated $1.6 billion to lay nearly nine miles of track.
How would the agency, which is currently relying on reserve funds to avoid more service cutbacks, create what is called the Clifton Corridor?
First, MARTA officials stress this is a plan to run light rail from the Lindbergh Center station southeast to the Avondale rail station. It still has years of environmental and engineering studies — and possible cost changes — before construction could start, if funding is located.
Second, the project would get a $700 million jump-start if voters approve the regional 1 percent sales tax for transportation July 31, which would fund the first phase of the line, from the Lindbergh station to the job center around Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in DeKalb County. That is how much is earmarked for Clifton Corridor light rail — and it will give the agency more clout to seek federal grants.
No sales tax passage means MARTA would have to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars to be competitive for federal grants. The Federal Transit Administration often requires the local transit authority to pay 50 percent of the larger rail projects, according to the grants listed on the FTA website.
Depending on your point of view, the project promises to be a boon to the corridor or a boondoggle.
Tom Woodward, president of the Lindbergh LaVista Corridor Coalition, said the project is badly needed to relieve traffic congestion and give residents a transit option other than car or bus. He said neighborhood groups lobbied for the first phase of the light rail that largely follows the CSX railroad corridor to run mostly underground and on elevated rail instead of on streets. He hopes that the design will stay subterranean, except for a small amount on Clifton Road, during the next phases of the planning.
"I would expect opposition if it comes back any other way," he said. "It is lot less intrusive underground. We feared that a surface rail would end up taking property and end up damaging our property values."
Barbara Payne, executive director of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation, said she became a fan of light rail while riding it when she lived in Portland, Ore. But the tax hawk said the whole project still made her nervous when it came to such a massive financial commitment.
"When it comes to light rail, it becomes an issue about ridership and feasibility for us," she said. "When you start talking about the cost, we start backing up and wonder can we be sure people will use it? And you really don't know until the project is completed and that is the rub."
Cost: At $133 million a mile, the project rivals heavy rail in cost because the engineering requires two elevated sections and three underground sections from Lindbergh to Emory University, which is the first leg. If MARTA negotiates with CSX railroad to use its right-of-way, it could be significantly cheaper, depending on how much the railway would charge for access. But MARTA officials are skeptical they can negotiate a workable arrangement. Also, neighborhood groups largely preferred the light rail line — which could have as many as eight trains an hour — tunnel under the CSX rail and private property, officials said. The rail line will also operate for about a mile in the median of Clifton Road. If the second phase — from Emory to the Avondale station — is developed, the project proposes to use the medians of Scott Boulevard, North Decatur Road, DeKalb Industrial Way and North Arcadia Avenue.
Use: MARTA is projecting 17,500 boarding daily by 2030 and an expected 5,300 new riders who could board at eight stations, which could be increased to 11 stations. Average travel times to Emory/CDC would be 13 minutes from Lindbergh station or 43 minutes from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Risk: Cost overruns. Cost estimates for a light rail project in Denver went from $4.7 billion to $7.4 billion this year, according to a spokeswoman for the Denver rail expansion project. For the Clifton Corridor, cost estimates have already risen $600 million from a previous estimate of $998 million. In 1999, MARTA went back to Congress for an extra $26 million — a 7 percent overrun — to finish the line to North Springs.
Next steps: Environmental impact statement and preliminary engineering, which are necessary to apply for federal grants, then final design, then construction.
Finish line: If funding is available, the first phase at least could be done within a decade; if the board does not approve the plan for expansion, back to the drawing board.
Copyright 2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution