MARTA expansion - Dallas

Dallas, which started building its DART light rail system in 1996, has 93 miles of light rail, with 64 stations spread across four lines.

Curtis Parker

Curtis Parker

I read with great interest the article about Transit Oriented Developments along MARTA’s planned extension of the East Line to Stonecrest (CrossRoadsNews, Nov. 18, 2017).

Rail expansion could foster Transit Oriented Developments

Like many longtime residents of South DeKalb, I’ve longed for the day when construction would begin on this long-overdue extension, and wondered why it’s taken so long to get to this point. 

But that’s water under the bridge, and the potential for transit-oriented developments at Covington Highway, Wesley Chapel and Panola roads, and Lithonia Industrial Boulevard is exciting, to say the least.

However, there are problems with the proposed extension that go beyond the proposed developments. My first and most pressing concern is with the continued dialogue around using heavy rail to complete the project.

Heavy rail is a dinosaur. No one is using it anymore. It costs too much to build, and the environmental impact far outweighs the benefits of the rail transit we desire. Even now, the heavy rail extension MARTA is proposing will take another 10 to 20 years to build, and the first shovel of dirt has yet to be moved.

Light rail is a much better option. It is cheaper to build, requires less maintenance, and produces a fraction of the negative environmental impact of heavy rail.

Nationwide, the average cost for light rail construction is about $35 million per mile, versus the $208 million per mile – $2.5 billion for 12 miles – estimated for the East Line heavy rail extension.

MARTA Expansion- Denver

Denver’s Transportation Expansion Project, dubbed T-REX, combined 17 miles of highway improvements and 19 miles of double-track light rail; the project came in under budget and 22 months ahead of schedule.

Across the country, cities and metropolitan regions are using light rail to create new or expand their existing transit systems. There are at least 30 light rail systems currently in use, in cities like Seattle, Phoenix and Dallas – all three of which completed new projects in 2016.

Dallas, which started building its DART light rail system in 1996, has 93 miles of light rail, with 64 stations spread across four lines. In 2016, it moved up implementation of a 26-mile Cotton Belt line in its 20-year financial plan for FY2017.

Denver’s Transportation Expansion Project, dubbed T-REX, includes 13 new light-rail stations and improvements to an existing station, the purchase of 34 light-rail vehicles, a new maintenance facility and a communications control center, all at a cost of $27.6 million per mile.

Given these numbers, MARTA’s insistence on building more heavy rail lines seems shortsighted at the very least.

I think there is a better option, and it goes like this:

Forget about heavy rail

For the reasons cited above, replace the plans for heavy rail with a light rail alternative. The cost savings for construction would be immense, and the right-of-way acquisitions and environmental impacts already in place for the heavy rail project should translate very easily into a light-rail implementation.

It would also eliminate, and perhaps even answer, GDOT’s concerns about potential “managed lanes” being built on I-20, similar to those on I-85 in Gwinnett. Denver’s T-REX project rebuilt interstate highways I-25 and I-225 and simultaneously added a light rail expansion for a total cost of $1.67 billion over five years, including 17 miles of highway improvements and 19 miles of double-track light rail. Completed in 2006, the project came in under budget and 22 months ahead of schedule.

With the cost savings from this realignment, several exciting and innovative implementations are possible.

For starters, instead of extending the heavy line from the Indian Creek station, have the light rail extension cross over I-285 near Covington Highway and link to the Kensington station. This positions Kensington as a multimodal transfer point, not only linking the light rail Stonecrest Line to the heavy rail East Line, but also providing easy access to north- and southbound I-285, something Indian Creek cannot do.

The Kensington multimodal transfer station also becomes a hub for the granddaddy of Transit Oriented Developments, linking existing government and judicial centers, business and commercial offices, and residential developments. Relocate the jail and replace it with a high-rise hotel or office building, or a new DeKalb County Government Complex, and Memorial Drive at I-285 begins to look like Atlantic Station.

Seek new directions

But don’t stop there. My vision has an even bigger picture for the future of transit in DeKalb County.

Once again using money saved by converting to light rail, continue the line north along I-285 to Perimeter Mall, with stops – future TODs? – near North DeKalb Mall, Northlake Mall, Mercer University and the former GM Plant. To save even more money, use existing DOT rights-of-way along I-285, going above and along the Perimeter as often as possible.

At the same time, fast-track – no pun intended – the long-promised I-20 Rail Line westbound inside the Perimeter, but with a major change in its final destination.

Instead of going to downtown Atlanta, which the East Line already does, turn left somewhere between Candler and Gresham roads, head southwest through East Atlanta toward south Moreland Avenue near I-285, and from there head over to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

This “DeKalb Airport Line” could tie into the multimodal station at Kensington, or it could originate as a split destination at Wesley Chapel, where riders could choose between heading on to Atlanta or Dunwoody, or turn southwest toward the airport.

Based on current costs, all three of these projects – about 50 miles total – could be built for a lot less than the $2.5 billion estimated for heavy rail to Stonecrest, and they could be built in far less time.

ONE DeKalb, personified

Taken together, these transit initiatives would impact DeKalb County growth for years to come. Among other things, they would:

-- Position DeKalb County at the forefront of sensible use of rapid transit that benefits all areas of the county.

-- Place DeKalb squarely in the “Aerotropolis” conversations around Hartsfield-Jackson, instead of its current “oh-by-the-way” mentions. Imagine the potential for all of DeKalb, and especially the new cities of Stonecrest and Greenhaven, if visitors can arrive at Hartsfield-Jackson and catch a train straight out here, instead of having to go downtown first, then change trains, then endure stop after stop to get to these destinations.

-- Put real teeth into the ONE DeKalb initiative, by uniting DeKalb’s public and private leadership – legislators, county commissioners, mayors and city leaders, business and professional groups – as one voice seeking positive change for the entire county.

-- Create boatloads of jobs in the county, both during construction and beyond, as the predicted TODs begin to take shape.

--  Give MARTA the makings of a truly regional rail transit system, one that takes people where they want to go. No longer the “Downtown Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority,” MARTA will have taken a major step toward becoming the Metro Atlanta Regional Transit Authority, i.e., what it should be anyway.

Finally, if implemented, this plan would address a fairness issue that has gone on far too long. In the years since MARTA began operation of the East Line in 1979, Fulton and DeKalb taxpayers have poured millions of dollars into the system, with relatively little return-on-investment in terms of rail service for DeKalb. Not only do all of DeKalb’s rail lines point only to downtown Atlanta, the number of rail miles, and stations, in DeKalb pale in comparison to those in Fulton County.

I see it like this: After all these years, Fulton County has a rail system that links its north and south ends. DeKalb County deserves just as much.

I would like to see all stakeholders in DeKalb – from Congress to County Commissions to City Hall, Chambers of Commerce, economic development and tourism advocates, residents and commuters – embrace this model as DeKalb’s preferred alternative for transit expansion, and return DeKalb to its rightful place as metro Atlanta’s most exciting, innovative and forward-thinking region.

If indeed, as indicated in the article, November 2019 is the earliest a transit referendum can be placed on a ballot, this should be it.

Curtis Parker is a co-owner of CrossRoadsNews. He and his wife, Editor/Publisher Jennifer Parker, have lived off Wesley Chapel Road since they moved to Atlanta in 1993.