Five months after MARTA officials unveiled detailed plans for extending the current 2.7-mile downtown Atlanta Streetcar loop to Ponce City Market, dotting the route with five new stops in between, the project remains (surprisingly) polarizing.
An extended streetcar line onto the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail isn’t expected to begin construction until sometime next year, and the first passenger wouldn’t board until 2027, per MARTA’s timeline. But just this week, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens expressed support for the project, calling an extension of the current streetcar line to the east (and west) a priority as MARTA grapples with a budget shortfall.
Last week, however, some members of MARTA’s own board questioned whether focusing on a streetcar expansion with an estimated price tag of $230 million is the best use of the agency’s resources, given current financial turbulence, as the AJC reported. That echoes sentiments from some neighbors in places like Old Fourth Ward and Inman Park who’ve decried BeltLine rail as unnecessary, unwanted, and “idiotic.”
And then there’s a column published Friday that lent a naysaying voice against BeltLine rail from an unlikely place: Georgia Tech. That's where the initial idea for the BeltLine (with a light-rail component) was initially hatched nearly a quarter-century ago.
That missive published on the Saporta Report—already considered infamous in pro-BeltLine rail circles—was written by Hans Klein, an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy. The provocative headline: “A streetcar on the BeltLine would be a train wreck.”
Below, we’ve excerpted a few of Klein’s key points on why “dinosaur” rail service in a BeltLine corridor on Atlanta’s eastside is a bad idea, in his estimation. We also reached out to grassroots transit supporters BeltLine Rail Now! for the counterargument, and responses were compiled by BRN chairperson Matthew Rao (a Georgia Tech grad himself) and member Beverly Miller. Commentary has been edited for clarity and length.
“Atlanta needs transit, and Atlanta is embracing transit. That is good news. But we must choose wisely, for the decisions made today will shape the transit for decades to come.
Transit planners must free themselves from both the shackles and the temptations of history—from an inherited and ineffective streetcar technology and from an alluring right-of-way that doesn’t serve passengers—and must instead look to the future. Less-costly transit technologies and more useful radial routes are the basis of successful transit.”
“Let’s begin with a reminder that over 70 percent of voters chose to tax themselves in 2016 by voting for the More MARTA SPLOST in order to deliver greater transit options in Atlanta. These taxes have been collected for over six years now, and we have the Streetcar East Extension fully funded and ready to move forward. The BeltLine is the only place with existing dedicated space for transit to move unimpeded by cars, in its own right of way, and it would be a folly to not take advantage of that.
The BeltLine is meant to be more than a walking and biking trail. It has always been planned as a transit corridor. Suggesting the removal of transit from the BeltLine represents ableist thinking that ignores the needs of users who cannot walk or bike long distances. What about people with children in strollers? As noted by BeltLine visionary Ryan Gravel, 'The [BeltLine] is useless when it’s raining. Or with a walker or wheelchair. Or in the humidity when you’re wearing a suit.” Go out on a cold or rainy day and you will see an empty BeltLine trail. The corridor should not just be about weather-dependent use, recreation, bar-hopping, and tourism.
An attempt to negate and belittle the reparative nature of the project and its place-making and city-building potential… It is this thinking, not continued support for the long-planned BeltLine project, that is a train wreck.”
Klein, on where exactly BeltLine rail would be built:
“Sadly… while the BeltLine right-of-way is indeed rare and valuable, it is not well-suited to urban transit. Civil War-era rail engineers created the BeltLine to avoid the urban core, and it is exactly this urban core that any transit system needs to serve.”
“The BeltLine is the only place with existing dedicated space for transit to move unimpeded by cars, in its own right-of-way. Along the 13 miles of the ‘J’ [from Buckhead to the Westside], the BeltLine rail ROW is separated from the road grid, crossing city streets in only a handful of places.
Downtown Atlanta’s position as the sole center of density and its sole concentration of civic and commercial activity has long since passed, making reaching areas in the donut around the core necessary. Most cities are not as fortunate as Atlanta to have the circular right-of-way of a continuous railroad that can connect one quarter of all residents to the amenities of a 15-minute neighborhood and to its existing rail system. There are already 18 cities in the world with circle lines that connect their radial lines, and the BeltLine will make that 19.”
“On the BeltLine right-of-way, ‘you can’t get there from here,’ i.e. you can circle the city center, but you cannot get to the city center… Transit systems the world over are designed as spokes radiating from the urban core out to residential areas, but the BeltLine does not do this and cannot do this. The BeltLine’s path through the city is exactly wrong for transit.”
“One CAN get there from here. The ultimate connection of BeltLine rail to four MARTA stations and two [bus rapid transit] projects is the circulator network Atlantans need to make riding transit more often to as many destinations as possible a reality.”
“The economic and technical characteristics of streetcars are problematic: The up-front capital costs are very high, subsequent route changes are infeasible, and the technology is so inflexible that a single double-parked car can bring a system to a grinding halt.
So what should be done instead? A host of new technologies offers better characteristics than streetcars. Elsewhere in Atlanta MARTA plans to deploy bus rapid transit (BRT). With a reserved right of way, BRT buses can provide all the functionality of light rail at a much lower cost and with nearer-term deployment.”
“Study after study has confirmed that streetcar technology is the best alternative for the BeltLine: 2007, 2012, and 2019. Streetcar technology is not ‘a prisoner of the past’ or a ‘dinosaur.’ Fixed guideway rail transit is a proven, safe, and advanced technology.
Numerous cities in North America and throughout the world continue to invest heavily in building and expanding their streetcar/light rail networks. There has been a literal explosion of light rail and streetcar projects in the U.S. during the last decade, and the Biden Infrastructure Act of 2021 has made tens of billions of extra FTA dollars available to cities for high-capacity transit projects.”
“The Beltline’s path through the city is exactly wrong for transit. The BeltLine’s circular path is, however, perfect for recreation, which explains its unforeseen success as an inner-city linear park—which is all the more reason not to run streetcars on it.”
“This represents the worst type of classist thinking that ignores the needs of the many users without a meaningful form of reliable transit, especially those users who cannot afford a car. How will they be able to enjoy the benefits of the path? The BeltLine is meant to be much more than a walking and biking trail. It has always been planned as a transit corridor. The cross sections that show the two together are fact, not fiction, and there is width everywhere for the train and trail. Paving it for rubber-tired vehicles would require more width.”
“Atlanta now has an extensive network of multi-use trails, contributing to explosive growth in the use of scooters, e-bikes, and regular pedal bikes. In a symbiotic development, private firms have blanketed the city with micro-mobility services for bike sharing and scooter sharing. Perhaps to its own surprise, Atlanta Beltline Inc. has evolved into a major operator of trails for such light individualized transportation (LIT).”
“[Those modes] are not a substitute for reliable rail transit, and this ableist attitude is nothing short of offensive. Not everyone can walk, bike, or ride a scooter for long distances at all times of day or night, nor should they have to.”
“Flexible, lower-cost, IT-enabled transportation can better serve urban travelers. A radial system of BRT on arterials roads like North Avenue and Northside Drive (not to mention Summerhill Avenue, Campbellton Road, and the Clifton Corridor), complemented by on-demand transit, [LIT], and ride-share services can provide better and more equitable service at lower cost with greater adaptability.”
“A single modern streetcar can move up to 180 passengers. It would take three buses or roughly 10 autonomous shuttles to do the same, causing enormous disruption at crossing points where pedestrians need to get on and off the trail or cross the corridor… Paving a broad section of the greenway for unproven micro-transit that lacks real capacity to move large numbers of people will destroy the treasured community asset the trail has become and bring air pollution with the dust it kicks up.”
“The specific plan to extend today’s streetcar line to [Ponce City Market, at the Virginia-Highland border] has terrible equity implications. Transit usage is far higher among lower-income residents, and those residents—many of whom are Black—tend to live on the south side of the city, far away from the planned streetcar’s east extension.”
“This area was not affluent until very recently, and the affluence stems largely from the construction of the BeltLine and the promise of rail transit along it. Do we want to deny the opportunity for other parts of the city to gain their own amenities, such as access to jobs, food, healthcare, and recreation, and thus to become better places to live? Do we want to deny people in other parts of town the connectivity they need to access those amenities that exist now on the Eastside Trail?
We’re starting [rail] here because this was where it was always planned to start, where there is already density, and where things are the most ready for transit. Other areas will be ready later and will connect to what we build first on the eastside section.”
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• BeltLine rail naysayers speak out against 'idiotic' project (Urbanize Atlanta)