By Sonam Vashi
A light rail line may provide transit for the Emory community in a few years, linking the University to MARTA and other nearby areas.
Currently in its planning stages, the Clifton Corridor Transit Initiative would potentially create a light rail between MARTA’s Lindbergh Station and Avondale Station, with stops at Emory, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the DeKalb Medical Center, among others.
If completed, the Clifton transit project would be the only rail line to serve the Clifton Corridor, which houses over 30,000 employees and is the largest active area in Metro Atlanta with no direct access to a MARTA station or an interstate, according to the Clifton Community Partnership (CCP) website.
Emory is the third largest employer in Metro Atlanta, and the CDC is the 14th largest, according to the Metro Atlanta Chamber.
About 50,000 cars pass through the Clifton Corridor every day, according to the CCP website.
“The only options we have to get to Emory and the CDC are narrow two- or four-lane roads – and they’re heavily congested during peak hours,” said Emory Senior Associate Vice President for Government and Community Affairs Betty Willis, who is also the executive director of the CCP and president of the Clifton Corridor Transportation Management Association (CCTMA). “[Emory’s] shuttles are great, but they get stuck in the same traffic. There absolutely has to be another option other to the automobile.”
The proposed 8.8-mile rail line would likely be completed in two phases, costing approximately $1.2 billion overall.
The first phase would be from Lindbergh Station to Emory and is estimated to cost around $700 million, and the second phase would complete the line to Avondale Station.
MARTA and the Federal Transit Administration issued a Notice of Intent on Oct. 21 to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS), a federally-required, extensive document that must show significant factors affecting human environments through studies, public hearings and other methods.
A public hearing last night (Thursday, Dec. 4) at the Westminster Presbyterian Church officially kicked off the EIS.
The completion of the EIS is slated for winter 2016 or early 2017, and then final design and building of the rail can commence if funding is available, according to Willis.
Contruction of the first phase of the Clifton transit project could take six to 10 years to build, Willis said.
The light rail alternative, similar to a streetcar, was locally recommended and approved out of several different options because it is less disruptive in the densely populated residential area and less expensive, as compared to other alternatives like a heavy rail line currently used throughout the MARTA system, according to Willis.
The project was conceived over 17 years ago and considered connecting with Decatur Station, located in the middle of Decatur Square, but ultimately decided it would be too disruptive to the residential environment, according to Willis.
The project was previously included on a list for funding in 2012’s defeated local option sales tax called T-SPLOST, which proposed funding for a variety of transportation initiatives in the 10-county metro region. The Clifton Transit Project would have received $700 million to start building Phase I if T-SPLOST had succeeded.
“It was a very difficult challenge to get support for the referendum outside of the urban area, though it was heavily favored in the neighborhoods surrounding the Clifton Corridor and Atlanta,” Willis wrote in an email to the Wheel.
Now, funding the project is the main obstacle, according to Tameka Wimberly, MARTA’s senior regional planner and project manager of the Clifton transit project.
“Funding is the biggest elephant in the room,” Wimberly said. “Had T-SPLOST passed, this timeline that we’re working with would have been moved up immensely. Funding is the biggest reason why it’s taken so long.”
Wimberly added that, in order to be more competitive for public funding, the project needs to lower its private costs as much as possible, which includes negotiating with the CSX railroad line, which runs through Emory campus, to have the Clifton Corridor street-level rail run alongside it.
To be eligible for grant-funding from New Starts, a Federal Transit Administration program, projects must have local matching funds.
Willis said that there will likely be a strong effort in the 2015 state legislative session, which starts in January, to pass a number of transportation funding bills that could support projects like the Clifton transit line, including allowing smaller, local T-SPLOST-like referendums that could help provide the local funding match required to apply for federal funding.
“Federal funding is so limited and the competition so enormous, that if you don’t have matching funds from local sources, you will not be eligible or even in the running for consideration,” Willis wrote in an email.
Willis added that MARTA is one of the largest mass transit systems in the country that does not receive any state funding, and that Georgia ranks near the bottom of all states in the amount of investment in transportation infrastructure.
“It’s really hurting us from an economic standpoint – the whole region – because we’re have not invested in expanding transit,” Willis said.
Willis added that unfettered access to the CDC is paramount for it to be available to address global health issues, and current infrastructure may not allow that access, citing the massive traffic in the region caused by snow and ice in Atlanta last winter.
Willis noted that traffic around Emory has the potential to negatively impact access to health care facilities.
“The Clifton Corridor has a pretty bad reputation toward traffic congestion during peak times,” Willis said. “The more people hear that, the more they may say ‘I’ll just go to elsewhere’ because they don’t have time, and they don’t want to deal with traffic and miss their appointments.”
Wimberly echoed these sentiments, noting the lack of current transit options.
“This is an area that’s always going to grow,” she said. “There’s always going to be students, and there’s always going to patients.”
Willis noted that a competing rail line along the I-20 corridor may cause issues with the Clifton Corridor project.
“When the T-SPLOST project list was being determined, there were folks in DeKalb who wanted to split the [$700 million] funding over both lines,” Willis said. “It was a dispute that we might run into again.”
Goizueta Business School junior Sarika Joglekar said she thinks bringing more transit options to Emory would help students like freshmen and those without cars greater access to the larger city.
“Just looking at the map, the railway would stop at a lot of valuable locations,” she said.
Joglekar added that she thinks that this would help in breaking down a lot of the inaccessibility or isolation she sees on campus.
“It’s really important that MARTA expands,” Joglekar added. “What it has is not sufficient.”
Second-year Rollins School of Public Health student Sean Kennedy supports the project, noting that the traffic around the Clifton Corridor is unsustainable.
“[The rail] offers a lot more housing options for future employees,” said Kennedy, who also works with the CDC. “They could live down in Lindbergh or Avondale Estates or Decatur … There’s so many contractors with the CDC who are not paid enough to live in areas where rent is drastically increasing, like Druid Hills.”
However, Kennedy noted that recent DeKalb County cityhood movements might impact the success of local funding initiatives.
The second public hearing will be held on Dec. 9 at room 316 of the Student Activity and Academic Center (SAAC) on Clairmont Campus at 6 p.m.
Those that cannot attend the meetings but would like to comment can contact Wimberly by email at [email protected] with “Scoping Meeting Comment for MARTA” in the subject line by Jan. 9, 2015.
“More than anything, quality of life is number one for people moving to Atlanta; they want to walk and take transit to places,” Willis said. “You can see how much the lack of transit is hurting Atlanta.”
– By Sonam Vashi, Executive Editor