Yet many trends in Atlanta were clearly going the right way, moving towards a more sustainable, livable future. The short streetcar loop might not have accomplished much, but if it was really the beginning of a network that would run on the BeltLine and connect to a spider-web of transit within it, then streetcars really might help get people out of their cars, in conjunction with the faster-moving MARTA system. On the other hand, bus rapid transit lanes – i.e., buses in their own dedicated lanes – would be cheaper and equally effective.
MARTA itself was undergoing a remarkable transformation under the leadership of new CEO Keith Parker, who had previously turned around the San Antonio rapid transit system. When he took charge of the troubled Atlanta transit agency in December 2012, Parker inherited a projected annual deficit of $33 million. MARTA was heavily regulated by the state but received no state funding. “There was a perception that MARTA was only for poor and working-class black people, that it was crime-ridden, poorly run, mismanaged, full of scandal,” recalled Parker, who is himself African American. MARTA had raised fares 42% in the previous three years while cutting services, increasing the amount of time people had to wait for trains and buses.
In short order, Parker solved the agency’s financial problems by bringing its IT functions in-house, switching to electronic payments, converting buses to natural gas, and other cost-cutting measures. Within six months, there was a $9 million surplus. Service improved, time between trains and buses was reduced. Adding more police, Parker instituted a “Ride with Respect” campaign, ejecting annoying panhandlers. He began to plan for free WiFi, first in buses and MARTA stations, then on the trains.
Parker hired Amanda Rhein to negotiate transit-oriented developments (TOD) on the sea of underused parking lots surrounding many MARTA stations, which would add businesses and residential density (with 20% affordable housing), swelling the agency’s bottom line while increasing ridership. For the first time in years MARTA began to get positive press, and many Millennials who were moving back to the city, most of whom were white, preferred to use public transit over automobiles. Now there was a MARTA app for their smart phones, indicating when trains and buses would arrive. Major businesses such as State Farm Insurance, NCR, and Mercedes-Benz moved their headquarters to be close to MARTA stations. “Transit access has gone from being an afterthought to a priority for companies that don’t want their workers and products stuck in traffic,” a reporter observed.
At one station, MARTA installed a bike repair kiosk; at another, a farmer’s market. Corporate CEO Mark Toro penned an article bragging that he rode MARTA. “It’s a statement often met with a look of pity, or disbelief, or even disdain,” he observed. “It apparently surprises — even shocks — most people, that a dignified businessman or businesswoman actually uses metro Atlanta’s public transit system.”
For the first time in years, MARTA expanded, with Clayton County voters overwhelmingly choosing to pay a penny sales tax to get bus service in 2014 and, perhaps someday, trains. In 2015 Keith Parker and his colleagues started talking about trying to raise $8 billion to extend heavy rail service – hitherto inconceivable.
On September 14, 2015, I attended a Millennial Advisory Panel on the 18th floor of a building in Atlantic Station, with gorgeous views of the downtown skyline, where the Atlanta Regional Commission had assembled a group of 135 bright, diverse, influential young people from the metro Atlanta area. With slick Powerpoints, eight panels presented ideas for improving the city. Some, such as signing a Pledge to Win the Future, seemed hopelessly naïve, but the Pledge’s goals, such as creating healthy, livable communities, were admirable. These Millennials – some of whom worked for MARTA or the BeltLine — were engaged, confident, and thoughtful, focusing on public transit and regional cooperation. They suggested that MARTA hire an art curator. Imagine Music Mondays at transit stations! Imagine pop-up community gardens at bus stops!
Another group wanted mobile food trucks to provide fresh vegetables, fruits, and meats in communities throughout Atlanta, including free cooking classes. Perhaps the Atlanta Food Bank could operate them. A different panel championed an inclusionary zoning ordinance that would require all Atlanta developers to provide a certain percentage of affordable housing. Others suggested educational reform and mentoring programs for underprivileged children.
As 2015 came to an end, Atlanta still faced huge problems, schisms, inequalities, fiscal challenges, and political posturing. But this next generation of leaders seemed poised to move the city in the right direction, even as the BeltLine’s Westside Trail was under construction.