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BRT line in Atlanta gets millions in funding, but who asked for it?

According to the AJC. the federal government has awarded $12.6 million to MARTA for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line from Midtown to the Turner Field redevelopment in Summerhill. That means the city is poised to follow through with spending $30 million in TSPLOST funds for the project, as was promised by former mayor Kasim Reed. That’s a lot of money for a route that no one has heard of before and that never saw any public engagement.

Please understand: the concerns in this post are not about the quality of the transit route.  We’re all eager to see BRT getting built in Atlanta, and serving Summerhill with added transit capacity is a good thing. And this post is not about the reception of the news of the funding. People are understandably happy about this news. At a 20,000 foot view, any investment in Atlanta transit is worth getting excited about — and it’s really encouraging that Republicans in Congress are, per the news article, happy to announce federal funding for BRT here.

This post is about a bad process, one that’s devoting millions of dollars in public funds to a project that came out of nowhere. MARTA does all sorts of planning and engagement sessions so the public is informed and can help shape how our tax dollars are spent. But then there are basically-secret plans submitted to the feds, and that’s frustrating.

For a look at the two end points of the route, see the map below.  I wish we had an exact route to show you, but since this plan came out of nowhere, we don’t know the route.

BRT route end points

I personally attended MARTA’s public meetings last year about how to spend the city transit tax. I don’t recall any mention of this route. I’ve asked others who attended and they don’t recall hearing about it there or anywhere else. Where & when was this significantly-expensive line presented to the public for comment? It appears that the answer is “it wasn’t.”

The complete absence of transparency for this project is alarming

Local funding for this BRT line will come from the TSPLOST funding approved by Atlanta voters in a 2016 referendum. Here’s a sheet from the City about the transportation investments that the money will fund. This line is not mentioned.

City of Atlanta published a list in 2016 prior to the referendum vote that shows proposed TSPLOST “Purposes and Recommended Projects.” This BRT line is nowhere to be found on the list.

The south end of the route basically serves the Turner Field redevelopment. There was a transportation analysis for the Turner Field Stadium Neighborhoods LCI that was a developed in a public process, attempting to ensure that locals had a voice in upcoming investments. Look over the document and you’ll see the BRT line is not mentioned. The action plan that resulted from the analysis also makes no mention of it.

MARTA’s own list of upcoming projects, from just three months ago, also offers no inkling of an announcement about this line.

Atlantans, we’ve got to demand that the City stops using our TSPLOST money for behind-closed-door projects that sidestep established outlets for engagement. Regardless of the merits of the line, this shouldn’t have happened this way, and we definitely can’t let it happen again.

Here’s an example of missed public comment: equity concerns

If I had been able to offer public comment ahead of time, I would’ve voiced concerns about long-term equity.

With new investment of many millions of dollars, of a type that is known to affect home prices, and that is going to be going into lower-income communities, we need to plan ahead for the effect and prevent displacement and housing insecurity. We don’t appear to have done so.

Research on the topic in the US is limited because of the relative new-ness of BRT in cities here. But the research that we do have suggests that the value of homes near new BRT stations will rise within just a few years — and that it will do so faster than the rise of values in the overall city.

Mayor Bottoms spoke of this line as being an equity issue for Summerhill residents. From the AJC:

“Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called the grant “a long overdue investment in an often-overlooked area of our city. The dividends paid by investing in South Atlanta will boost our economy and lift up communities long-waiting for opportunity.””

And, absolutely, an improvement in transit access is a great move toward that goal of connecting overlooked communities to opportunity. Kudos to Bottoms for recognizing that. But the other shoe will drop whether we’re prepared for it or not, by which I mean that those Summerhill homes near BRT stops will likely rise in value faster than the rate of increase in Atlanta overall. How much longer after BRT arrives will Summerhill be able to house people who could benefit most from the “lift up” effect Bottoms mentions?

Each neighborhood that gets a big transit investment in Atlanta is going to have to confront these issues. Maybe it’s Betline streetcars, or it’s the proposed transit route for Campbellton Road that appears to be getting prioritized.

Atlanta needs to develop a toolset that allows us to build fixed transit lines (like BRT and rail) equitably throughout the city, and to do so without displacement — either residential or commercial — and without an increase in housing insecurity in vulnerable communities.

That toolset needs to be employed at the front-end of transit projects, in a public way that involves good engagement, not tacked on at the tail end (if at all). The way this process for the Summerhill line has unfolded is an example of the wrong way to do it, and it doesn’t bode well for the Campbellton Road corridor. Let’s get this right so that new transit lines can be accessible, both across the city and across the spectrum of wealth and income, on a long term basis.

This is not about the route itself — it’s about the process

Publicly funding a $48mil BRT route that never had public eyes on it is not only an affront to the entire concept of community engagement, it’s also a violation of the trust of voters who approved this money. Just because this transit route in itself is not bad, that’s not a reason to ignore the failures in the process. The next one that pops up out of nowhere and takes up millions of precious transit dollars may not be so likable.

Atlantans have to demand that city leaders spend these large amounts of money on transportation in a more public way. This was done the wrong way and we can’t allow this to be a trend. If some leaders think they can sell us on a TSPLOST with a project list, then ignore it and use the money for whatever they want, we have to prove them wrong.

What can we do?

One potential “call to action” on this issue: demand that the city finalize the project list for the remaining TSPLOST money based on a series of public meetings. Let us know what you think! Use the contact form on this site or comment on Facebook.

PLEASE NOTE: I’m using the phrase BRT to be a good sport, but since the AJC piece mentions that the route will only partially include dedicated lanes for the buses — and other parts will have the buses in mixed traffic — the term is questionable here. Bus Rapid Transit usually provides fully-dedicated lanes to buses.