Effort to bring light rail transit to the Clifton corridor seeks public input

By Laura Douglas-Brown | Emory Report | Nov. 13, 2014

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The light rail transit system in Houston, Texas, shown here, is similar to the system proposed for the Clifton Road corridor. Photo courtesy of MARTA.

Two public meetings set for early December are among the next steps in a multi-year effort to bring light rail transit to the Clifton corridor, including stops convenient to the Emory campus, Emory University Hospital and the CDC.

"This effort goes back 17 years, and this is the latest required step in what has been a protracted political and community process," says Betty Willis, senior associate vice president for government and community affairs at Emory. "This project is widely viewed as critically important to support this thriving employment center, and I have no doubt it will come to fruition once funding has been identified."

Clifton corridor

Three main design options are currently under consideration for the Clifton corridor light rail system. View larger.

The Clifton transit project has been a key priority for Willis, who also serves as executive director of the Clifton Community Partnership and president of the Clifton Corridor Transportation Management Association.

The proposed 8.8-mile light rail line would connect the Lindbergh MARTA station to the Avondale MARTA station, offering commuting options for the tens of thousands employed by Emory, the CDC, Children's Healthcare, DeKalb Medical Center and other businesses and institutions.

The area is one of the largest employment centers in the metro region that is not served by either MARTA's heavy rail train system or easy access to an interstate highway, Willis notes. The CCTMA estimates the corridor is home to over 30,000 employees, with close to 50,000 cars passing through the area each day.

But while the effort cites strong support from area employers and residents, MARTA and the Atlanta Regional Commission, it suffered a significant setback in 2012 when metro Atlanta voters voted down a special local option sales tax known as T-SPLOST. The one-cent sales tax would have supported more than $7 billion in road and transit projects, including the Clifton light rail project.

"The funding piece is the biggest issue for us since T-SPLOST failed," Willis says. "It was a huge loss for us, as our project was designated to receive $700 million from the revenue. However, there will be a concerted effort in the 2015 General Assembly to re-focus on funding options for transportation projects throughout the state and we will be heavily engaged to help ensure we are successful in passing legislation that will take us to the next step in seeing the Clifton line become a reality."

Environment impact studies

While T-SPLOST's failure likely slowed the timeline for light rail in the Clifton corridor, it did not derail the project. As the next step in the ongoing process to build the light rail system, MARTA and the Federal Transit Administration issued a Notice of Intent on Oct. 21 to prepare an environmental impact statement for the project. The final statement is projected to be released in late 2016 or early 2017.

"That is the period of time we have to figure out where the funding is coming from to build this," Willis says. "I would say we are about three-fourths of the way through the lengthy federal process. Now we just need the money to design and build the rail line."

As part of the environmental impact process, there will be two public meetings where attendees can learn more about the scope of the environmental review. The first is set for Dec. 4 at Westminster Presbyterian Church, located at 1438 Sheridan Road. The second is Dec. 9 in room 316 of the Emory Student Activity and Academic Center (SAAC), located at 1946 Starvine Way on Emory's Clairmont Campus. Both meetings are from 6-8 p.m.

"Folks in the neighborhoods where the route would be coming through will have the opportunity to have any questions answered," Willis says, noting that public opinion is strongly in support of the light rail line. "People may be curious to know where to access the line from their homes and how often it will come through."

Those who can't attend the meetings may submit comments to Tameka Wimberly, project manager, MARTA, 2424 Piedmont Road N.E., Atlanta, GA 30324-3330, or by email to clifton@itsmarta.com by Jan. 9, 2015. Emailed comments should include "Scoping Meeting Comment for MARTA" in the subject line.  

Possible light rail routes

The environmental impact studies now underway will help determine the final route and station locations for the light rail line, taking into account factors such as underground granite deposits that could make tunneling more difficult, creeks or streams that need protection, historical and archeological resources, community effects, and effects to any parks or recreation areas — as well as the costs associated with each option and how those costs would impact the project's competitiveness for federal grants.

Three main design options are currently under consideration. All would connect the Lindbergh and Avondale MARTA stations with stops convenient to Cheshire Bridge, Sage Hill, the Emory campus, the CDC, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, the Veteran's Administration Hospital and offices, and DeKalb Medical Center. There are some variations in route and in whether the rail line would be constructed at grade or include tunnels and aerial tracks or stops.

  • Alternative 1, originally approved as the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA), is proposed to have 10 stations. Its route would include a stop at Emory's Clairmont Campus.
  • Alternative 2 is proposed to have 12 stations. This alternative would require negotiations with CSX to share right of way along certain portions of the alignment. It would not include any tunnels. Instead of the stop at the Emory Clairmont Campus, its route would continue further down Clifton Road with a stop at Emory University Hospital.
  • Design Option C is proposed to have 11 stations. As currently configured, it would follow a similar course as Alternative 2 from Lindbergh to Sage Hill except that there would be a tunnel with underground stations at the CDC, Emory University Hospital and North Decatur; the remainder of the alignment would continue at-grade.

During the environmental process, efforts will also be made to identify a stop near the future DeKalb Farmers Market before reaching the Avondale MARTA station. The environmental impact process will also evaluate other alternatives, including a "no-build alternative" that would focus on other transportation options without light rail.

Funding the project

As backers of the Clifton corridor project move ahead with environmental impact assessments and continue to evaluate possible funding sources, Willis stresses that failing to address the traffic congestion in the area also comes with a high cost.

"If this area is too congested, people will go elsewhere," she says, noting that in the new "State of the Region" report from the Atlanta Regional Commission, survey respondents said traffic was the biggest problem facing residents, with 70 percent saying an improved public transit system was very important for metro Atlanta's future.

"If Atlanta wants to attract and retain major businesses, and the young and educated, there is an expectation of a robust public transit system that offers an alternative to the automobile," Willis says.

To be eligible for consideration for grant funding through the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts program, projects must receive local matching funds. While the 10-county T-SPLOST failed in 2012, Willis says a new measure covering a smaller area, such as just DeKalb and Fulton counties and the city of Atlanta for example, could be one option to help contribute to local matching funds for the Clifton light rail project.

Traffic gridlock during last winter's snow events further showed the need for light rail in the Clifton Corridor when dealing with any kind of emergency, especially since the area includes several major health care facilities as well as the CDC, Willis says.

"Personally, I am not giving up until it happens," she pledges. "I am determined to break that bottle of champagne on opening day, even if I have to have a cane in one hand holding me up."