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Transit plan vote could propel light rail service to Emory

The Clifton Corridor Transit Initiative, a light rail line, would provide commuting options, decrease traffic congestion and improve sustainability in the Emory area. Light rail would be similar to the Atlanta Streetcar. Photo courtesy of MARTA.

A proposal that would bring MARTA light rail service to Emory is among a broad package of projects slated for consideration this week when the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority (ATL) approves its first regional transit plan. 

Set for a vote Dec. 13, the plan includes the Clifton Corridor Transit Initiative (CCTI), a proposed light rail line linking MARTA’s Lindbergh and Avondale stations that would pass through one of Atlanta’s biggest job centers, a hub for employment, healthcare and education that includes Emory University, Emory University Hospital, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston and the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

By identifying transit priorities, the plan offers a critical blueprint, pinpointing strategic investments across the 13-county metro-Atlanta region. Once approved, it will provide a green light for project advocates to move forward in seeking federal transportation funding, says Betty Willis, senior associate vice president of government and community affairs at Emory and president of the Clifton Corridor Transportation Management Association (CCTMA).

That’s important, Willis says. Being approved for inclusion in the plan is not only required for the allocation of federal support, “it also helps identify transit projects from which the ATL Board may select and recommend for potential state bond funding and local funding initiatives.”

While light rail service in the Clifton Corridor has been discussed for decades, earning a place within the regional transit plan would be a major milestone for the project, effectively propelling the CCTI into its next phase.

“We’ve never been this far down the road before,” Willis says. “This will mark an important first step toward creating a world-class transit system that can drive economic growth by providing better access to jobs and healthcare across the region, while attracting opportunities for new business and expansion.” 

Within the plan, bringing light rail service to the Clifton Corridor is strongly positioned “as a top priority project, long overdue to be MARTA’s first major expansion in two decades,” she adds. “It should compete very well for federal funding against projects from all over the country.”

Serving a vital economic hub

Interest in the Clifton Corridor project has accelerated since 2016, when Atlanta voters overwhelmingly approved a half-penny sales tax to help fund a number of MARTA expansions and enhancements, including the proposed CCTI. 

Projected to raise $2.5 billion over 40 years, the measure promised the biggest public transit investment across the metro region in decades.

In May 2018, MARTA released a list of proposals for how to best invest that revenue, including a $350 million allocation to help construct a four-mile light rail line connecting MARTA’s Lindbergh Station to the Clifton Corridor. A second construction phase would extend the line on to the Avondale station, Willis notes. 

The goal: To better connect the city to a vital employment center that continues to see growth. Fueling that, in no small part, has been the CDC — the largest federal agency headquartered outside of Washington, D.C. — and Emory, now Atlanta’s largest employer, with an economic impact of $11.4 billion.

The proposed light rail connection would open transit connectivity to a vast workforce, with nearly 30,000 people employed along the Clifton Corridor, as well as to students, healthcare patients and neighboring families, Willis says.

Moving forward, Emory and the CCTMA are working closely with MARTA to explore “the most cost effective and least disruptive options” for routing the new light rail line, Willis says.

Once funding is secured, projections suggest the line could be in place by 2030 or sooner, depending upon how quickly additional funding can be identified, she adds.

Seeking reliable transit solutions 

Beyond a broad economic impact, rail service to the Clifton Corridor could also have a profound personal impact for people like Rishikesan Kamaleswaran.

In October, Kamaleswaran moved from Toronto, Ontario, to metro Atlanta, where he now serves as the director of translational clinical informatics and assistant professor in the Departments of Biomedical Informatics, Pediatrics and Emergency Medicine at the Emory School of Medicine.

In Toronto, he often relied upon public transportation, valuing the time it afforded him to grade papers and catch up on email or the latest research publication. “You could get anywhere on a bus from anywhere in the city in just a few stops,” he recalls. “It was very convenient, very easy.” 

Since moving to Alpharetta, though, he’s found reaching campus by public transit nearly impossible. Boarding the MARTA train at the North Springs station, Kamaleswaren would ride to the Lindbergh station, then catch a bus for the final push to campus — and that was a problem.

“On a good day, that would take less than an hour; on a bad day, it could take 2 to 2.5 hours,” he says. “The bus connection is unpredictable and notorious for not arriving on time. Sometimes, you are standing there for up to 30 minutes, waiting.”

“It’s not an option for me anymore,” he adds. “It’s really a shame a city the size of Atlanta doesn’t provide reliable connectivity to one of its most prominent universities.”

Claire Russell understands his frustration. Russell came to Emory first as a pre-transplant patient, and more recently as both a patient and volunteer in the Breast Imaging Center at Winship Cancer Institute, located on Clifton Road.

The days she volunteers, Russell leaves her home in Covington at 6:30 a.m. to reach Winship by 8:30 a.m. “It usually takes me about two hours to drive here, on a good day,” she admits.

Russell first made the trek to Emory in 2005, when she treated for liver disease. In 2012, she was diagnosed with liver cancer. “My tests were done through Winship, but I was treated at Emory University Hospital,” she explains.

After receiving a liver transplant in 2015, “I began going back and forth all the time,” Russell recalls, often relying on church friends or shouldering the expense of a ride-share service. 

As a volunteer, she makes the round-trip at least once a week, or more often as needed, helping with dinner and game nights at Hope Lodge, bake sales, patient and staff appreciation days and holiday adoption programs.

For now, taking public transit would mean three train stops and a final bus ride into campus — not an efficient option. Direct rail service to campus would allow her to avoid bus schedule uncertainties. And that would be a gamechanger, she says.

“As it is, transportation is tough,” Russell says. “I’m 64 years old, I’m fighting traffic to drive here, and it is crazy.”

A new generation of riders

Count Aaron Klingensmith among a wave of Emory students intent on growing MARTA ridership. Not only is he a big fan, happy to take MARTA to the airport or downtown Atlanta, he’s actively promoting public transit among his peers.

Last year, Klingensmith began working with the Emory Climate Analysis and Solutions Team, a forum for students across Emory to conduct climate-related analysis and explore climate solutions.  

“I lead a project that encourages students to use more public transportation, including MARTA, more often,” says Klingensmith, a sophomore studying environmental science and economics.  

Without direct rail service to campus, that’s a challenge, he admits. “A lot of students don’t know about shuttle routes that run to MARTA stations, or they’ll spend $40 to $50 taking an Uber to the airport, when they could get there on MARTA for under $5.”

To help encourage student ridership, with the support of Emory’s Office of Sustainability Initiatives, Klingensmith and his team launched a MARTA scavenger hunt last year, which they’ll repeat in spring 2020.

Dividing into teams of two or three people, the Emory students rode on MARTA transit to find clues scattered across Atlanta, including historic monuments, Olympic rings or sculpture outside the High Museum of Art. The team that found the most clues in three hours won, he says.

A commitment to sustainability is one reason Klingensmith says he chose Emory. And he’s excited about the prospect of seeing more public transit options serving campus. 

“With so many environmental challenges, the key is to make our solutions as sustainable and economically efficient as we can,” he says. “I think public transportation plays a key role in that.” 

For more information about the ATL Regional Transit Plan or the CCTI, visit here.

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