ATLANTA — At a town hall meeting on Tuesday night, several city leaders - including Mayor Andre Dickens - gathered to pledge that southwest Atlanta will not be shortchanged when it comes to a transit expansion project for one of the city's busiest corridors.
At issue is the Campbellton Road corridor, which generally connects the Greenbriar Mall area on the Westside perimeter to the Oakland City MARTA station south of Downtown.
Back in 2016, Atlanta residents voted for a sales tax increase that would provide a huge infusion of funds for public transportation improvements across the city, and two years later, MARTA's Board of Directors approved the More MARTA plan that would direct portions of that money toward projects for underserved communities.
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Now, city leaders and MARTA are at odds over the final vision for the Campbellton Road plan.
What's going on with the Campbellton Road MARTA plan?
The roots of the dispute are basically in what type of transportation service will be expanded along Campbellton Road and in how much investment the area will see.
Some community advocates and city representatives, including Councilwoman Marci Collier Overstreet, have argued the MARTA board originally approved a light rail system that would cost about $300 million, and what the community wants and deserves is that light rail.
MARTA has instead presented a plan for bus rapid transit (BRT) expansion, which the transit service said was preferred by community members in their public surveying and "provides the greatest mobility, faster, and for far less money."
The BRT project comes in at a little more than $100 million, and so Overstreet and allies on the council including Councilwoman Andrea Boone, Councilman Antonio Lewis and Councilwoman Keisha Sean Waites have characterized the $200 million difference as "missing" money that should be directed toward southwest Atlanta.
MARTA has rejected that framing, saying that it has simply "recommended a transit project in the Campbellton Corridor that has a smaller estimated cost than the original project."
MARTA also said the "total investment is still a work in progress" and that it is working with the mayor's office on determining the "value of new streetlights, full sidewalks, installation of bike facilities and repaving the street."
Which project is actually better?
This is tricky, and there's no good way to definitively answer it.
Existing light rail in Atlanta is a mixed bag. There have been anecdotal reports of a soft ridership response to the $98 million Atlanta Streetcar light rail system that debuted in 2014 in and around Downtown and Sweet Auburn.
MARTA argued the BRT system along Campbellton Road will "deliver on the promise of better connectivity for southwest Atlanta into the heavy rail system (at the Oakland City station) faster." And the service points to a similar system that was implemented in Summerhill, claiming it helped spur recent redevelopment and investment along Hank Aaron Drive and Georgia Avenue.
But some community advocates still see light rail as a more "premium" service relative to rapid bus lines. One woman at Tuesday's town hall claimed her door-to-door advocacy revealed a clear preference for light rail.
"What they said they wanted was light rail... so if you want light rail, demand light rail, make them give you what you want, make them give you what you earned, make them give you what you voted for," she said.
MARTA provided its own survey data, which polled more than 900 residents in paper and online surveys. According to that data, the response was generally split - 45% in favor of BRT and 43% in favor of light rail, with the rest preferring some other mode.
Political heat and what they're saying
This issue has bubbled to the surface with Overstreet's advocacy, which began when she proposed a City Council resolution in the middle of January that would ask the MARTA Board of Directors to "provide a report to ensure that all funding allocated for the expansion of the Campbellton Road Corridor Project... are accounted for and are being used specifically for their designated allocations."
The City Council passed that resolution in a 15-0 unanimous vote this week.
That resolution also asserted that "it is widely believed that the people have chosen Light-Rail Trains (“LRT”) as the preferred mode of transportation."
At the town hall meeting Tuesday, Overstreet said "we need to know what the hell is going on" with MARTA's ultimate plan for the money.
"We need to know where is the $200 million to go with this $120 million (for the BRT system) that we talked about for four full years now," she said. "I don't claim to know everything, but I know a lot, and I definitely don't get money confused."
MARTA has countered that Overstreet "has been closely involved with this project since its inception & is fully aware that light rail was never promised in this corridor." Additionally, MARTA spokeswoman Stephany Fisher told 11Alive in an email that "the public and elected officials have known for years that BRT was being looked at as an option for this corridor."
The service also pointed to 2018 remarks during a city Transportation Committee meeting (seen at 41:15) in which Overstreet said "let me share with you also that Cascade/Campbellton that whole area, southwest Atlanta, is not a fan of light rail. But I do understand that everyone is interested in bus rapid transit."
In a statement earlier this week MARTA said it was "extremely disappointed" with the "negative and inflammatory tone of the conversation" surrounding the Campbellton Road BRT proposal. The service has said any suggestion it is "stealing" money from southwest Atlanta is "absurd and false" and tweeted Wednesday: "It is extremely unfortunate that language from some Councilmembers has been twisted into false headlines of stolen money and used in the worst kind of way by social media trolls."
Overstreet, speaking Tuesday night, said she was "not backing down" and that she doesn't "care what names they can come up for me, because I know me well - I'm not a liar, I'm an honest broker, I have a great memory, and I am definitely a southside girl."
"The south's got something to say," she added.
Mayor Dickens also spoke at length Tuesday night, saying when he was on the Transportation Committee as a councilmember he worked to ensure in writing that regardless of what was built in Campbellton Road, it would see a full, equitable investment.
"I passed policy to make sure that when this day came we were prepared for this day, so we could say 'nuh uh.' No matter what you think, no matter what anybody thinks, equity has to be already in the plan," he said. "So that's why I'm not nervous about what's going to happen. We're going to get a full $300 million of investment in transit on this Campbellton Road corridor, I'm not nervous about that at all."
What comes next?
It's not clear what benchmarks or milestones are still ahead for the bus rapid transit plan to receive final approval, or for there to be any sort of reversal to a light rail system.
11Alive has reached out to both the mayor's office and MARTA for further clarification on the timeline and process of how this matter moves forward.
MARTA offered this response on the path forward: "MARTA will have continued engagement with the City of Atlanta, the Mayor’s office and City Council regarding the investment on Campbellton Road and in Southwest Atlanta. For this project to be completed, we will need federal support which will require an application to the (Federal Transit Administration) following a vote by the MARTA Board of Directors."