Twenty-three years ago, Atlanta-native and architecture and urban planning student Ryan Gravel had an experience that opened his mind to what urban living could be.
"My senior year I spent abroad in Paris and lived without a car for a year and traveled by train everywhere," says Gravel. "And within a month of arriving, I had lost 15 pounds. I was in the best shape of my life because I was walking everywhere, and the role of the physical city was made clear to me in a way it really had never been before."
For his Georgia Tech master's thesis, Gravel sketched out a plan to make Atlanta more like Paris. He proposed redeveloping the land along the city's historic rail lines to create a 22-mile loop called the Atlanta BeltLine. He proposed turning the city's abandoned industrial areas and single-family home neighborhoods into business districts and walking trails. And he proposed connecting downtown to the rest of the city all with a new train running along the entire Atlanta BeltLine.
"I never imagined we would actually do it," says Gravel.
But they did—for the most part. Cathy Woolard, who was president of the Atlanta City Council, read Gravel's thesis and decided to use it as a blueprint to remake much of the city. Today, the Atlanta BeltLine is a walking and biking trail, parts of which are bordered by retail and condos.
But one piece of Gravel's grand vision didn't get built: The train.
Today, Gravel runs a co-working and event space along the BeltLine, which also serves as a gathering place for urbanists interested in making Atlanta less dependent on cars. He says that the train line is essential for improving city life.
"In those early days, when we built the movement behind the [BeltLine] project, it was around transit," says Gravel.
The three COVID relief bills set aside $69 billion in federal funding for local transit agencies to operate and add to their transportation systems, meaning that Atlanta might finally get its train—with many American taxpayers who will never step foot on it picking up much of the tab.
Buses don't have the aesthetic appeal of trains and don't evoke the dense, pre-automobile, 19th-century aesthetic that many urbanists romanticize. But they're far less costly and more convenient, and commuters generally prioritize modes of transit that get them from point A to point B with the least hassle. The sharp decline in the number of workers showing up at an office every day post-pandemic makes building commuter rail an even worse use of public funds, says Baruch Feigenbaum, senior managing director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes Reason TV and Reason magazine.
"There's been a major change that we've really not seen since pre-World War II days. And that change is overwhelmingly negative for transit, especially rail transit," says Feigenbaum.
Eleven years ago, Feigenbaum wrote that the proposed BeltLine train was "possibly the worst transit project of all time."
"I think it's amazingly still true. And the reason I say that is because it's very expensive, and it doesn't connect people from point A to point B," says Feigenbaum. "A lot of politicians like rail because they say it's permanent, and we can't change it. That's true. But sometimes you want to change it."
Gravel says that the emergence of restaurants and the thriving Ponce City Market along the BeltLine demonstrates that when you build new permanent infrastructure, commerce gravitates to it.
"Ponce City Market is a major destination," says Gravel. "All these buildings being built across the way [are] some of the best architecture in the city… some of the best companies to work for. You know why? Because of the BeltLine. They're there for other reasons, but also the BeltLine. We're building a future city, and look at it proven by the last 22 years."
Matthew Rao, the chair of BeltLine Rail Now, a group of activists pushing for the completion of Gravel's vision, says that the "best time to build transit was 10 years ago" and "the next best time is now."
"Because it's never getting less expensive," says Rao. "We're talking about one-time investments in the life of the city."
But rail isn't really a one-time investment. While Rao's coalition wants the federal government to foot much of their project's $2.5 billion bill for rail construction, local taxpayers are usually responsible for the majority of operating costs for all forms of transit. In 2020, transit fares for light rail and streetcars covered about 14 percent of operating costs nationwide.
In that sense, getting federal dollars to build rail is kind of like being gifted a swimming pool you barely use and then being left to cover the maintenance costs. It might have sounded like a good idea.
There is some local enthusiasm for the rail project. Atlanta voters approved a half-cent sales tax in 2016 that, in part, was supposed to fund the construction of the BeltLine rail. But the city's public transit agency, known as MARTA, has been using much of that funding instead to improve current operations, especially bus service. The agency's most recent analysis projected that it would cost an estimated $287 million to $448 million to build just the first three miles of track. That's up from $172 million, which was the estimated cost just three years ago.
MARTA's leadership wants Atlanta to emulate the bus service in cities like Los Angeles that have dedicated bus lanes and synchronized stop lights to minimize traffic. Bus lanes cost far less to maintain than rail, and their routes are modified if demand rises or falls. MARTA has determined that people who can't afford cars would benefit more from improved bus service than a new rail line.
"There's nothing wrong with buses," says Rao. "Buses are the core of any city's mass transit system. What we're talking about here [with the BeltLine rail] is a different kind of project that is higher in capacity and creates a beautiful place for everyone in the city to access."
But Atlanta residents don't have to look far for an example of a rail line that didn't live up to its promise. The city already has a streetcar. Its average speed is about 5 miles per hour—about the same speed as the horse-drawn railways that crisscrossed cities, including Atlanta, in the 19th century. The street car stops every quarter mile. Fewer than 1,000 people ride the street car daily in a city 500 times that size, though rail advocates believe MARTA's recently announced plans to connect the streetcar to the BeltLine will increase ridership. The little-used Atlanta streetcar cost more than $52 million per mile to build in 2013.
But Rao says the BeltLine project is different.
"We'll be the first city and only city in the world to have this multipurpose trail, this greenway, and the transit within it connecting to our existing heavy rail system."
But the project is a long way from completing even its beginning stages, much less building connections to Atlanta's heavy rail system. Even if ground broke tomorrow, MARTA estimates it could take five years to complete just the first mile and a half of track.
And there's a good chance that transit ridership will never fully come back post-pandemic because so many fewer people are commuting to jobs. Even in New York City paid bus and subway ridership was only at 55 percent of its pre-pandemic levels, according to a July Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) report. In February, MTA began capping fares for bus and subway riders and has seen a rise in ridership this summer.
Nationwide transit ridership is at about 60 percent of what it was before COVID. Rail transit nationwide has taken a particularly bad hit, with ridership decreasing by about 50 percent between 2011 and 2020, while non-rail transit decreased by about 30 percent.
That trend applies in Atlanta, where MARTA's bus ridership decreased by 39 percent post-COVID and rail decreased by about 62 percent.
Before COVID, only 5 percent of Americans' working days were spent at home. Researchers at Stanford University analyzed poll data and concluded that now about half of Americans work at home at least once a week and about a quarter are fully remote.
The pandemic also accelerated the decade-long trend of Americans moving from cities to lower-density suburbs, including in the area surrounding the city of Atlanta, which saw population loss in its urban core for the first time in a decade between 2020 and 2021.
Rao says it's just a blip and believes that the half-mile-wide transit corridor in which the BeltLine is located will contain up to 25 percent of the population of the city by 2050.
"And that kind of density will only work sustainably if we provide the transit," says Rao.
Gravel says that downtown Atlanta is "booming" and that the rise of remote work actually brightens its prospects.
"If you can telework, you have more options," says Gravel. "I know it's surprising for a lot of people, but people do want to be downtown. They want to be on the BeltLine."
It's true that the Ponce City Market portion of the BeltLine along which Gravel's venue sits is a popular destination. However, much of the 22-mile loop is still an urban nature trail with little but single-family homes surrounding it: a nice amenity, but not a highly trafficked destination packed with commerce and dense housing.
Gravel's master's thesis opens with a history of Atlanta transit, pointing out that streetcars were profitable in many American cities before they were displaced by roads and cars. But he says that building a privately funded streetcar today would come with tradeoffs like accessibility for lower-income riders.
"I think there's a shared good that comes with public investment in transit," says Gravel. "There are things that are good for all of us that we should be investing in collectively. And we'll get more if we do it that way. If we expect a private company to do it… It can happen, but it comes with certain kinds of compromises and caveats."
It wasn't always the case that privately funded rail was a rarity. In the 19th century, many urban transit systems were privately owned and operated. Companies would sometimes lose money at the fare box to encourage ridership but make it back by speculating in land that increased in value because of the new train station. When local governments did build infrastructure, they would sometimes pay for it by levying special assessments on land owners who benefited.
Rao's coalition is proposing just such a special levy along the BeltLine, but it would cover just 10 percent of the projected $2.5 billion construction cost. Federal taxpayers would foot 40 percent of the bill. If the local stakeholders who stand to benefit from increased property values had to foot more of the bill, maybe they would think twice.
While both rail and city buses consistently lose money, buses that move people between cities are still privately owned and operated at a profit. Amtrak, on the other hand, loses close to a billion dollars annually and relies on federal subsidies.
Feigenbaum says politicians seem to care less about whether transportation projects are best serving their constituents and much more about the spectacle.
"If I'm a politician and I'm running for reelection, I get to go to a ribbon-cutting ceremony and say, 'I did this,'" says Feigenbaum. "Whereas, if you're talking about operations or improving service—for lower-income folks, especially—that's not a politically connected group. And so, politicians don't really care."
Atlanta's rail advocates say that MARTA's decision to allocate the money from the tax levy on improving bus operations defies the will of voters.
"What we are about is making sure there's transparency and accountability with what our public officials and public institutions are doing with the money that we're giving them to achieve an outcome," says Rao. "And if the money was going to be used on the front end, primarily for operations and service extensions, everyone should have known that."
But Feigenbaum points out that voters approved a package that included funding the BeltLine rail but also increasing bus service and improving technology on existing rail lines, and they did so several years before the pandemic hit.
"MARTA didn't know that COVID-19 was going happen, and they certainly could not have projected what changes were going to happen as a result of that," says Feigenbaum.
The two COVID relief bills—one signed by former President Donald Trump and the other by President Joe Biden—sent $69 billion in additional funding to America's transit agencies at a time when ridership is falling. While the Biden administration is keen to direct money to rail projects like the one on the BeltLine, Feigenbaum says transit should cater to what customers want, which is fast and convenient point-to-point mobility, and that accomplishing that requires a different approach.
"[It's time for] reimagining what transit is. It's not just an agency. It's services that are provided to your customers," says Feigenbaum, who recommends more emphasis on ride-share technology, "microtransit" that operates on demand and doesn't follow a fixed route, and vanpools.
Paris' walkability is what first inspired Ryan Gravel to reimagine the Atlanta cityscape in the late 90s. Today, Feigenbaum suggests looking to France, which has privatized much of its transit, for a different lesson about mobility.
"I think this is the time we need to start asking those questions because in the wake of COVID, we're not gonna get back to the ridership we had in 2019, and the ridership we had in 2019 wasn't that great," says Feigenbaum.
Gravel says that although he was inspired by Paris, it's obvious that "Atlanta's not Paris" and that the city must grow "into the best version of itself."
"Atlanta's history is railroads," says Gravel. "Its future is also railroads."
MARTA still hasn't committed to building rail on the BeltLine and says the issue still needs two more years of study before the board can vote on it. The rail advocates we spoke to worry that by then it will be too late to qualify for federal funding for a project that's taken more than 20 years already.
Gravel is right that rail lines were good for American cities because they were heavily used and often profitable. But what are the chances that today, a project expected from the outset to operate at a loss during a period of declining rail transit use and that depends on over $100 million in federal subsidies is going to be something that the commuters of Atlanta will actually use?
Produced by Zach Weissmueller; edited by Danielle Thompson; additional graphics by Isaac Reese; camera by David Lyman; production assistance by Addie Mae.
Music: "Sur Le Manège" by Francesco D'Andrea via Artlist; "Poligon" by Crazy Paris via Artlist; "XIII" by Angel Salazar via Artlist; "Manhattan" by Will Van De Crommert via Artlist; "Blink: by Swirling Ship via Artlist; "Sunrise City" by Sebastian Borromeo via Artlist; "Cold War" by Maya Pacziga via Artlist; "cdHiddenDir" by Out of Flux via Artlist; "Attracting Drama" by Rhythm Scott via Artlist; "Always Ready" by Rhythm Scott via Artlist; "The Woodworks" by Jacob Kinstle via Artlist; "Happy on My Own" by Kyle Cox via Artlist
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