The MARTA board of directors unanimously voted July 13 to approve an $11.5 million contract for final design of the Atlanta Streetcar extension from Downtown to the Atlanta BeltLine Eastside Trail and up to Ponce City Market.
HDR Inc., a global engineering and architecture firm based in Nebraska, was awarded the contract after receiving committee backing in June.
The board’s vote puts the estimated $230 million project on track to start construction in 2025 with service expected to begin in 2028.
The extension route will run along Edgewood Avenue to Randolph Street, up Auburn Avenue and connect to the BeltLine at Irwin Street, according to plans finalized by the MARTA board earlier this year. From there the streetcar turns north to Ponce City Market. There will be five stops along the route.
Bringing the streetcar to the BeltLine has become controversial.
Opponents of the project say it will destroy neighborhoods and hurt businesses along the route, especially in the Sweet Auburn historic district. Others say the money is being wasted on a streetcar that people rarely use. Developers who have projects along the Eastside Trail have said the expansion would ruin easy pedestrian access to their commercial and residential projects.
Supporters say the streetcar extension is the first step in fulfilling the promise of transit around the BeltLine. The extension from Downtown to Ponce City Market would ensure more people who have no cars can access jobs and affordable housing along the BeltLine, they say.
More than 20 people spoke during the public comment portion at the meeting with most supporting the project.
MARTA Board Chair Tom Worthy amended the resolution to approve the contract to include that HDR’s initial task would be to take a deep dive into the existing streetcar system, including ridership, to determine enhancements that would benefit the design and operation of future expansions.
“I think we’ve heard from a lot of well-meaning folks that want more answers than what we currently have,” Worthy said.
The streetcar extension is a priority for MARTA as well as Mayor Andre Dickens and the Atlanta City Council. It will be funded with More MARTA funds that come from a half-penny sales tax approved by voters in 2016 specifically to build new rail, streetcar extensions, new bus lines, and new stations.
Clyde Higgs, president and CEO of Atlanta BeltLine Inc., spoke in favor of the project during public comment. He said Metro Atlanta is expected to add nearly three million people over the next three decades.
“Let’s think about that for a minute,” he said. “Three million people in Metro Atlanta. What are we going to do? And so I submit to you that advancing high-quality rail transit along the BeltLine is imperative.”
After the vote, Higgs said in a written statement the work to complete the BeltLine is to create a “‘whole community,’ where everyone can live, work, start a business, buy groceries, see a doctor, walk, ride a bike and take transit.”
“The vote today is an exciting continuation of our partnership with MARTA and the City of Atlanta to fulfill the promise of high-quality transit, bringing more accessibility to all, while still maintaining the natural, green experience of the BeltLine,” Higgs said.
“An important piece of this work will be continuing community conversations around the Streetcar design as it progresses toward final design,” he said.