Why MARTA’s Lack of Expansion Isn’t as Bad as You Think

1967 MARTA Map
A 1967 MARTA map with rail lines that were never built (click to enlarge)

Many people lament the fact that MARTA has more or less been stunted since it was first built. Atlanta has had 48 miles of track and 38 stations since North Springs opened in December of 2000. Compare that to San Francisco’s 107 miles or Washington D.C.’s 117 miles, not to mention Chicago and New York City, which are both even larger in size.

Some people say this lack of growth has put Atlanta and MARTA behind other cities. In reality, the lack of growth might be the one thing that’s slowly putting MARTA in a better position than some of the system’s peers. In the simplest terms, MARTA’s smaller size makes the system easier to maintain and less expensive to update. And that’s a good thing as failing and aging transit systems are becoming the norm and not the exception.

The L.A. Times reports that transit system repair backlog in the United States is at $86 billion. In San Francisco alone, problems with their rail lines went viral after the official BART Twitter feed started getting real with customers after service complaints:

BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality.

BART (just seven years older than MARTA) is looking into bonds to help fund needed repairs and expansion, with a price tag of about $3.5 billion. And just slightly older than MARTA, Washington D.C.’s transit system is having bigger problems than train delays. On March 16, 2016, the rail system was completely shut down for inspections after ongoing smoke and fire issues, including 216 incidences in 2015, one that killed a woman in January 2015. Even President Obama commented on the transit system’s poor condition, saying that there wasn’t enough investment in maintenance and repair, which has lead to a year-long repair plan that starts in June. Fewer trains, single-tracking and track shutdowns will be commonplace on DC’s Metro.

Fortunately for Atlanta, although a topic of contention in the past, MARTA was restricted to a 50/50 spending rule until 2014, which meant that half of revenue could be spent on operations and the other half on infrastructure, which helped fund maintenance to keep the rail system “useful” and avoid some of the more extreme breakdown scenarios in other cities.

As a result, although Atlanta’s rail system isn’t as big as BART or DC’s WMATA, MARTA has had the resources to preemptively rebuild and upgrade track and rail cars — and has been doing so since 2003 (source: MARTA). That’s 13 years of work that still isn’t complete, and for track mileage that is considerably smaller than in other cities. That puts Atlanta ahead when it comes to systematic maintenance.

So the next time single tracking is an inconvenience, just remember it is part of the ongoing and needed process of replacing and updating the rail system so trains don’t fail and fires don’t start. Rail lines and train cars don’t last forever — it is important to keep in mind that every new mile of rail built is another mile of track that will need to be updated down the road.

More Information

Single Tracking Schedule
MARTA Emergency Tips
The MARTA Station in Atlanta’s Next Hot Spot
5 Developments Near MARTA Stations to Watch