A New Station for Atlanta

by G.E. Vann

Following the demolition of Pennsylvania Station in New York City, Vincent Scully commented that passengers used to enter New York like gods, but now they scurry in like rats. New Yorkers might consider themselves luckier than citizens of Atlanta: at least they can scurry into their city. The residents of Atlanta do not have that option. When their two stations, Atlanta Union Station and Atlanta Terminal Station, were demolished in the 1970s, nothing was put in their place. Now when you enter Atlanta you do so not as a god or a rat, but as a passenger at a small, cramped old station located in the suburbs, miles from the city’s downtown.

Over the past few years, two proposals have come forward to fix this situation. The first is to build a new train station in the Atlantic Station neighborhood. Located on the edge of Atlanta’s Midtown area and built on the site of the former Atlantic Steel Mill, the new station would try to bring Amtrak and inter-city bus services to this fast growing area. It is hoped that it would serve as a catalyst for a long discussed extension of the local heavy rail transit system, MARTA, to the region.

The second proposal is the Atlanta Multimodal Passenger Terminal (MMPT), to be located west of Atlanta’s downtown in an area known as The Gulch. Located near the former sites of the city’s old trainstations, the MMPT would also serve Amtrak, MARTA and intercity bus services, as well as potential future commuter rail services. Envisioned as a grand gateway to Atlanta, the new station would cost $1.5 billion and transform 119 acres with new green space and high rise developments.

While both of these plans would give Atlanta the rail station it needs, recent events have lead people to wonder if they will ever be completed. The first was the announcement in September that a local real-estate developer would be purchasing the planned site for the Atlantic Station location to build a mixture of retail, restaurant and high density homes. His plans do not currently involve building a new station along with the planned developments.

The second is that there has been little to no development on the MMPT. While the MMPT was granted an expedited approval process from the federal government in 2012, the project has become mired in environmental reviews and public hearing. Although a video showing the project’s designs was released this past April, it was quickly pulled down due to complaints from the Georgia Department of Transportation. Since then, there has been little information on the status of the MMPT.

Currently, there appears to be little to no political will at the state and local level for the MMPT. The primary reason for this is the $1.5 billion price tag. While part of the project will could theoretically be paid for by the federal government, the amount that the federal government would put in is unknown and can only be determined once the environmental reviews are completed late this year or early next year. Compounding the cost problem is the lack of perceived need for the project. Currently Atlanta is served by only one Amtrak train a day and the MARTA subway system serves less than a quarter of a million people a day. In comparison, the Washington Metro system carries three times that amounteven though the Washington metropolitan area has a similar population size.

As time moves on and Atlanta grows in terms of population, traffic, and congestion, there will undoubtedly be more calls for inter-city and commuter rail transport. Already Atlanta has been recognized as an important stop on the planned Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor, and there have been proposals in the past for a commuter rail system to be built around Atlanta. Although recent events and lack of developments have right now paused and delayed plans to build a new train station in Atlanta, one hopes that it will be eventually built. The city of Atlanta will be able to undo the mistake of demolishing their two grand stations and once again passengers arriving by rail will enter Atlanta like gods.