By Nick Carter
Growing up in Atlanta, the orange and blue stripes of MARTA’s subway cars became iconic. Those rattling metal tubes meant freedom for a kid too young to drive, and for a couple of bucks fed into a vending machine, a bronze token about the size of a half-dollar would take you anywhere you wanted to go.
Concerts at The Omni, The Varsity on North Avenue, the record stores at Little Five Points, all were in range, and so was the Olympic Village—pretty much daily—when the whole world came to Atlanta for a big sports party in the summer of 1996. That one MARTA token was your ticket to whatever was happening in the city, and it carried you there in style atop hard-plastic orange seats.
On Dec. 21, two of those old subway cars were given new life after being retired in 2022. Instead of rusting in a lot somewhere, the 72-foot-long railcars will become fish habitat. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources had them carried by barge about 23 nautical miles east of Ossabaw Island and dumped them in the Atlantic. Over the years, as they settle into the bottom under 60 feet of water, sea life will encrust the cars and transform them into a home for all sorts of marine critters.
“This project has been a long time in the works, and we are so glad to have these MARTA cars offshore now to provide essential fish habitat, diving opportunities, and another great offshore fishing location,” said Cameron Brinton, a marine biologist with DNR’s Coastal Resources Division.
The railcars were added to Artificial Reef L, which is roughly 2 square miles of ocean floor that has already been decorated with carefully selected rubbish such as M-60 battle tanks, barges, concrete reef balls, tugboats and other vessels. Here are the GPS coordinates to the subway cars: 31.74987, -80.60919. Divers can go explore them now, but anglers might want to give it some time for sportfish to take up residence on the new structure.
“Within a few months to a year, we expect corals, sponges, and other encrusting organisms to form on the railcars,” Brinton said. “The relief and structure of the cars will provide a habitat for fish to spawn and find refuge, which can be sparse off Georgia’s coast due to the low-sloping, sandy geology of the near and offshore undersea environment.”
Brinton said the reef should attract snapper and grouper species, cobia, triggerfish, king and Spanish mackerel, sheepshead, and others.
Prior to deployment, the railcars were stripped of hazardous materials and potential contaminants before inspection and approval for reefing by the U.S. Coast Guard. While the remains of the railcars are man-made, the reef that will form on the structures is entirely natural, Brinton said. They were deployed alongside 1,000 tons of discarded concrete culvert pipe donated by the construction firm Concrete Pipe & Precast of Charleston, S.C., and 200 tons of concrete power poles donated by Georgia Power. East Coast Terminal Co. in Savannah volunteered to stage the materials and railcars at its facility on the Savannah River.
The project was funded by sales of “Support Fish Habitat” license plates, which have raised more than $1 million to create marine reef habitat since 2017.