Atlanta can recreate the great transit system it once had
By Guest Columnist LEE BIOLA, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit and a worker’s compensation lawyer.
Georgia built a world class public transportation system. Georgia destroyed a world class transportation system. Georgia can build a world class transit system again.
It was 1836. Georgia legislators sitting in Augusta voted to fund a taxpayer subsidized rail line out in the middle of nowhere. They wanted the line to run from one obscure dot on the map to another.
It was the best investment the people of Georgia ever made.
One of those dots on the map became Atlanta. The other became Chattanooga.
The tax-subsidized rail line helped transform tiny communities into economic powerhouses. Following the state’s investment in rail, for-profit rail companies built lines into Atlanta from every direction.
Passenger rail lines ran to places like Savannah, Brunswick, and Valdosta. In the early twentieth century, Georgia communities as small as Albany and St. Simons Island had electric streetcars. Electric streetcars would meet you at the train station in towns across Georgia and take you where you needed to go. Streetcar lines were the skeletons on which Georgia communities grew.
In the 1880s, Joel Hurt, a private developer bought up land between Atlanta and Decatur. Hurt used private money to build the city’s first electric streetcar in 1890. He ran the tracks from downtown Atlanta to his land in the middle of nowhere. The tracks quickly made his rural property very valuable. The streetcar line allowed him to sell his land at a sizable profit to people who built mansions, houses, and businesses in the neighborhood that became Inman Park.
By the 1920s, developers like Hurt had created 25 electric streetcar lines running throughout the city of Atlanta. Atlantans could ride the streetcar downtown and connect to streetcar lines that took them to other neighborhoods. They could take commuter rail lines that took them to suburbs such as Chamblee and Smyrna. They could take passenger rail to Macon or Savannah or express trains to New Orleans, New York and elsewhere in North America.
Georgia had a world class transportation system.
So what happened? In 1916, Georgia legislators made a major change of course. Following the federal government’s lead, Georgia created a Department of Highways that could only subsidize travel by car.
Massive subsidies for cars could not immediately kill private rail companies. But decades of that policy eventually did.
In the 1940s zoning laws began to force businesses to set aside land for free parking. The costs were passed on to customers whether they owned cars or not. Streets were widened and sidewalks were left unbuilt. While transportation officials made car travel priority number one, the commercial rail system and walkable communities that depended on it withered.
The federal government began a massive tax subsidized highway interstate building program in the 1950s. This was the nail in the coffin for for-profit transit systems, and the beginning of the end for commercial intercity passenger trains.
The effect on Georgia cities was devastating. While metro Atlanta outside the city limits became the fastest growing settlement in human history, its core, the City of Atlanta, actually began to shrink.
New highways were attracting development to the countryside around Atlanta. The Department of Highways completed I-285 in 1969. During the 1970s, the core City of Atlanta lost nearly 15% of its population.
Like Georgia legislators of 1836, Fulton and DeKalb County voters decided it was once again time to invest tax dollars in rail. They voted to raise a one cent sales tax to fund the MARTA rail system.
The first MARTA rail stations opened in 1979. With some rail service in the 1980s, the core city’s population loss slowed to 7%. As the MARTA system and the communities around it began to mature in the 1990s, Atlanta’s population began to grow again. The MARTA rail system made it possible for Atlanta to host the 1996 Olympics.
The last MARTA station opened in 2000. From 2000 to 2008, the core City of Atlanta’s population exploded 29%. One look at the city’s skyline shows where much of the new development went: right along the MARTA line. Of metro Atlanta’s twenty-five tallest buildings, twenty have been built since 1979. Every single one of those buildings is walking distance from a MARTA station.
Savannah is the most recent Georgia city to invest in rail. It opened a small streetcar line in February 2009 that has grown in popularity during its first year. City officials there are expanding hours of operation because they have found that the rail line, like so many rail lines before it, is attracting economic activity to places it would not otherwise go.
Previous generations of Georgians invested in rail. They showed it can be done right here. We are the heirs of these investments and we benefit from this inheritance every day. To whom much is given, much is expected. We have a responsibility to expand our investment in rail for future generations just as previous generations did for us.
Lee Biola has been a champion of public transit through his role as president of the Citizens for Progressive Transit. Here is Cfpt’s vision for transit. Biola also wanted to highlight the Transit Planning Board’s Concept 3 plan for a regional network of transit.
Lastly, to show how much we’ve lost, here is a map of all the transit lines that existed in Atlanta in the 1940s: (just keep clicking on the links).