By Guest Columnist HEATHER ALHADEFF, president of Center Forward, a land-use and transportation consulting business

The reaction to Maria Saporta’s recent streetcar/BeltLine articles produced an unusually hot-tempered string of comments.  From my perspective as a transportation planner, what seems to be muddying the waters of this debate is a natural misunderstanding of the long-term, multipurpose benefits of a variety of transit routes.

Commenters tended to lump all trip purposes and transportation technologies together.  A more nuanced understanding could help the dialogue become more productive.

Additionally, comments narrowly defined benefits and costs when in actuality there are seemingly unrelated outcomes and impacts that a city must balance. In many economic debates, it’s not uncommon to recognize ancillary benefits.

For example, solving the City of Atlanta’s pension problem didn’t affect anyone in my family, but it right-sized a significant budgetary weakness and improved the city’s bond rating, which will continue to directly impact my life via other projects and programs.

Heather Alhadeff
Heather Alhadeff

Providing transportation options to a citizenry is one of the most essential and effective ways a government can ensure the highest level of opportunities and quality of life. But life and progress are nit static. Cities deliver transportation systems in segments or phases and at the same time people are moving and economic conditions shift. However, one thing is certain. A segment passes though areas of different types of land uses and land value and is used by both the rich and poor for different types of trips, at different times of day.

Sometimes I use I-85 to get to my soccer games, sometimes to a meeting. When I was younger, I used I-75 to get to my job, now it’s used to visit some friends. My family drives a sedan to dinner, but at one time we needed a 15-passenger van for a longer trip. A van was lower and certainly cost more in gas, but it was the most appropriate option for that trip. I have been lucky enough to have enjoyed a flight on a small private plane to go a state or two away. I have also used a larger jet to fly all the way to Washington State.

Similar to needing different cars and planes, a MARTA bus varies from MARTA rail, and I use and need both for different destinations and trip types.  Sometimes I will travel on the train from Midtown to downtown, but sometimes I will take the Midtown-downtown bus if I need to speed up to a meeting nearby or if heavy packages prevent me from walking to the station.  The upcoming streetcar service will help me too, although buses have been serving the area and the train station is nearby.  The bottom line is that a true transportation system requires different types of technologies for different trip purposes and for different times of the day.

Some people will not ride a MARTA bus, but they will ride a MARTA train. Some people will not fly, but they will drive.  If a city wants to offer its residents the most opportunity to succeed (thereby reducing resource demands) then it is the city’s responsibility to consider and plan for as many people and trip types as it can.

The general idea of connecting the traditional BeltLine transit loop to more destinations and riders in the city has been in the heads of planners for years. In the City of Atlanta’s case, a couple of years ago the Transportation Improvement Act (or TSPLOST) was absorbing an inordinate amount of time from elected officials, policy makers and an already overburdened staff. The City’s Transportation Planning staff and the Atlanta BeltLine Inc’s transportation staff were both asked to assess and organize their projects to compete with the new regional TIA criteria.

Fatefully, around the same time the Atlanta Regional Commission was also updating its long-range plan. So, with city and ABI staff goals overlapping, the city staff was also busy organizing the rest of the City’s project needs.

The city leadership and ABI staff determined it was the appropriate time to look at additional routes linking to the BeltLine, specifically calling for Streetcar service and the type trips that technology offers.

Thus ABI staff launched a prioritization process for BeltLine-related routes that will be used by citizens “off” of the BeltLine. To be fair to ABI, they took the lead on planning for those BeltLine-connecting routes because they had more staff and planning funds than were available to the city’s staff at that time.

So it’s no wonder there is public confusion and pressure from City Council to better understand the staffing roles and the lens with which the different entities prioritize projects.

The on-going transit debate can be a healthy one if we can at least begin to differentiate between the benefits and attributes of the Atlanta Streetcar, the BeltLine-related projects as well as MARTA’s bus and rail.

Any one transit segment is likely to serve existing congestion demand, while on some parcels, it will enable future growth — development likely to be less dependent on cars. Any one segment can be expected to serve rich and poor, workers and retirees. The difference is some segments will serve varying proportions of those parcels and people, yet each project will benefit everyone more than any “ridership or economic estimate” could hope to calculate or predict.

As we look to the future, we need recognize multiple stages of growth and needs that does indeed mean pursuing funds for projects requiring existing ridership as well as serving citizens and businesses regardless of the amount and value of development surrounding them.  Such wise variety in transit investments ensures that we are creating the Atlanta we want to become.

Note to readers: Before starting her own consulting business, Heather Alhadeff helped coordinate the “Connect Atlanta” plan as a transportation planner for the City of Atlanta.

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  1. “In the City of Atlanta’s case, a couple of years ago the Transportation Improvement Act (or TSPLOST) was absorbing an inordinate amount of time from elected officials, policy makers and an already overburdened staff.” 
    So Mayor Reed and the city of Atlanta should sit the next round of T-SPLOST out, let the state and the suburbs deal with the mess that they have created, and focus on their own needs, which are completing the Beltline, the infrastructure backlog, the Falcons’ stadium and other large projects, extending MARTA to Clayton County, and allow the “regionalism” concept (which was never going to work so long as the “white flight” crowd has so much political and emotional capitalism invested in seeing Atlanta crater in on itself like Detroit and Saint Louis did and like Washington D.C. would have had not Congress stepped in to prevent it). I agree 100%.

  2. Why would we not focus on spending our limited transit dollars on areas of the city which are job rich, fast growing and loaded with new residents?  It’s crazy to leave Buckhead out of this process.  Especially since that’s where a large part of the funding will be generated.  
    But then again, what else is new?

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  4. Shorter: people who don’t actually know anything about designing transit systems, it turns out, have trouble understanding the reason why transit systems are designed the way they are.

  5. mnst  In the mid 1930s, the greatest airplane designer in the UK (and perhaps in the world) told his #2 test pilot, “If one of my engineers or designers tells you anything about an aeroplane so complicated you cannot understand it, you can take my word that it’s all balls.” Put it in today’s parlance, if someone says to you that you cannot understand a technical subject, then they are trying to feed you manure.
    There is no magic about designing a transit system; an astute and intellectually honest expert can explain it in plain English.

  6. Burroughston Broch mnst  The problem seems to be not so much a lack of explanation but the presence of uninformed bystanders convinced they know of a better solution; something we seem to always have a plethora of here in the south.

  7. arjay57  
    1. Does Buckhead even want in on the streetcar project? If they do, they should speak up. It would really help a lot since the streetcar is the most criticized and despised project in the entire state (with the Beltline that the streetcar is part of coming in at #2). That is the same thing I said about the Peachtree people who now want in. The places where the streetcar is now headed put in the heavy lifting and bore the political hate in order to get this project funded from various city, federal and private sources. If Buckhead wants this, they need to stick their neck out too. 
    2. This is an economic development project. The purpose of an economic development project is to draw new development to areas that economic development is lacking. Places that are already fully developed economically do not need economic development projects. There is no lack of businesses seeking to locate or relocate to Buckhead. If the streetcar and the larger Beltline project succeeds, then 10-15 years from now, the Buckhead contingent will no longer have to endlessly remind everyone in the city how they generate tax revenue for everyone else, because tax revenue will be generated in many more places in the city. 
    And incidentally, the part of Atlanta that is fastest growing with new residents is not Buckhead but Midtown. Yes, many of them are high income. Midtown is adding a bunch of new employers also. And Midtown will be accessible to the streetcar. Please keep that in mind.

  8. mnst The problem is “the experts” don’t like having to explain to mere peons why they have done what they did. They believe, as “the experts”, their actions should be accepted without question. In this, they are much like Professor Marvel in “The Wizard of Oz.”

  9. @atlman arjay57 Of course it’s an economic development project.  Every transportation project built in the world can be classified under that heading.

  10. atlman Oh Lord, but I hope there won’t be a next round!  We need something like HB195 to allow cities and counties to make their own decisions about transportation, not the state.

  11. @DougAlexander @atlman  
    Two problems with that approach.
    1. “The state” is not metro Atlanta. Much of Georgia produces so little tax revenue that they would need a very large, indeed regional, approach to get anything done.
    2. HB 195 would allow counties to ignore their responsibilities – things that they created – for political and other reasons. For example, it will snow in the Sahara before Cobb or Gwinnett enters into an infrastructure agreement with Fulton and DeKalb. Yet when I am stuck in traffic inside the perimeter on I-75, I-85, or I-20 at any given time, what do I see? Lots and lots of cars from Cobb and Gwinnett! 
    There was even an article in the Marietta Daily-Journal after T-SPLOST failed stating that Cobb County should avoid any cooperation with Atlanta like the plague, but that they should work with Cherokee, Bartow, Paulding and Douglas on projects that address the traffic that drivers from those counties have on their roads! Seriously, look at this map! When you consider that TEN METRO ATLANTA COUNTIES BORDER FULTON ALONE, then if HB195 allows those 10 counties to abdicate their responsibilities towards Fulton County, then it is bad policy, even if it is good politics. 
    Pretending as if the region isn’t centered around Fulton will not make it so. And neither will splitting Fulton into South Fulton and Milton, because many of the worst traffic issues – including the downtown connector – are south of any proposed Milton County (even if they are allowed to thieve certain high tax districts that were never in the original Milton County and should not be allowed in the new one).

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