Developing new rail and bus transit in Atlanta region – a long-term play
By Saba Long
At the opening ceremony for the Atlanta Streetcar, Central Atlanta Progress head honcho A.J. Robinson bluntly addressed the project’s naysayers.
He plainly remarked, “We didn’t build it for you, or for me, for that matter.”
I’m a transit-riding Millenial who chose to live in the city center long before public officials and downtown boosters lobbied the public and the federal government to support the first spur of the Atlanta Streetcar. So, in some respects, this project and the other transit expansions we are already familiar with – the BeltLine or the Clifton Corridor – aren’t for me either.
Why? These projects have been on the books for decades and are still inching forward to reality. The sole transit project built for today’s Millenials is MARTA – a system constructed 35 years ago.
Atlanta Millenials ought to thank former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, then-Congressman Andrew Young and other thought leaders who were less risk-adverse and had the foresight to make our current rail system a reality.
Transportation is all about the long game. Shovel-ready transit lines are heavy lifts – often opening two or more years after groundbreaking. To be sure, I will regularly ride the Streetcar and will gladly hop aboard the three MARTA expansion projects once they become a reality.
But they have hardly impacted my choice to continue living in the metro Atlanta region. If I opt for another city, its existing regional transit network will guide that decision, not the promise for future expansion.
Until policy makers move from a transportation funding down-tempo to double-time; when my 12-year old niece begins touring Atlanta-area colleges, there is a clear possibility the region will not have celebrated another grand opening for a future transit spur.
Even Bus Rapid Transit, the acceptable transit mode for some right-leaning think-tanks, averages three years from renderings to revenue services.
The Atlanta region is behind a generation, maybe two, in building out its transit infrastructure. While it appears the General Assembly will include transit funding in a comprehensive transportation-funding bill, the Atlanta area’s transit projects are underfunded to the tune of more than $4 billion, and that’s a conservative figure.
New transportation technologies are on the horizon. They could receive widespread approval years before transit projects studied more than a decade ago receive government funding. We could soon see self-driving cars riding alongside Xpress buses headed to the city center.
Look no further than ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft’s swift disruption of the taxi industry to see how luxury on-demand services like Bridj could challenge our existing public bus transit experiences.
This year is set to be a transportation infrastructure game changer for the state and the Atlanta region.
The next election is of little consequence when the decisions made today will impact those who are still in grammar school today.
Note to readers: In the interest of full disclosure, Saba Long is a communications and political professional who provides external and internal communications strategy for MARTA and other organizations.