Expanded rail transit needs to be part of Atlanta region’s future

By Maria Saporta

As the Atlanta region becomes more interested in mass transit, the question now can be boiled down to expand rail lines or invest in bus rapid transit.

Recent conversations from key state and county leaders in the Atlanta region seem to be leaning towards a bus solution rather than rail.

Often transit skeptics or new transit converts favor BRT (bus rapid transit) because they view it as a cheaper way to move people. But BRT can also mean different things to different people – from express buses to buses that have their own dedicated lane and mimic rail.

MARTA bus and train

Bus or rail – Atlanta region has a choice. A shot of both at North Springs MARTA station (Special: MARTA)

But there’s not much difference in cost between real rail transit and buses that operate like rail. And the operating cost for rail tends to be cheaper than for buses – primarily when it comes to labor and fuel costs.

On the other hand, passionate transit advocates often favor rail – be it streetcars, light rail, heavy rail or commuter rail.

Rail has permanence and much greater sex appeal than buses. Developers like building around transit stations, especially now when millennials are demanding more transportation options.

And most major companies looking to relocate or expand their operations are drawn to rail transit. Consider Amazon, which has stated it wants to be located on a rail line. And look at the recent investments of NCR, WestRock, State Farm, KaiserPermanente (to name a few) – MARTA played a key role in their location decisions.

The county most likely to be the next in line to make a major commitment to transit is Gwinnett, which has seen both NCR and WestRock relocate their headquarters from Gwinnett to locations near MARTA.

Gwinnett reportedly is taking a step in the right direction. Its new comprehensive transit plan now includes a relatively short extension of MARTA rail from the Doraville station to a new transit hub in Norcross as part of its long-range plans. But most of its transit investment dollars appear to be in some form of bus rapid transit.

North Fulton also seems to be leaning towards BRT rather than rail, even though the existing MARTA rail line is in the median of Georgia 400, and it seems logical that extending rail in that corridor would give that part of the county a competitive edge by offering a straight shot to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Peachtree Center station

North-South MARTA trains cross parallel paths at the Peachtree Center Station (Special: MARTA)

And Cobb seems even more resistant to rail (and regional mass transit overall), which does not bode well for its future economic vitality.

The Atlanta region would be wise to consider a solution that Seattle presented during the 2011 LINK trip to metro Atlanta leaders.

The Seattle transit envisioned rail extending to suburban areas. But knowing rail transit would take years to build, transit officials offered to immediately provide express bus service along those routes to build ridership along the corridor. But the region was promised that rail was the ultimate solution, and voters overwhelmingly approved that plan.

That scenario is the best of both worlds – it immediately increases transit in an area, but it is done in a way that envisions the development of rail. The Atlanta region also would be wise to revisit commuter rail – providing passenger service in existing rail corridor. Clayton County is considering that approach, especially after having voted overwhelmingly to become a  MARTA county in 2014.

In other words, it doesn’t have to be an either-or scenario. Those who are pushing for an-all BRT solution are asking us to take the cheap way out, and they are not looking out for what’s best for the region long term – given the projected population increases.

Another drawback is that when transportation planners envision bus transit, that often becomes an excuse to expand road capacity. And we in Atlanta have over-invested in roads and highways and underinvested in rail. We pay the price of that every day increased congestion – which will only get worse if we don’t offer alternatives.

MARTA buses

MARTA buses stack up at the Five Points MARTA Station (Special: MARTA)

Some will argue that we don’t have the density yet for rail, but rail influences development patterns – concentrating density around stations.

Imagine if in the 1960s, our leaders had opted used that reasoning. The region only had 1.6 million residents compared to our current population of more than 5.7 million.

Our leaders in the 1960s were big thinkers. More than 50 years ago, they were proposing a regional rail transit system that was more ambitious than the ones being proposed today. (Fortunately, the City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties passed MARTA, but unfortunately the other three counties that could have joined the system – Cobb, Clayton and Gwinnett – took a pass).

If we had been “small thinkers,” we never would have gotten the 1996 Summer Olympic Games or three Super Bowls or almost any other major sporting event.

Without MARTA, we would be far less competitive economically as a region, and we would be far less prepared to welcome millions of new residents – offering them the limited transit that we have.

So, as a region, we have a choice – to think small or think big; to think short-term or long-term, to think about metro Atlanta today or plan to be a metropolis of the future.

Note to readers: This is the second column in a two-part series about transit in metro Atlanta. Last week’s column: Enough already: GRTA, SRTA, MARTA, GDOT, ARC…and now…the ATL.

1960s trainsit plan

A 1960s vision of rail transit in metro Atlanta (Source: MARTA)

 

commuter rail map metro Atlanta

The State of Georgia once proposed an extensive system of commuter rail in the Atlanta region and beyond. Map shows the first phase was to open in 2006. (Source: Georgia Department of Transportation)

Concept 3 transit plan

Metro Atlanta leaders in 2008 put together “Concept 3” – an ambitious plan for regional transit (Source: the Atlanta Regional Commission)

Gwinnett County transit

Gwinnett County’s long-range transit plan (Source: Connect Gwinnett)

buses and trains

Buses and trains pull into the North Springs MARTA Station (Special: MARTA)

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

13 replies
  1. Dominic says:

    Hard for me to understand why this is even a debate? Look at other cities like Seattle, Chicago not to mention cities in other countries where rail is expanding. Rail is the answer…do we really think suburbinates will get on a bus and sit in traffic? All counties need to get on board to better the state and expand rail. It is a shame the 75 flyover is being built without a rail system. Anyone who has lived in a city with a good rail service knows how bad Metro Atlanta needs to get this moving today. Very nice article.Report

    Reply
  2. Terry Gresham says:

    Yes yes yes!! Some of these plans make us look like a real city with a real rail system in place. These plans are very doable and as Maria said, if people thought about the big picture, it could happen.Report

    Reply
  3. James Reese says:

    Maria I feel your passion. In reality it will never happen because we, meaning Georgians can’t get out of own way. Bottom line the issue of race has always kept Metro Atlanta and Georgia at the “small thinkers” table. I hope I’m wrong.Report

    Reply
  4. Noel M says:

    Rail – in any of its various forms – is the future, and what we should focus on now. You make a great point though in noting that immediate bus service in some areas could help alleviate traffic immediately – as long as it’s only a means to the end of rail.Report

    Reply
  5. Dan Valdes says:

    Any workable long term transit option MUST include rail – I ride the train all the way to the very end and then get my car parked in the MARTA lot to finish the commute. RAIL is the only way to reduce congestion and keep on a schedule. The Streetcar would be more successful if it had a dedicated right of way – commuters have to be able to rely on the train arriving at the same time EVERY DAY in order for it to be successful – Atlanta Beltline take notice –Report

    Reply
  6. Jeff Morrison says:

    The city owe’s our entire existence to the Western & Atlantic Railroad, a state-funded speculative rail transportation project. And somehow we’re still wondering if that kind of investment is worth while.Report

    Reply
    • Chris Johnston says:

      The purpose of the W&A was to provide the northern portion of a railroad link between the port of Savannah and the Midwest. It was not speculation.Report

      Reply
  7. mike dobbins says:

    Points:
    A transit system is about service between concentrations of origins and destinations – where people are and where they’re trying to get, in which coverage and frequency of service have been shown to be the most important factors in boosting ridership. Only after that kind of analysis does it become useful to consider what transit mode best serves the system, from right now into the future. What do we need, who needs it most, and when do we need it? This question must include consideration of fast-changing travel technologies, like bike/ped, lyft/uber, and autonomous vehicles along with travel behaviors. As part of that analysis it is essential to consider cost and time of delivery. How are we going to pay for different modes, and how long does it take to deliver them? Somehow, untethered from commonsense, our transit debate for years focuses on BRT vs streetcars and on serving so few people with current needs to not be feasible. Understanding these points explains why nothing has happened over the life of the TAD, now 13 years on. Nor will it (though it would be useful to extend the Downtown streetcar to Ponce so it could pick up a good balance of origins and destinations – this would take a minimum of five years and about $150 million, but it would cure the lonely, albeit peaceful, ride now offered).

    Your Seattle example, or others from around the country that take a developmental approach, could serve us well: serve areas with the highest ridership potential and the greatest unmet need, beef up the service as needed, and then increase the capacity with technologies that meet the growing need. This trajectory, which seems to be what MARTA is actually planning and even beginning to implement, responds quicker, at least upfront cost and has the best chance of building ridership. Such an approach, too, is our best shot at using transit as a tool in stemming our growing inequity and narrowing
    our damning wealth gap.

    One other point: BRT, however it is implemented, is way cheaper to build than streetcars, like about a quarter or less the cost, and, importantly,way quicker to implement.Report

    Reply
    • You're always a naysayer says:

      If you don’t see the density — both current and future — along the Eastside trail along with a need for transit with its own right of way to create a north/south alternative to Moreland Ave., I don’t know what else to tell you, bud. Your Beltline skepticism is blinding you to reality. And that’s just the most urgent and obvious part of the Beltline that needs transit *already*.Report

      Reply

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  1. […] Note to readers,the second column in this two-part series is: Expanded rail transit needs to be part of Atlanta region’s future. […]Report

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