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New criticism of transit voiced as MARTA eyes proposed line to Emory area

Atlanta Streetcar, 11:16

The Atlanta Streetcar route is to cover 53 miles, with 22 miles in the Atlanta BeltLine, according to the city's Connect Atlanta Plan. File/Credit: David Pendered

By David Pendered

Randall O’Toole is at it again. Just as MARTA, Atlanta and possibly DeKalb County seem poised to help fund a transit line to the Emory University area, O’Toole – one of the nation’s outspoken critics of transit and smart growth policies – is out with new reports saying the transit era is over.

Randal O'Toole

Randal O’Toole

The headline on O’Toole’s piece in the Nov. 10 edition of wsj.com reads, It’s the Last Stop on the Light-Rail Gravy Train: Mayors want new lines that won’t be ready for a decade. Commuters will be in driverless cars by then.

O’Toole has contended since at least 2009 that driverless cars will be the mobility mode of choice in the near future. He maintains that position in the column:

  • “Why walk in the heat or cold for a bus or streetcar when you can hail a driverless car to your door for less money than the transit fare?”

The opinion piece follows up on O’Toole’s policy analysis released Oct. 24 by the Cato Institute, where O’Toole serves as a senior fellow. Titled The Coming Transit Apocalypse, O’Toole observes:

  • “It is quite likely that, outside of New York and possibly a handful of other cities, transit as we know it will go extinct within 15 years, and many transit agencies will leave behind a mountain of debt that local taxpayers will be obligated to pay.”

Never let it be said that O’Toole minces words.

marta bus

A new volley of criticism of transit contends that the era of agencies such as MARTA is coming to an end. File/Credit: Kelly Jordan

O’Toole does not appear to have pontificated on the proposed MARTA rail line to serve Emory University, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other entities along the Clifton Road corridor.

O’Toole’s most recent observation on metro Atlanta was posted in 2016 by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, where he serves as an adjunct scholar.

In that piece, O’Toole contended that transit rail will become a white elephant, along with the Atlanta Streetcar. The piece concludes:

  • “Instead of planning even more white elephants, MARTA should figure out how it will compete or even survive in the coming era of self-driving mobility.”

The proposed annexation of the Emory area into Atlanta has been a sleeper issue since September. Atlanta and DeKalb County reportedly resolved their differences and Atlanta’s leadership evidently decided to postpone a vote on the annexation until after the Nov. 7 election.

Now, a new wrinkle has appeared. This one is in the form of the 1 percent sales tax DeKalb County voters approved Nov. 7. The construction of transit is an authorized use of tax revenues.

Atlanta Streetcar, 11:16

The Atlanta Streetcar route is to cover 53 miles, with 22 miles in the Atlanta BeltLine, according to the city’s Connect Atlanta Plan. File/Credit: David Pendered

DeKalb officials typically described the purpose of the $388 million the county expects to collect over six years as paying for road repaving projects and fixing county-owned properties. DeKalb can start work fairly quickly, as voters authorized the sale of $40 million in bonds to jump-start the process.

In addition to those purposes, the ballot specifically authorized proceeds of the sales tax to be used for purposes including the design, construction and acquisition of “public transit, rails, airports, buses….”

Transit does not appear on the project sheet that’s been passed around since September.

One line item on the sheet provides $25,550,000 for the purpose of providing: “Federal and State Transportation Project Matching Funds for Transportation Purposes.”

For its part, a MARTA spokesperson said in a Sept. 26 email that, “Presently, the Clifton Corridor project does not have all of the needed local funding which is required to receive matching federal funding.”

Of note, Atlanta officials are so certain the Emory annexation will be approved that the city is planning to build a fire station in an area called the “Emory corridor.” That’s according to one of the terms cited in the $25.7 million bond package the city sold in September.


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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  1. Kelly McCutchen November 14, 2017 7:14 am

    The Emory Line would be a perfect opportunity to implement a transit demonstration project based on autonomous vehicle technology. Imagine a similar dedicated corridor, but with electric vehicles that wouldn’t have to stop at every station and could operate 24/7.Report

    1. Ladeef November 14, 2017 9:56 am

      how many people can a car move vs how many people can a train move? More electric cars for our packed roads?Report

      1. Kelly McCutchen November 14, 2017 10:52 am

        The vehicles could be cars, buses or trains. They could rotate depending on demand. They also would not be on existing roads, but on the dedicated guideway line the planned light rail.Report

        1. Trains November 14, 2017 9:02 pm

          MARTA trains are already “autonomous”; a centralized computer system drives the trains. The train attendant is mostly there as a safety precaution. We could build an autonomous train line there right now with already-existing technology, but it would require complete grade separation from traffic. The reason light rail is planned here is because they don’t want to spend the money on the complete grade separation that heavy rail (“autonomous” rail) would require.Report

  2. Dana Blankenhorn November 14, 2017 10:29 am

    Transit solutions like trains can be integrated into a world of driverless cars, through technology. The future O’Toole describes is a real one, but we can deal with it. Uber is already selling “scheduled” rides through San Francisco, in other words private buses. No reason why systems like MARTA can’t do the same thing. Where demand exists, as on present rail corridors and the proposed light rail system, you build it. They will come.Report

  3. Michael Walls November 14, 2017 11:30 am

    The single most important driver of increased demand for more public transit is traffic congestion. Putting more cars carrying one or two people per trip on the roads is going to kill interest in buses and rails??? I don’t think so!Report

  4. Wormser Hats November 14, 2017 11:42 am

    The notion that transit is soon to be an obsolete form of mobility is as credible as the idea that our national fleet of motor vehicles is anywhere close to becoming fully airborne; let-alone fully autonomous.

    There remain myriad technical complexities to transcend and policies to create and reform before an autonomous fleet can dominate our roadways. There also remains an enormous equity gap whereby independent, autonomous vehicles would even be an accessible option at the lower end of incomes,

    Mr. O’Toole’s musings are fine fodder to sell prophetic tomes, but are every bit as visionary as the Reason Foundation’s call for tunneling Georgia 400 to I-675 as a downtown bypass.

    What say we keep the conversation about metro-area mobility to the foreseeable future, rather than providing a forum for musings of a Libertarian utopia that overlook reality and strain credulity.Report

  5. andrew frank November 14, 2017 1:05 pm

    Thank you for publishing this. It’s hard to swallow but good to know the autonomous-vehicle trolls are out there working hard on behalf of motor companies, the same motor companies that helped dismantle streetcars over half a century ago. They also made these same arguments back then, “why do you need mass transit when these little cars are nicer to sit in and affordable anyway?” Well, the same counter exists today, BECAUSE the resources needed to support individual vehicles is wildly out of proportion with mass transit. That’s obvious to everyone though, and that’s why I call these anti-transit debaters trolls, or worse, incidental shills for motor companies that lose money when MARTA adds a new corridor.Report

  6. Robert Sanders November 14, 2017 3:34 pm

    How do driver-less cars ease congestion and pollution?Report

  7. Trains November 14, 2017 9:04 pm

    With all due respect to O’Toole, autonomous cars aren’t going to be reliable and common enough to make transit redundant within his lifetime.Report

  8. Kevin F O'Gara Jr November 15, 2017 4:04 pm

    There is some evidence that ride-sharing is causing more traffic, not less: https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2017/02/27/its-settled-uber-is-making-nyc-gridlock-worse/

    Other articles show decreased use of transit where there is ride-sharing. I am not convinced that a switch to driverless vehicles will reduce traffic unless those vehicles are multi-passenger.Report

  9. Vincent W. Holt Jr. November 15, 2017 6:13 pm

    You have to understand that the autonomous vehicle revolution is unfathomable. The major benefit to this paradigm is the end of human drivers. Humans cause congestion, humans cause accidents, humans cause traffic, HUMANS ARE BAD DRIVERS. When you are dealing with an Internet Of Things model for transportation– we will see efficiency like never before. This will happen, this will happen sooner than we think and it will destroy the current public transportation model we see in our cities. I still see buses, but dynamic routes will prove the rail system a waste.

    Did we think the streetcar network would disappear nearly completely due to diesel buses?


  10. BPJ November 16, 2017 12:41 pm

    What a bad joke. Cars get stuck in traffic. City subway systems do not. We have not opened a new rail station since 1999. Imagine if over the last 18 years we had opened a new station, within the city of Atlanta, every two years. We would be so much better off. (Note to the folks who say, “I would never ride transit so it wouldn’t benefit me”: transit gets cars out of your way.)

    The reason we don’t have an adequate rail system in Atlanta is that the people who support it (a clear majority) have not pressured their elected officials on the issue. Get active now, while people are seeking your vote!Report


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