Sorry Gov. Barnes; Our transit funds too precious to waste on elevated light rail

Finding the right transportation solution for metro Atlanta is getting harder by the day.

Take what former Gov. Roy Barnes told real estate agents last week. (I actually emailed the governor to make sure he was quoted accurately. Yes he was).

As Political Insider Jim Galloway reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Barnes said that MARTA should be preserved, but not expanded. Instead, the state should shift to a network of elevated light-rail lines that would run above metro Atlanta’s interstate system.

What has happened to our “smart growth” governor?

Let’s break this down.

First of all, an elevated light rail line system is extremely expensive to build. Running light rail on existing streets either with a dedicated right of way or in a shared lane is far less expensive and much quicker to implement.

What I found depressing about Barnes’ transportation epiphany is that it only will encourage and reward our existing pattern of suburban sprawl and auto-centric development.

Basically, such a light rail line along the interstates would only serve commuters. It would not encourage the development of walkable town centers served by transit. Who will develop an urban-oriented development on an expressway interchange? No developer that I know.

Why waste our precious transit dollars on such a network that would be better served by commuter rail on existing tracks? Commuter rail at least would connect downtowns and town centers with each other — offering a way to reinvigorate and revitalize the historic hearts of our cities. (For highways, express buses make the most economic sense).

The beauty of light rail is that when placed correctly, they stimulate the development of walkable communities in their corridors.

Instead of having light rail go up I-75 bypassing any real signs of life, imagine a line that would connect the Arts Center station with Atlantic Station and moving up the northwest corridor along city streets (be it Northside or Howell Mill and up to Cobb County along Highway 41 and the Cobb Parkway. Light rail would help redevelop those auto-oriented corridors into human-scale communities at stations all along the route.

But what was most distressing to me was that Barnes, who has pledged in his latest campaign for governor, to listen rather than have all answers himself. And here, Barnes seems to think he knows best.

Having one man decide to put elevated light rail along our interstates is akin to one person deciding that it’s a good idea to tunnel under or double-deck over the Downtown Connector.

We don’t need one man’s vision. Instead we need to implement our region’s vision.

For the past couple of years, transportation professionals, city and county leaders and state officials have reached a remarkable consensus on a regional transit plan known as “Concept 3.”

This is the first time in decades where we’ve had a comprehensive transit plan for our entire region that includes all modes of transit — commuter rail, MARTA rail extensions, light rail, streetcars, express buses and more localized bus services.

In addition to Concept 3, Gov. Sonny Perdue and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority commissioned the IT3 — Investing in Tomorrow’s Transportation Today — study that showed metro Atlanta could make tremendous strides with its traffic headaches if it linked transportation investments with land-use development.

A “listening” leader would look at the good work that’s already been done and build from there.

The saddest part is that among all the people who have announced that they’re running for governor, Barnes has been most attune to the issues facing metro Atlanta.

He is working on a redevelopment plan for his hometown of Mableton (on land that he and his family members own) to create a pedestrian-oriented city that he hopes one day could be served by transit.

Creating walkable communties was a concept endorsed by a panel of leaders this week who discussed how pedestrian advocates and green building supporters can work together to create more sustainable cities.

The program, held at Decatur’s City Hall, included a talk by Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd on how his city has become more walkable in the past 20 years.

“Our traffic counts are less today than in the 1990s,” Floyd said. “That tells you that density can work and reduce congestion. If you want people to get out of their cars, you have got to give them a place to do it. You have to make sure that when people walk or bike they feel safe doing it.”

David Green of the Perkins + Will architectural firm said it all boils down to building communities on a human scale — creating a grid system with small blocks and walkable intersections.

He showed a slide of Buttermilk Bottoms — an intown community between downtown and the Old Fourth Ward — that was totally obiliterated by urban renewal.

In 1949, Buttermilk Bottoms had 21 blocks with a rich history. “It’s been reduced to three blocks today — the Civic Center,” Green said.

Sally Flocks, president and CEO of PEDS, said pedestrians feel most comfortable in areas with shorter blocks and narrower streets.

So much of our transportation dollars have gone to roads and bridges. Flocks said the 14th Street bridge project cost $140 million in real estate acquisition and other $80 million for construction “to widen the road by one lane for three blocks.”

By comparison, PEDs estimates that it would cost the city of Atlanta $79 million to repair all its sidewalks. So which investment creates the kind of city where we would want to live?

Harry West, retired director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, quoted Robert Reichert, the mayor of Macon, who said: “We need to build places we love; not places we like.”

How we invest our transportation dollars will determine whether we build an Atlanta metropolis that we love or a region we just like (or worse).

That’s a message that should be heard by Barnes and every other candidate running for governor.

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.

6 replies
  1. juanita driggs says:

    The key word here is: “LISTENING!”…something Mr. Barnes failed to do in the teachers’ fiasco. It cost him dearly even more than the flag dust-up. In politics knowing it all is a fatal flaw that should have been put to rest several years ago. Barnes is an excellent candidate who can do much to set this state back on its tracks. But those tracks need to be on the ground, not in the air and going in the right directions. The former governor has a lot of very bright people of good will from all political stripes at his beck and call who really understand metro Atlanta’s transportation needs…if he will only start LISTENING.Report

    Reply
  2. Mason Hicks says:

    Maria,
    I completely agree with you. However Concept3 does carry few versions of what Barnes is suggesting. This incudes the addition of light rail transit along the GA 400 Corridor, connecting an east-west line along the northern portion of the Perimeter north to Windward Parkway. This would in lieu of extending the existing MARTA heavy rail. This is a heavily traveled sector that does not have the benefit of an existing parallel frieght line. Having lived in Roswell for ten years, I can tell you that adding LRT to the 400 Corridor would remove cars from 400, and would benefit the walkable in-town city by reducing the number of parked cars.Report

    Reply
  3. Richard E. Hodges says:

    What an outstanding evaluation of former Gov. Barnes proposal for transit in metro Atlanta, pointing out the latest evidence of failure by Roy to understand the facts and provide support for pragmatic proposals already in place. It seems this is a continuation of the political “game” that keeps on throwing real progess “off track.” Maria’s column is another excellent primer on the subject of transit in metro Atlanta that would really keep our area on the move during the rest of this century. Her ideas need to be noted and heeded.Report

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  4. Maria Saporta says:

    Mason,
    Thanks for pointing out that Concept 3 does have light rail along I-285 (but I don’t remember it being an elevated system).
    For the record, I love rail — all kinds of rail. But the extraordinary costs to create an elevated light rail system over highways would mean that we would have less money to invest on building an integrated transit network throughout the region.
    While Concept 3 does have light rail along the I-285 corridor, I remember seeing that the possibility of extending MARTA up Georgia 400 and having a line up to Gwinnett.
    The main point of the column was to encourage Gov. Barnes and the other gubernatorial candidates to consider the hard work and regional planning that has been underway rather than unilaterally coming up with “the” solution.
    MariaReport

    Reply
  5. Myles Greene Smith, FAICP says:

    Excellent article, Maria.
    Barnes will be smart to listen. Light rail belongs on streets. Anyone who wants to see how that works check out Minneapolis MN

    http://www.metrotransit.org/rail/index.asp

    or many other cities like Denver, etc. We need rail transit that connects people with activity centers and urban corridors where extra density can be handled and walkability abounds (or can be created). Such locations will create much more quality growth than following the interstate, and at much less cost. No need to elevate anything and the right-of-way is already public.Report

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  6. netdragon says:

    People did not quite “listen” with the drafting of Concept 3. It contains BRT on the highway and does not utilize the expansive rail yard in Bolton or have commuter rail along the W&A through the highly populated Vinings, Cumberland, Smyrna, Marietta corridor in Cobb county. That goes against common sense.

    Concept3 instead was based on what federal moneys are available, and favored BRT on I-75 inside the perimeter on the already choked commuter lanes.

    Additionally, it mis-labels BRT as LRT and overserves Gwinnett county while underserving Cobb County.Report

    Reply

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