Transit expansion is a simple decision, not a political one, whose time has come

By Guest Columnist JOHN MATTHEWS, a commercial real estate investor and an MBA graduate of Goizueta Business School

A debate seems to still be occurring in Georgia and our legislature about transit versus roads for the Atlanta region.  Still?  It is time for the debate to stop, and it is time to begin implementing solutions. Because the logic of transit is not a subject of debate.

John Matthews

John Matthews

This is about basic math, and transit is Atlanta’s only option forward. And mobility is obviously important.  We will not have a job creating, growth oriented, human capital attracting city without mobility.

First, a few basic and fairly obvious facts.  And yet, we seem to be ignoring these facts as one might seem to deny the Earth is round.

  1. Population growth: 100,000 people move to the Atlanta region every year, and millions more will move here over the next 10 and 20 years.  The Atlanta Regional Commission estimates 2.5 million more people will move to Atlanta over the next 25 years.  2.5 million!
  2. Land acquisition costs: At key job centers (Central Perimeter, Buckhead, Midtown, Downtown, Galleria, Gwinnett) and many places in between, the condemnation process means acquiring property with buildings on them (not vacant land) at costs of as much as $20 million an acre or more.
  3. If, after doing some math, land is too expensive, the only place to build roads is up (think double decking – also exceptionally expensive and not likely to be popular).  Or build transit.
Traffic on Downtown Connector

Simple math shows that transit is the only logical solution to metro Atlanta’s traffic congestion. File

So let’s do some math.

If one assumes much of the land along our congested interstates would cost $20 million per acre (after also taking into account the value of the building on the land).  There are 43,560 square feet in an acre.  And one mile of asphalt (before paving) is 12 feet wide time 5,280 feet long.

Let’s pretend we could actually double the size of our interstates, and put aside the howls of protest that would come in almost any area if someone actually proposed doubling the size of our major interstates.  Eight lanes of highway would cost $230 million per mile or more in the congested, dense areas of Atlanta where mobility is needed most.

At those costs, light rail at $30 million per mile, or heavy rail at approximately the same cost per mile but with a much longer useful life and larger capacity, seem a relative bargain.

I-20 West traffic congestion

Traffic backs up on I-20 westbound near Lithonia on the morning commute, while the eastbound lanes are nearly empty. File

Some of you perhaps accurately recall the lower usage statistics for transit in Atlanta versus roads.  However, one has to ask this question: If there were only two roads in Atlanta (let’s say I-20 and I-85), and not another piece of asphalt in the city, how many of us would be stuck still trying to get around on horses or at best, a four-wheel drive SUV sputtering through muddy ruts?  The point being, without a decent rail network, transit usage would logically languish.

So our choices are to spend upwards of $15 billion to $25 billion on expanding 100 miles worth of roads (the ARC assumes significantly more) around Atlanta, in a manner that is politically unpalatable anyway. Or we can spend a far less sum ($5 billion to $10 billion) on world class city-wide heavy and light rail infrastructure that could accommodate 100 years worth of growth.

This is not a political decision.  This is not an ideological decision.  This is a simple decision and it is time we acknowledged the facts.  Which choice should we make?  Call your legislator and let’s start investing in future mobility instead of suffocating in traffic.

Note: For the technology enthusiasts who believe smart cars driving themselves will reduce traffic volume, I suggest that even with the benefits of some hypothetical carpooling, that the mileage incurred will still be more than the point-to-point driving an individual might make.  Like Uber, robotic cars will have to drive to the initial customer and detour for other carpooling members before actually incurring the mileage to get the customer where they want to go.  It is even possible robotic cars will increase congestion.  But robotic cars, like Uber, will reduce parking lot needs.

12 replies
  1. atlurbanist says:

    Bravo — you’re bringing population growth and the need for efficiency in our use of road space into the conversation and we aren’t seeing that enough.
    I’d like to see someone do a writeup on the absence of a plan (that I’ve seen, anyway) by any entity to actually do the work of funding and managing a network of shared, self-driving cars. It’s crazy that we aren’t addressing this. It’s like getting excited about trains when no one is building tracks.
    I have to wonder if this argument against widening highways could be dismissed on the grounds that there is transpo engineering happening now (such as managed lanes and also the 400/285 interchange redesign) that aims to lessen congestion by making tweaks to road design within the bounds of existing right of way.
    What needs to be argued against in those cases is the absence of understanding in regard to the induced-demand effect.Report

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  2. leadbelly says:

    While not intending to diminish your overall point, the chance of light rail being built for $30 million per mile in the metro area is arguably way low. For all its other problems the streetcar showed the myriad variables involved in building in an old urban core: moving utilities. Trying to extend light rail along the interstate, may be problematic with existing columns supporting overpasses and I’m not aware of any abandoned rail corridors where the vehicles could go. Let’s get away from simplistic reasoning that we can build our roadways to accommodate the coming influx but also recognize the real costs of solving the problem.Report

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  3. HausZweiHomes says:

    City of Atlanta had more housing added in the last 2 years than Cobb, Gwinnett, or DeKalb. That is a seismic shift in our areas growth. I’m sure that hasn’t happened in nearly 60-70 years. If we don’t continue to build out Marta will we lose to other metro areas that are developing their mass transit to capture more Millenials and give more transportation alternatives.Report

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  4. David J. Edwards says:

    John, I realize that this issue has been framed as a “roads vs transit” debate lo these several decades, but I am not sure that is a very helpful way of looking at the issue. The real question is:  what problem are you trying to solve?  As a resident of the City of Atlanta, the problem the City should be trying to solve is how to get more people to live and invest within the city limits.  The City of Atlanta is one of the least dense major cities in the country (ranked 37th last I looked).  We have neighborhoods with vacancy rates over 40% and large swaths of unoccupied industrial property.  Why wouldn’t our highest priority be to invest in public infrastructure that will attract new residents and investors to these neighborhoods?  The Beltline, parks, streetscapes, and bike paths all strike me as a higher priority for any available incremental dollar than an expansion of a transit system that is larger designed as a commuter rail network.  In fact, why would the City of Atlanta support any investment that makes it easier to live outside the city and yet enjoy the benefits (e.g., access to employment, education, and entertainment assets) of being near the City?

    If your intention is to persuade the leadership outside the perimeter that they should invest in transit rather than roads, then I get it.  But if you are suggesting that it is in the interest of the the entire region – including the urban center – to spend out limited resources on expanding rail out into suburban areas, then I don’t.Report

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  5. Bobcat says:

    Certainly we can’t build more road capacity to meet demand. But there are options other than rail that would be cheaper, faster to market, and convenient. What about bus rapid transit in the peach pass lanes? We could have the same capacity, in years, not decades. It would cost a fraction of rail, so it could reach more people within walking distance. And how about shifting revenue from gas tax and sales tax to a peach pass based on miles, weight, and speed? That would create a true market, which, in turn would lead to innovative new solutions and changed habits. We need to consider creative ways to better manage this enormous investment we already have rather than focus only on big capital solutions.Report

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  6. FLREBroker123 says:

    MarkToro SaportaReport Have there been studies on the increase in crime when mass transit has been expanded? Ex – Chicago, NY, DC?Report

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  7. No2Decatur says:

    FLREBroker123 MarkToro Really? Have you been to any of those cities? DC prices are in the burbs where the Metro goes skyrocket after it’s built.Report

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  8. Noel M says:

    I like the way you frame this. The need for transit is clear, as are the benefits of a fully-built-out spiderweb of rail. We need myriad other transportation solutions as well, including bus, light rail and more. But to put off expanding heavy rail would be a mistake on every level – in terms of economics, quality of life, and much more.
    I can vouch for this because I’ve been a MARTA rail user for 16 years and it’s absolutely transformed my daily life. Corporate executives at State Farm, WorldPay and elsewhere obviously agree, based on recent corporate relocations around MARTA rail centers.
    Thank you for your leadership on this topic. I hope other leaders are listening.Report

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  9. SteveHagen says:

    HausZweiHomes   II assume most people choosing to live inside the perimiter are younger people who don’t yet have children.   The challenge is to keep those residents  when they choose to have children……….The one item you left off your infrastructure list are great schools……Must have great schools or the families will move to the suburbs…..Report

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  10. SteveHagen says:

    I am all for letting accounts and technicians offering workable choices and keeping politicians on the sidelines!

    I suggest getting more busses in the fast lanes and starting now to improve schools inside the perimeter to keep younger people there when they chose to have children.   We must eliminate the desire of so many families to move to the suburbs.  Without great schools and parks the migration to the suburbs will start up as children come in to the picture.Report

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  11. HausZweiHomes says:

    Age wise Intown is extremely diverse. Midtown and Buckhead aren’t the only places in that area. There are plenty of private and charter/magnet schools in those areas. Biggest element is that you have a large boomer population, retirees, high income singles, young couples where kids aren’t a factor and a large gay population. E.G. A family with kids can move from Midtown to Decatur or East Atlanta. There is plenty of single-family housing, in fact, that is still the largest share of housing. you can see strollers in most Intown areas.Report

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