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.
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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.