Let’s Talk (Constructively) About Transit

Tomorrow morning, the 2018 session of the General Assembly moves from opening pageantry into substance, as state leaders preview their legislative priorities at the Eggs & Issues breakfast. As previewed in Monday’s column, two of the main umbrella of issues that will be on the table are metro congestion/mobility, and rural development. I will again be working on the transportation issue via my responsibilities with PolicyBEST, with a focus on regional mobility.

As such, below is the first installment on how to begin the conversation on the issue of “transit”. The word means so many things to so many people, many with loaded negative connotations. Let’s start by trying to level set what it is we’re actually talking about, what we’re not, and leave any preconceived notions at the door.

Transit: It’s About Scalability

On Monday, politics collided with epicenter of the sports world in Atlanta. The College Football Championship was played in Mercedes Benz Stadium. Just a few hours earlier and a few blocks down the street, the 2018 session of the Georgia General Assembly convened at the Capitol.

The backdrop provided an object lesson in one of the major issues legislators will grapple with this year: congestion relief in the face of rapid Atlanta regional growth. Conditions called for icing roads, and a Presidential motorcade was set to shut down one of Atlanta’s major interstates at the same time over one hundred thousand people were to assemble downtown. Many government offices and schools closed to minimize the impact of traffic on the slick roads with the increased influx of people.

MARTA, however, didn’t get the day off. Preliminary reports indicate that the rail stations that serve the stadium handled 20 times the number of passengers they would see on a normal Monday. Not 20% more. Twenty times more.

Even for a major sporting event, MARTA claims to have handled 30% more passengers Monday than at than this year’s other major events, including the more popular Falcons’ games and the SEC Championship. MARTA has demonstrated the ability to scale up operations to handle large influxes of passengers in a short amount of time.

This is possible because most people who wouldn’t think twice of getting in their cars to drive downtown understand the futility of doing so when too many others also will at the same time. The point is not that we need transit because we need to prepare for major sporting events. We’re good there.

Instead, think of this event and others like it as a one-day example of what the Atlanta region is facing over time. Georgia is growing at a rate which makes us the 4th fastest growing state in the country. We’re currently the 8th largest state, and on track to pass Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois to become the 5th most populous US state in the next 25 years.

We’re growing at a pace that is adding roughly 100,000 new Georgians per year, most of them concentrated in metro Atlanta. That’s 1 Million new Georgians per decade – about the time for a planning cycle to design, permit, and build a major transportation project.

The last major new limited access road project in the region was completed in 1993, which was the extension of Georgia 400 from I-285 to I-85. When the road was conceived in the early 80’s, The Atlanta Metro area was home to 2.6 million, and the entire state of Georgia had a population of less than 5.5 million people.

Today, Metro Atlanta has roughly 5.7 million residents. That’s more than double the number of people that lived here when our last significant new highway came online. Our population has scaled, but our roads have not.

In 2003, plans for a “Northern Arc” were shelved, ushering in an era where economic and political realities changed the perception of paving our way out of gridlock. The problems with solving congestion relief after density has been achieved are now represented by the letters NIMBY, as in “Not In My Back Yard”.

The result is that Georgia managed to avoid making tough transportation decisions for over a decade, and avoid significantly altering the metro areas transportation network for a generation. In 2015, the Georgia General Assembly stepped up with additional funding via HB 170. Much of this money was earmarked to catch up with repaving projects and bridge replacements, but GDOT has also been able to prioritize planned interchange upgrades throughout the region, as well as implement new lane miles via tolls.

The General Assembly also made available significant infrastructure grants to transit systems throughout the state. It wasn’t a transformative amount, but it placed a marker for the future. The state understands that more than half its population now lives in a region that is growing increasingly gridlocked. New roads are politically improbably and cost prohibitive. New solutions must be sought.

“Transit” is not a predetermined alternative solution. It doesn’t necessarily mean MARTA, though as the state’s largest transit agency they will certainly be part of the discussion, as will GRTA, SRTA, CCT, Gwinnett Transit, and a myriad of other agencies with acronyms.

Transit also doesn’t exclusively mean trains or busses. It could be Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). It could even be monorails, though that’s really more of a Shelbyville idea.

To move forward with transit solutions, the first step is to understand that transit is not an enemy of cars or roads. If the goal is ease of mobility and connectivity, then we must have a transportation network of complementary modes of transportation.

That’s the first part in resetting the conversation on transit. This isn’t about getting rid of cars. This isn’t about forcing predetermined solutions or agencies on communities that won’t support them. This is about figuring how to maintain mobility and quality of life in a region that has doubled in size since we last seriously considered the question, and will add that many more residents before we can complete another.

Let’s keep the conversation going, constructively.

Charlie Harper is the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on policy issues of Business Climate, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.

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Rambler14
Rambler14

Rural Development:

http://www.dot.ga.gov/BS/Programs/GRIP

The state has been 4-laning highways out in the middle of nowhere (i.e. no traffic congestion purpose) for 20 years, already spending $2B with another $3-4B 0n the way.

http://www.dot.ga.gov/BuildSmart/Programs/Documents/GRIP/Facts/GRIPSystemSummaryFactSheet.pdf

If rural high-speed internet becomes a reality, let’s make sure we are maximizing economic benefit and not building Fiber to Nowhere.

Ellynn
Ellynn

Question Rambler. Why do you think billions of dollars was spent on 4 lane rural roads in the middle of no where Georgia? I don’t know about you, but I have driven almost every GRIP road on the map from your link south of the Fall Line Freeway at least once in the last 6 months. I can tell you the Savannah River, Golden Isles, and South Georgia Parkways have more truck traffic on them then a large scale 2 lane road could ever handle. Most of this is localized container carriers going to mega warehouses for companies like Wal-Mart,… Read more »

MattMD_actual
MattMD_actual

What are you doing out there, on them roads?

Ellynn
Ellynn

My job. Sometimes I have to visit our clients.

Rambler14
Rambler14

“Why do you think billions of dollars was spent on 4 lane rural roads in the middle of no where Georgia?”

Because the rural “ME TOO!!!” legislators outnumber the metro ATL urban legislators.

The same reason explains why we have had congressional district balancing across DOT’s budget forever.

Ellynn
Ellynn

That was a constructive argument. So you’re saying we should have just left all that nice truck traffic stay on I 16 and central I 75 and clog the metro even more? Is that your argument? If rural legislators had as much power as you think they do places like Tattnall County wouldn’t have to cancel school for 2 days every time they have a hard rain because the school buses can’t get down the dirt roads. Think this through. Even if urban Atlanta had the $2-4 billion over that last 20 years WHERE would you put the roads? New… Read more »

davisbx83
davisbx83

Emailed the Cobb County delegation stressing the importance of transit for social/economic advancement and economic development. Let’s see if any respond or take up real solutions.

MattMD_actual
MattMD_actual

CCT/Cobblinc is pretty substandard. Do they even try to keep to a schedule?

gt7348b
gt7348b

For the amount of support they get from the county and feds (i.e. not much), CobbLinc is actually one of the better run systems in the country. They also do try to keep a schedule, but the buses are subject to the same traffic. Check the National Transit Database. Having used them, they actually are fairly reliable even if the headways are long. They’re problem is the amount of local support they get from the Cobb County itself which is why they don’t have Sunday service or better headways.

gt7348b
gt7348b

Charlie, this is exactly right. I remember in 2008 when the GDOT Board Chair remarked “In your last presentation you mentioned that MARTA carries over 250,000 on the rail system. As I was stuck in traffic going home to Cumming, I thought – where would we put those people on the connector?” No one is going to build a new freeway through Virginia Highlands or East Atlanta (even underground). It is about being able to move people and the business community in metro Atlanta is finally realizing that their competitiveness is related to mobility and alternatives (see NCR, State Farm,… Read more »

Benevolus
Benevolus

My 1 cents worth: Whatever we do, whether it’s buses, or streetcars, or subways- make it something appealing to ride. MARTA has a tendency to get the most industrial looking vehicles available. Who wants to get on a bus that looks like a Soylent Green transport? Or like you are heading out on a Georgia Power service call? Memorable transportation systems; think San Francisco streetcars, New Orleans streetcars, Chattanooga electric buses, streetcars, metros, and trolleys in numerous European towns and cities, Seattle electric buses… It needs to be something people will not dread using.

gt7348b
gt7348b

Given funding levels for MARTA, what do you expect? It isn’t Belgium where Brussels has leather seats on their trams. Though MARTA is going out for a new rail car purchase this year, so lets see what Bombardier, ALSTOM, Siemens, and CCR can come up with for Atlanta in their proposals. BTW – the electric buses made by Proterra are made in Greenville (fun random fact).

Benevolus
Benevolus

That sounds like a chicken/egg thing though. You don’t have enough money so you can’t afford to do the things that might bring in more money? And then you are in the position of believing that, for the most part, the only people who will ride MARTA pretty much have no choice. No need to try to entice more riders by making the experience more attractive. And while I am spouting uninformed opinions; Are those huge MARTA buses ever full? I drive ITP at rush hour every day and I never see them full. I’ve seen a couple of new… Read more »