Transportation lessons from a competitor

Texans making tracks

Dallas-Ft. Worth region sees a robust transit network as part of providing options for commuters in this pickup truck-loving state. Atlanta can draw lessons from this conservative competitor.

By the AJC Editorial Board

PLANO, Texas — Even without verdant hills, the heart of this suburb looks much like some OTP towns around Atlanta.

A block from the downtown street that’s home to a trendy tea room, antique stores and offices stands a white frame house with a wooden rocker on the porch. A large, open field and a tin-roofed shed are next door. Birds’ song carries across the humid air.

A pair of railroad tracks separates the two scenes and the bustle of Dallas seems a world away.

Then the rail crossing bells begin to clang and gates lower. A light-rail train appears and comes to a stop, doors opening onto a platform shared with a low, modern apartment building built to blend with nearby vintage architecture.

The standing room-only Dallas Area Rapid Transit train unloads a respectable number of passengers, who quickly disperse into the quiet evening. Then the train moves on.

Bedroom community linked to job centers. This could be Atlanta, if we choose progress over the problematic present.

Dallas-Ft. Worth is similar to the Atlanta metro in significant ways. They’re an estimable competitor for businesses and jobs. Population density’s remained low in both regions, even with rapid growth. As a result, like us, they endure the hassle and economic cost imposed by slow going along overworked roads.

Yet, they’ve taken large steps on transit in recent years while we’ve largely stood still. Since MARTA opened its most recent stops in 2000, Dallas-Ft. Worth has begun or expanded multiple rail and road options to ease congestion and ease commutes. They’re moving into the 21st-century while elements here stubbornly cling to a mid-1950’s model.

It’s valuable to study rivals, especially when much of our economic future rides on the July 31 vote on the penny transportation sales tax.

That realization sparked a trip last week to Dallas to observe its operation of the nation’s largest light rail system by route miles. To be sure, not all of this conservative region of 6 million people has warmed to rail transit.

Yet, as a Texas opinion writer observed, even conservatives hate to be stuck in traffic. So, in the years since voters approved a penny transportation tax in 1983, the Metroplex has set about creating options to ease traffic on tick-tight roads, while improving air quality and access to job centers, especially for workers without cars.

Options. The word has a nice ring to it. The Dallas North Tollway and the President George Bush Turnpike offer a 65 mph ride — for a price. DART also manages 84 miles of freeway HOV lanes.

There are lessons here for Atlanta, we believe. That’s because a great perch to observe morning congestion on Interstate 35E and other main roads in Big D is from the windows of a Trinity Rail Express commuter train, galloping between Ft. Worth and Dallas. Onboard a Wi-Fi-equipped railcar last week, riders stared into laptops or tapped on smartphones. The double-deck train was mostly full, with slim chances of getting a seat all to yourself.

Perhaps Brenda Cuellar’s 1996 experience with MARTA influenced her decision to use the TRE to travel between her Bedford, Texas, home and a new IT job in Dallas. “We went to the Olympics and we utilized MARTA and I realized it got us everywhere we needed to go,” she said.

Dallas-Ft. Worth’s transit moves reflect both current realities and projections for the future, said Mabrie Jackson, president and CEO of the North Texas Commission, a group of business and government entities that promotes the region. The Metroplex continues to add a resident, on average, about every four minutes. “The only way for us to keep up with this growth is to have a robust regional transit system,” she said. “We needed to start looking into the future and how we move people around.”

She acknowledged resistance in some quarters to this ongoing work. “Southerners usually have not had to take a train anywhere — it’s cultural,” she said. Still, the entities that’ve supported transit see it as a sound investment.

Gary Elmore, of Plano, was happy to trade his truck for a DART train. “I love it,” he said while waiting for a train home. “Like everybody in Texas, I drive a big old truck and it gets lousy gas mileage.” Using transit to and from work “saves wear and tear on my truck, mileage and everything else.”

And, no, this suburbanite doesn’t believe transit’s part of a socialist-style scheme to remake how or where we live. “Oh hell no,” he said when asked that question.

Dallas-Ft. Worth has provided choices and continues to build options for its future in the belief that tomorrow won’t mimic the present. Capitalism tends to work that way.

Transit seems an enabler of lifestyles here, not a harsh remaker.

That observation validates the strategic potential of building out a better multimodal transportation network for Atlanta if we want to remain competitive in an ever-evolving nation and world.

No one should understand that better than metro Atlantans, given that a willingness to pursue life on the leading edge pushed us onto the list of great metro areas.

We must remember that on Election Day.

Andre Jackson, 
for the Editorial Board

Pro & Con: On the transportation sales tax

Following are excerpts from a recent AJC community forum on transportation sponsored by PNC Bank. Check out video from the forum and search the AJC’s update database of proposed projects only at www.ajc.com/news/transportation-referendum.

Bucky Johnson

Mayor of Norcross and chairman of the regional roundtable that chose the transportation referendum project list:

I have seen the population just explode over the years in Atlanta, and infrastructure not so much. And so it’s not necessarily something that’s going to make a great deal of difference to me being a mayor in a small town, but to my children and to my grandchildren; if we don’t do something now, then when?

And this would really give us a boost in the arm that we have needed for so long. And I think this is the way to go and I am a true believer.

Our job was to set a criteria for picking the projects, which we did. Part of the criteria includes economic development, traffic mitigation, quality of life. We didn’t just make up projects. It had to be already in the plans. For instance, let’s take Ga. 400 and I-285, which was just named the worst intersection in the country to get through. That’s a huge project for Atlanta, for everybody.

So, we looked at where the people were going. If you look at where most of the money is coming in this project, it is employment centers, Emory and CDC; downtown Atlanta, you’ve got Georgia Tech and Georgia State.

If you look at where the main projects are, it is traffic mitigation and it is options. I think it’s a great list.

Steve Brown

Fayette County Commissioner and critic of the transportation referendum :

If you look at where Atlanta has been and how we got to where we are, I think we really took infrastructure for granted. If you look at a lot of cities who have grid patterns … where they can move traffic and do it in alternate ways if needed, there were a lot of opportunities that we had when we were a growing region where we had a lot of virgin land and we could have done a lot of things. Unfortunately, we didn’t do a lot of those things.

Everyone on my side that I have spoken to agrees we need to do something about traffic congestion. No one likes to sit in traffic and that problem is only going to get worse. What we are primarily arguing about is the projects that are on the list. And we have a problem with the projects, how they were put into that system, if those problems actually handle traffic congestion relief or not, and the bang for the dollar.

I’m not opposed to necessarily all rapid transit. I take the train into town. . I’ll take it in town if it’s near. But I don’t want to throw money away either. That’s what I’m looking at when I’m looking at these projects. For transit to work, you have to have a certain level of density. Unfortunately, in our suburban areas. we don’t have it and it would be very, very difficult to create it in a way that it would work.

Baruch Feigenbaum

Transportation policy analyst, Reason Foundation:

I would offer a nuanced view on (the merits of the T-SPLOST). I think it depends on where you live and it depends on the specific project. So, if you’re close to the Ga. 400, I-285 project, maybe you live in Sandy Springs and you work in downtown Atlanta, you’re going to get a lot of benefit because that project is going to be good for you.

But if you’re in some other parts of the region, if you’re in Gwinnett County and you have only a planning study and you really don’t have much in the way of highway improvements. If you’re in Henry County and you really don’t have much in the way of regional improvements … there’s really not a lot to benefit you.

And I’m also not a fan of some of the transit projects because I don’t think they go from home to work. So I think the answer is, it depends.

Atlanta is the least dense city in the world with more than 3 million people. We also know that what really drives development is land use and land use patterns. One of the reasons why Atlanta is not dense is because we have chosen a land use pattern that is basically somewhat friendly to suburbs … .

Now from my perspective, we should be producing the transportation system that people in this region want. But … by and large, people in Atlanta have not voted for denser development.

Chris Leinberger

President of LOCUS, land use strategist and developer:

For the 6,000 years we’ve been building cities, the transportation system that we the people select dictates your future economic prospects. And this is an Olympic moment for you as far as your future economy … . And your ancestors knew the importance of transportation; you’ve forgotten it.

Again, I’ve known you for over 30 years and I’ve always known you as Hotlanta. And unfortunately, you’re not hot. You’ve gone flat-line. You’ve had a lost decade. You have fewer jobs today than you had in 2001. And it’s because you’ve not invested in what Atlanta has always invested in — it is the next transportation system. Transportation drives development.

You wouldn’t build a subdivision out on a farm if it just had a dirt road. You wouldn’t take that farm and put a subdivision there or put a business park there and say, whoa then, I’ll take care of the transportation later. The transportation had to be there first. So, the only reason you’re going to get density is by building the proper infrastructure to allow the density to come. And cities throughout this country are well in front of you. You’ve been lapped and if you don’t pass this, the only people who are going to be applauding are Charlotte and Dallas and Houston and Phoenix and St. Louis and Denver and Salt Lake City … and they want to eat your lunch.

36 comments Add your comment

Mike

July 22nd, 2012
2:16 pm

When occasionally heading to the city on a weekday morning, or coming back from the city in the evenings (which is rare because I work and live on the south side) I notice that the vast majority of cars and SUVs have just one person.

We don’t need more road space for one-person vehicles.

People can suck it up and either deal with the traffic (get a book on tape) or carpool and reduce traffic altogether.

Now, when there are traffic jams and most of the cars have two or more people, then come to me for an extra percentage of my money. Until then ride a bike.

Besides, education is a bigger priority, not more lanes for one-person cars (by the way, did you notice that your car has seating for five or more?).

WeNeedAlternatives

July 22nd, 2012
12:47 pm

So if someone would explain why so much opposition to the transit projects in the city that are on the list? The opposition is confusing, unless the motive is selfishness.

Hundreds of thousands of automobiles pile into the city every work day. Atlanta’s population increases by close to a million people. The cars clog the roads, neighborhoods and parking lots. They pollute the air and create considerable noise. People have trouble traveling within the city due to the incredible influx of automobiles from other communities in the region. These are irrefutable facts.

So transit projects within the city help people that are both temporary and permanent residents get around. It helps remove cars from the streets. Does that help reduce congestion? Absolutely! So why do so many say that this does not relieve congestion? Within the city, it absolutely, positively will! Can transit totally solve the problem? No, but it will help.

Or is the transit opposition just something to complain about and an ethereal ‘deep reach’ reason to vote against the proposal?

Jack

July 22nd, 2012
11:25 am

T-SPLOST is just like obamacare: too big, too complicated, too expensive and with no guarantee the taxes will be spent on the advertised projects. An incremental railroad here and there for starters and a system that would guarantee no welfare for those not deserving.

Puerile Pedant

July 22nd, 2012
11:19 am

You know “claytondawg” I wouldn’t be criticizing Atlanta, Cobb, Decatur or anywhere else if I lived in Clayton County — talk about dysfunctional. Y’all make the troika of corrupt Mayors: Bill Campbell, Shirley Franklin and Kasim Reed look like enlightened, self-less public servants, and we now that isn’t true.

Maybe you are from Clayton, Georgia, up in the mountains. Then I say to you who cares what you think? Isn’t time for a Klan rally somewhere?

claytondawg

July 22nd, 2012
9:20 am

I say: Let Atlanta wallow in its own quagmire, as it has done in the past 30 something years. Atlanta’s mayors, commissioners, and the rest of the “government” have done nothing but use power struggles to utilize their own agendas. In fact, government in all the surrounding Atlanta areas have pretty much grown so large, so cumbersome, and so self-aggrandizing that it’s too difficult for us taxpayers to be amenable to any of their so-called “ideas for improvement.”

Joe_Harris

July 22nd, 2012
12:44 am

A yes vote for the Regional Transportation Referendum is necessary for the state of GA. We need a transportation infrastructure that is up to par with other major cities and that makes it easy for its residents to commute to and from work. Having a properly running transportation infrastructure should not be an option it should be the standard.

Incoherent

July 21st, 2012
10:51 pm

Is it just me or is Bucky Johnson’s statement incoherent? (sadly – much like the project list his committee drew up)

Shyrome

July 21st, 2012
6:20 pm

The poster child for what’s wrong with T-SPLOST might have been the pep rally in Lilburn a couple of weeks ago.

After recounting how the boosters extolled all the wonderful benefits that we’ll receive if it passes, the newspaper article went on to add that the City of Lilburn’s total T-SPLOST windfall, in exchange for ten years of additional sales tax, would be…a new sidewalk.

CherokeeNOVote

July 21st, 2012
2:27 pm

Tsplost, as conceived, is a rip-off for anyone in Cherokee. Our sales tax goes up 20% forever – and we get maybe 8 miles of 4 lane on GA 140, maybe sometime in the future (this promise from the same gang that has been “working on” 8 miles of GA 20 for nearly 2 years without a single turn lane complete to show for it.)

We get no improvement whatsoever to Forsyth county – one of our most congested and deadly roads – because the legislature put them in a different region and tsplost will not cover connectivity between regions.

Unlike many here, I would not even mind chipping in some on mass-transit – if there was ever even the remotest possibility I might be able to utilize it. And it wouldn’t even have to come here, I could use it if it came to Alpharetta – but it won’t in my life-time because the brilliant Marta planners can’t figure out how to get a train across the river.

Anybody from Cherokee that votes for this tsplost is an idiot.

Jason

July 21st, 2012
1:19 pm

Atlanta is a place I still call home & hope to retire back to one day, but the boondoggle wars waged between politician & civilian will soon turn my beloved Atlanta into the feared, hated & untrusted Detroit. Look at how much Detroit has done in the past & how much it is depicted as nothing more than a wasteland of crime. Their tourism industry left as quickly as the cars they used to build could the residents out of there. Atlanta you’re stagnant actions as a community are about as productive as a toddler throwing themselves on the floor at daycare because they got vanilla instead of chocolate. Better learn to love vanilla Atlanta or all your gonna have left is a wet face & dirty clothes.
Yes the politicians need to provide better options.
Yes I agree that they are not listening to their people.
Problem is the people have stopped taking action & only talk.
If Atalantans want to fight their politicians then they’ve got to do more than take their votes to the polls, they need to be on the polls. Stop ignoring your government people. Your lack of interest only empowers the crooks. Take the vanilla & use it as your base to make something great. Get you behinds into the elected positions to make things right & stop gargling your complaints over sweet tea. Get up, get out & get busy making your lives great.