Funding transportation’s future

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Connecting the Port of Savannah and Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport by high-speed rail is just one of the major infrastructure projects Mayor Kasim Reed thinks Georgians should get behind. Inspired by the accomplishments of visionary presidents, he calls on the state to create public-private partnerships and an infrastructure bank to help speed us on our road to the future. In our other column, I write about MARTA’s nuisance program, the readers’ response to it, and my own problem with public transit.

Commenting is open below my column on MARTA.

By Kasim Reed

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln pushed forward with building the transcontinental railroad, which helped unite and rebuild America. In the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the interstate highway system. A few years later, President John F. Kennedy inspired a generation when he challenged us with the goal of landing a man on the moon and surpassing Russia in space exploration.

America’s greatest leaders have always put patriotism before politics to invest in our nation’s infrastructure and technology. More often than not, the timing is less than ideal, and the expense may seem hard to bear, but these initiatives have helped make our nation the greatest in the world. We must continue that tradition to ensure America’s future competitiveness. Investing in ports, roads, bridges and airports have consistently enjoyed overwhelming Democratic and Republican support. President Barack Obama’s July signing of House Resolution 4348, a comprehensive transportation infrastructure bill, was another critical step in the right direction.

Closer to home, the recent certificate of decision for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project will contribute greatly to the growth of one of our state’s most important and dynamic job-generators. The Port of Savannah is the fastest-growing and fourth-largest U.S. container port. In Atlanta, Hartsfield-Jackson is the world’s busiest passenger airport, with more than 92 million travelers last year and a growing air cargo capability. These two assets provide Georgia with an undeniable advantage in the global marketplace at a time when many of our fiercest competitors are not in another state, but on another continent.

Imagine, then, if the state’s two most important logistics hubs were linked by high-speed rail. The argument for this goal is a powerful one, as leading cities in the world have strong sea and air logistics capability. Additionally, the possibility of leaving work at 5 p.m. and being on the Georgia coast by 6:30 p.m. is equally compelling. High-speed rail between Atlanta and Savannah also would strike a powerful blow to the critique that there are “Two Georgias.” Finally, it is an inspiring idea, one that dares us to think and prepare for a future with multiple economic centers within the state. These are the kinds of debates worth having, and many communities around the nation are embracing and championing these kinds of plans.

As President Bill Clinton says, we have to be in the future business. I recently joined him and a group of elected officials and policy experts in Pocantico, N.Y., to exchange information about the development of infrastructure banks and ways to use public-private partnerships to secure funds at very low interest rates without overburdening taxpayers.

The Atlanta Beltline, a local project discussed during that meeting, exemplifies exactly this type of forward-thinking vision around infrastructure. More than $41 million for the project has been raised through private philanthropy. Special tax allocation district funds, designed to foster smart development in city neighborhoods, along with other local bond sources and federal funding have helped make up the difference. To date, this investment has attracted more than $750 million in new private development in many of the city’s most vital neighborhoods.

In a recent local referendum, voters made it clear they won’t accept any new taxes unless they are confident government can deliver concrete results in an open, fair and transparent fashion. Public-private partnerships and the development of an infrastructure bank that provides low-interest loans to states and municipalities are tools that should be deployed.

It is incumbent on today’s leaders to develop common-sense approaches to improve our region’s infrastructure in a manner that creates new jobs, retains the jobs we have, and safeguards taxpayer dollars. We also need to follow the example of our nation’s greatest leaders and undertake bold, transformative projects that make our city, state and nation stronger now and in the future.

Kasim Reed is Mayor of Atlanta.

MARTA transit, but not rapid

By Tom Sabulis

I’ve been an Atlanta resident for nearly 22 years, and for most of that time, I’ve been a regular MARTA user. I’ve lived at four different addresses, and only when my house was not located conveniently to MARTA did I drive to work on a regular basis.

I rarely drive to work now that the newspaper has relocated its office from downtown to Dunwoody. Rush-hour traffic on the north side is gridlocked enough to keep me tapping my Breeze card. When I’m not taking the bus from home to the Midtown train station, I drive four miles across town to Lindbergh Center, park for free and meet the train. The Dunwoody MARTA station is across the street from our office.

For me, public transit is a no-brainer. Why should I waste time sitting in traffic on I-285 or Ga. 400, jockeying with all the weasels trying to cut me off in the exit line?

This approach makes me the kind of customer MARTA would like to see more of: a “lifestyle rider,” they call it, someone who uses public transit by choice, not necessity.

But that choice may not be so clear-cut much longer. MARTA’s service needs to improve. Recently, the transit agency kicked off a “nuisance” program, a marketing campaign designed to make riders aware of annoying behaviors: talking loudly on cellphones, blocking doorways and begging money from other riders.

It’s a good effort, but it’s almost besides the point. My main complaint, my biggest nuisance, is the frequency — or infrequency — of service. The amount of time one spends waiting for trains and buses is my game-changer. To quote songwriter Tom Petty, “the waiting is the hardest part.” MARTA’s very name includes the words “rapid transit,” but there’s little rapid about it. Waiting 15 minutes for a train, and 25 minutes for a bus, during rush hour is a lot to ask. In comparison, rush hour trains arrive every nine to 12 minutes in Boston, depending on which line you’re riding. In Chicago, it’s three to eight minutes between trains. (On Dallas’ new system, the wait is about the same as Atlanta’s.)

Other MARTA riders I’ve talked with have different concerns, as do some bloggers, who responded on our Atlanta Forward blog on the nuisance campaign. “Who thinks posters with cutesy phrases are going to cause crackheads and aggressive panhandlers to suddenly act civilized?” wrote a reader named Chip.

A blogger named Rider Inman defended MARTA. “I take the train/bus a couple of times a week and have been doing so for years,” he wrote. “I’ve never had the problems some of these people complain to be so persistent on MARTA. Is there loud music coming from phones on the train? Sure, sometimes. But you can always switch cars. Is there a homeless person from time to time? On occasion, but it’s not a rolling shelter as some posters believe it is. I’m guessing those same posters don’t worry about the homeless at every on and off ramp because they can be sheltered from reality in their personal car bubble while texting on their iPhone. ”

Crime has not been a problem for me, knock on wood; I have never been mugged or aggressively panhandled, although I understand how the threat of those things concern some, particularly women. I use MARTA mostly during rush hours, and rarely at night. I never consider it on weekends, due to even sleepier service on Saturday and Sunday.

But many residents do not have the luxury of ditching MARTA. It’s all they have. They’re the ones who must endure the hardships of a system not operating anywhere near its full potential. The nuisances targeted by the agency are the small price of big-city living. Any urbanites worth their salt can figure out how to avoid them. MARTA would do a lot more for time-crunched working people if it just became more efficient at its core mission. Moving us. That shortcoming is why more people with choices choose not to ride transit.

20 comments Add your comment

newkid

November 27th, 2012
6:51 pm

Mr. Sabulis,
I respect the fact that it is solely your choice as moderator as to which comments you elect to display; however please do consider the possibility that some you elect to ‘edit out’ present a perspective that might be conducive to thoughtful discussion amongst those who visit here. Those who elect to act – either intentionally or unintentionally – as ‘thought police’ in our society often make quite negative contributions despite their best intentions. Please forgive, and I shall not trouble you in future.

Joeventures

November 27th, 2012
4:53 pm

Tom:

I agree that yes, frequency is more important. But this criticism is a typical behavior that I see among many of MARTA’s critics. Frankly, I don’t believe this type of criticism is fair. The cost of any sort of media campaign is not likely going to have much, if any, impact on service levels. It’s like asking whether I should go grocery shopping or purchase a house.

Having said that, if you can show how much money the campaign cost and demonstrate how that same amount of money could’ve had a measurable impact on service levels, then I would consider it a fair criticism.

Angus

November 27th, 2012
3:26 pm

“Everyone touts the beltway as the logical way to develop… but that (big box) development is met with NIMBY?”

First, it’s the Beltline, not the “beltway.” So I’m pretty sure we’ve got a good clue as to your level of knowledge regarding the project.

Second, big box, suburban, car-centric development does not equal dense, urban, pedestrian/transit friendly development (like what is outlined in the Beltine overlays and subarea master plans). How is that difficult to understand?

[...] Pin It Funding Transportation’s Futureposted in Atlanta BeltLine News, Progress, Transit // 11/27/12The following op ed was published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on November 27, 2012. [...]

too little time

November 27th, 2012
12:53 pm

NPR recently did a piece on mass transit. In the U.S., on average, a transit bus will have 10 passengers, making it less efficient than 10 people each riding in a car. Some transit systems, like NY city , actually are more efficient. The vast majority, though, are not.

Atlanta, having a spoke-and-wheel orientation rather than laid out in a grid, is a poor choice for retrofitting mass transit. Getting from one place to another invariable involves a 2 hour side trip to Atlanta even if one simple wants to go from Chamblee-Dunwoody to Ashford Dunwoody (about two miles).

For me, public transit is a no-brainer. Why should I waste time sitting in traffic on I-285 or Ga. 400, jockeying with all the weasels trying to cut me off in the exit line?

Why? Because you are going to be wasting 2 hours traveling into Atlanta, changing trains and/or buses. What time you save NOT sitting on I285 or GA 400 will be spent traveling useless miles on a bus or train, often with only a handful of other people on the bus (or train).

Kasim Reed says:
The Atlanta Beltline, a local project discussed during that meeting, exemplifies exactly this type of forward-thinking vision around infrastructure. More than $41 million for the project has been raised through private philanthropy. Special tax allocation district funds, designed to foster smart development in city neighborhoods, along with other local bond sources and federal funding have helped make up the difference.

Lets talk about how you wanted all of metro Atlanta to pay for your development project. First, this project has NOTHING to do with Metro Transportation, and did not solve any current transportation problem/issue. It should not have been in TSPLOST. Its a fine project, but don’t make a taxpayer in north Cherokee pay for it! Further, lets look at what happened recently when a Big Box store attempted to get permitted to open near the Beltway…. and met with huge opposition. Already, new development is met with a NIMBY response. Everyone touts the beltway as the logical way to develop… but that development is met with NIMBY? Really? That means that the TSPLOST money would have gone to produce a fine semi-private greenway for a few of metro Atlanta’s residents, while ALL of metro pays for their experience. Not a single penny of non-Atlanta public money should go to that project. The people who are able to enjoy that experience should pay for it… period.

Chip

November 27th, 2012
11:36 am

Ahhhh, excuse me, Mr. Mayor… but let’s look at this… (1) the federal government is going broke, and will probably officially go bankrupt within the next four years, (2) the City of Atlanta is so broke it can’t even deal with basic and critical infrastructure problems such as inadequate sewers, and (3) the State of Georgia isn’t doing so well itself, BUT… we’re supposed to spend countless billions on a giant boondoggle “high speed rail” project (that WILL go over budget, by the way, as always) in order to (A) move freight that is already being moved anyway, and (B) allow a relative handful of people to commute daily hundreds of miles at taxpayer’s expense?

Really? Seriously? And just how on Earth are our broke layers of government supposed to pay for this?

Oh, wait, I get it… we’ll just TAX the “rich” and all the “evil greedy corporations”… or TAX all of us as an “investment” that will only benefit a few… or hey, maybe we’ll just use some “Obama Dollars.”

This is more proof that most politicians are stupid or crazy, and that liberals are too mentally ill to recognize, much less deal with, reality.

Jon Fostik

November 27th, 2012
8:53 am

Public dialogue and a shared vision is in fact the very FIRST step towards the development of a viable transportation plan. Freight and passenger service between the two ” orbs” of importance in Georgia will need to be addressed. High speed for Georgia is to a degree already on the burner, albeit a slower boil, with the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor initiave with Washington as its northernmost terminus and Richmond, Charlotte as intermediate points on the way to Atlanta. Might I suggest a page from Pennsylvania’s, Illinois’ and Michigan’s book passenger rail book by starting to walk prior to run. That means having an INITIAL goal of 110 mph service that could link Atlanta ( and a new terminus there) and Savannah. Well before the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor Georgia’s elected officials should also try to reach consensus on how to engage Amtrak, or some other operators, to get another regular speed train from Washington to Atlanta, as well as a Chicago to Atlanta train such as a rerouted the Chicago to Washington Capitol Limited with an Atlanta to Florida section) and finally an additional inter-regional train to Birmingham. Georgia’s, and indeed Atlanta’s, potential is only limited by a sustained and passionate wish to get things done. Oh yes…the wish does include finding a way to finance things as well. But remember those inspirational words ” Yes We Can” !

[...] MARTA’s Anti-Nuisance Campaign Misses the Biggest Nuisance: Infrequent Service (AJC) [...]

Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.....

November 27th, 2012
2:09 am

MARTA can’t improve and become more efficient at its core mission of moving people because years of overt neglect by the state and years of intentional and gleeful mismanagement by the City of Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties have left the once highly-regarded and nationally-acclaimed transit agency in a severe death spiral that will only end with MARTA going the way of its predecessor, the old Atlanta Transit Company, likely within a decade.

Transportation in this perennially mobility-challenged town is only going to continue to get much more embarrassingly painfully worse before it eventually slowly gets better.

Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.....

November 27th, 2012
1:29 am

The first priority in connecting Atlanta and Savannah by high-speed rail should NOT necessarily be implementing a high-speed passenger rail connection, but implementing a high-speed freight rail line that will help provide added connectivity between Atlanta and its main sea link to the world, the fast-growing and increasingly critically-important Port of Savannah while helping to relieve extreme freight traffic stress off of the often severely-congested section of I-75 south of Atlanta.

Another main rail priority that should come before implementing high-speed passenger rail between Atlanta and Savannah is implementing commuter rail service within the two rail corridors that run parallel on both sides of I-75 between Atlanta and Macon (within the Norfolk Southern S-Line right-of-way that runs parallel to the west of I-75 between Atlanta and Macon via Griffin and within the Norfolk Southern H-Line right-of-way that runs parallel to the east of I-75 between Atlanta and Macon via Jackson).

Implementing commuter rail service within the two rail right-of-ways that run parallel to I-75 between Atlanta and Macon will help to relieve extreme local traffic stress from an often severely-congested, overcapacity and undersized (only 6-8 lanes) I-75 between Downtown Atlanta and Macon.

First implementing critically-needed commuter rail service between Atlanta and Macon will also help to build local and regional rail transit ridership so that a high-speed passenger rail line between Atlanta and Savannah would be able to sustain itself financially over the long run.

High-speed passenger rail between Atlanta and Savannah should actually be the THIRD priority AFTER implementation of high-speed freight rail between Atlanta and Savannah and implementation of LONG OVERDUE commuter rail service between Atlanta and Macon.