Majority in favor of public transportation

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

A recent Atlanta Regional Commission poll showed surprising support for public transit. Today, a union official writes about that news and the need for immediate state funding of MARTA; a car dealer spokesman defends the role of the automobile in the metro area; and an economist wonders whether leaders can convert the poll’s “vague sentiments” into action.

There are three columns today. Commenting is open.

Time for Georgia to fund transit

By Curtis Howard

Metro area residents woke up to a pleasant surprise last month. An Atlanta Regional Commission poll told us that the economy and traffic congestion were the top issues facing the region, and 71 percent said that improving mass transit was important for the metro area’s future.

The findings make sense to us and are interrelated. The poll confirmed what most planners already know: There is no way out of the traffic issue — and its billion-dollars-a-year health costs due to air pollution and related sicknesses — other than for Gov. Nathan Deal and Mayor Kasim Reed to declare a health emergency and start giving MARTA the funding it deserves to run a first-rate system.

It’s time for the mayor and governor to sit down with legislative leaders and come up with a plan, short-term and long-term, to fund MARTA and increase ridership.

As National Public Radio reported in April: Transit ridership is on the rise in most major American cities, but the opposite is the case in Atlanta, according to the American Public Transit Association. Since 2001, MARTA train use has fallen 15 percent, and bus ridership has dropped 31 percent.

This is an abomination for the country’s ninth-largest transit system.

It’s time for elected officials to stop thinking of transit funding as a benefit only to Atlanta. In fact, at the next legislative session, we will propose a bill that will give funding to every transit system in Georgia.

On the table should be yearly fare reductions until they get to zero. Our belief is that if you build it — a free fare system — they will come. Increased service will also attract new riders. Every time MARTA raises fares, it loses riders. The reverse is also true.

The answers from the poll respondents track what a study released in July told us: Atlanta is one of the worst cities in America if you want to improve your economic status and move up the ladder from one class to the next.

The immediate problem with respect to MARTA is that the board has shortsighted plans. For example, the MARTA board is planning to wait until year five of its new plan to ask for state funding — when Gov. Deal (if re-elected) will be out of office due to term limits.

The entire state Legislature is up for re-election next year. Let the members tell voters why they won’t fund their system, which would be a win-win for everyone.

Everyone in our state will benefit: riders, workers, employers and those who like to breathe clean air. Our children will benefit from the realization that we worked together, in a non-partisan fashion, to leave a legacy for all residents of Georgia.

Anything less will be viewed as an abdication of our responsibility as leaders to fix something that has no downside for anyone.

Curtis Howard is president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 732.

Cars, trucks rule in low-density area

By Dave Tribble

There is no question about it: Metro Atlantans love their cars, trucks and SUVs. These vehicles are more than just a way of life; they are also the best and most user-friendly way to travel throughout this sprawled-out area that dominates North Georgia.

Public transit has its merits, but it is not as simple as just build it and people will use it, especially in Atlanta. Transit here has seen its share of problems during recent years, including the discontinuation of services and declining ridership on MARTA. People notice these problems, such as long waits for trains and buses, and may not pay to use transit systems if they are not conducive to their lifestyles.

While an improved and self-sustained public transit system could help mitigate some of our traffic dilemma, it still cannot take the place of automotive transportation for the majority of metro Atlanta’s commuters. This area is just too spread out for that to happen — unlike New York City or Chicago, where many businesses are centralized and can be reached easily by large mass transit systems. We don’t have the population density. The region now considered metro Atlanta spreads over an area of 8,480 square miles, roughly the size of Massachusetts.

A local media account executive recently offered these comments about automotive travel here: “Without the automobile, I could not do my job. While I do have an office, much of my job involves meeting with existing and potential clients throughout the greater Atlanta market. That can and does range from Conyers to Douglasville, Peachtree City to Alpharetta, Griffin to Kennesaw, and the vast many locations in between. None of which could be accomplished without my vehicle. For me, the automobile is essential to my livelihood and well-being.”

There’s no doubt that automotive travel would be easier if there were better roads and highways. Just think what a big difference it would make if someone could find a way to relieve the choke points on our interstates. Day after day, these same troubled areas continue to bring traffic to a standstill.

Just how important are our automobiles during everyday life?

Our vehicles gives us freedom of mobility to go to and from work, to go on vacation, to take our younger children safely to school, and to respond to emergencies in life-and-death situations. And just think how much we appreciate the comfort that they give us during rainy days, hot summers or cold winters.

To that end, there are more than 200 franchised new car and truck dealers in the metro Atlanta area. They offer vehicles that are better engineered and are more powerful, with better fuel economy, lower emissions, better durability, and more driver and passenger safety features, than ever before.

Dave Tribble is director of communications for the Metro Atlanta Automobile Dealers Association.

Will poll numbers resonate?

By Bruce A. Seaman

The Atlanta Regional Commission survey of 2,100 metro residents reports only 7 percent believe that traffic has improved in the last three to four years, with most saying it has worsened. More than 70 percent believe “improving public transportation is very important” to the area’s long-term future. And four times as many people say we must “redevelop older areas,” rather than “build new suburbs.”

Is it time for optimism about the region’s determination to address its urban sprawl and transportation problems?

It is hard to be overly sanguine, even though the crushing defeat of T-SPLOST in the summer of 2012 was in part due to the proposal’s inadequate commitment to MARTA and public transportation options, and its mess of political compromises rather than coherent transportation strategies — hence leading to a strange opposition alliance of both pro- and anti-public transit groups.

Indeed, MARTA has been plagued by having to be funded almost exclusively by Fulton and DeKalb county taxpayers. That has led to high fares relative to much better U.S. systems,service cutbacks and a largely stagnant ridership — though rail ridership per mile, 4,594, is only modestly behind the 4,056 riders per mile for the twice-as-large Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in San Francisco, according to American Public Transportation Association data.

The situation has not been helped by past MARTA battles with the Atlanta Braves over the Braves bus shuttle, one of many factors making the Braves unhappy about being at Turner Field.

But the potential rewards from tapping into genuine public enthusiasm for serious improvements in the region’s public transportation are great. They are hardly limited to the most visible tourist-related investments, such as the downscaled downtown streetcar project. And the benefits are certainly not confined to the injection of additional short-run economic activity during the construction phases of such projects.

Recent research done by urban planning scholars Daniel Chatman and Robert Noland concludes there are hidden but very tangible “agglomeration” economic benefits of expanded public transit service. These can be in the tens of millions of dollars per year, depending on city size, the magnitude of traffic congestion, and the degree of existing transit network capacity. There is also large academic literature regarding the “spatial-mismatch” between residential and job location that suggests significant benefits from expanded transportation options.

There is hope that the plans of new leadership at MARTA, and further state legislative cooperation with flexible use of funding, can reverse the trends in fare hikes and service cuts. Given the tortured history of suspicion, demography and race, and limited imagination regarding public transportation, one can only hope that the ARC survey results do reflect genuine support for expanding our transit options, and that regional leaders can turn those vague sentiments into concrete resource commitments.

Bruce A. Seaman is associate professor of economics in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

6 comments Add your comment

SAWB

December 3rd, 2013
11:34 am

It seems we need to get away from the idea that expansion of public transit always means expansion of MARTA and traditional heavy rail. This model is beneficial in some situations, but very expensive and inflexible. We also need to realize that while approximately half of Georgia’s residents live in the Metro-Atlanta area only about 10% live in the City of Atlanta. The vast majority of residents live, work and play in the suburbs where MARTA rail would offer little “bang for the buck”. Going forward transportation initiatives need to include state funding, but should be targeted in the areas where people currently live and not in areas where some central planner thinks they should live.

Dan

December 3rd, 2013
11:25 am

It continues to baffle me that our so-called leaders keep looking to the past to solve today’s problems. Metro rail is an old concept that has proven to work well in certain areas, but not others. Atlanta’s own ridership numbers bear out that it doesn’t work well here.

Meanwhile, in 10 years, self-driving cars will be widely available – they’ll be here before ground is ever broken on a new mass transit project. Is Atlanta ready? We should be a city at the forefront of developing the physical, legal and insurance infrastructure necessary to accommodate these cars.

Shamehia

December 3rd, 2013
10:39 am

“There is no way out of the traffic issue —”

What nonsense, that presupposes the Chamber of Commerce dream that businesses and individuals will flock to the metro area forever. But smart people know that when you want to get out of a hole the first thing you do is stop digging, and firms like Caterpillar (Athens) and Kia (West Point), with the assistance of the State, are leading the way by siting their factories and thousands of workers/commuters many miles outside the Atlanta traffic quagmire.

Doug Brooks

December 3rd, 2013
10:01 am

I read the article written by Curtis Howard regarding “transit” in Georgia and it is what I would expect from a union leader. He proposes a system where users would pay nothing but he has no viable suggestions for funding except that people from around the state should pay for a system that they would rarely or never use. In other words, let’s lock people into another government system, take away their mobility, and redistribute their income. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? When I see the government jobs program called unions eliminated and a sensible funding plan developed (one that has users paying for the services they receive), I’ll reconsider my position.

Chip

December 3rd, 2013
7:18 am

Ahhhh, excuse me… but NO!

I live in Union County, three and a half miles below the NC border. Why should my tax dollars be spent on another metro Atlanta boondoggle over a hundred miles away? Why should my tax dollars be used to force a hilariously inept MARTA system into a county where it is not wanted?

Oh, I forgot… in the Age of Obama, it’s all about government, liberal activists, and crony capitalists getting what they want by taking tax dollars and using those dollars to run over the peasants.

Silly me. I think I’ll go sharpen my pitchfork, and make some torches. We the peasants may need them soon, and the rate this country is going down the drain.

Thomas R. Buchanan P.E., CPESC

December 3rd, 2013
6:44 am

Dr. Seaman,

Thank you for your rational, cognizant addition to public discourse; alas, I fear MARTA’s realistic plan to await requesting State assistance for public transportation until Mr. Deal’s departure illustrates the persistent problem – lack of regional leadership condemning us to a continuation of Georgia’s tortured history of man’s inhumanity to man.

There are, however, enlightened regional leaders. They just can’t get elected in a red state. Gov. Barnes demonstrated regional leadership when he created and empowered GRTA, led by Dr. C. Ross, to begin a regional approach to transportation policy. Denied a second term to Mr. Purdue, carrying the stars and bars to victory, he had to sit by and watch as GRTA was emasculated and Dr. Ross returned to Georgia Tech. There’s been no serious attempt at regional leadership since then.

TRB