Let GDOT run the show

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

A big part of metro Atlanta’s transportation muddle, writes a concerned citizen, is that the problem has never been adequately defined. A couple of things are clear, though: Georgia needs to increase revenues for expanding roads and transit, most likely though increased motor fuel taxes. Then, the state should let the Department of Transportation coordinate all the myriad local efforts now in place to prioritize solutions. In our second column, a Washington-based writer looks at how rail invariably increases pedestrian traffic for merchants.

Commenting is open.

Let’s define the problem first

By Joel Smith

Any discussion of metro Atlanta transportation solutions requires that we first define the problem, secure agreement on problem definition, and then develop solutions.

For example, is the problem traffic congestion? Or is it that cars are destroying the planet? Is the problem that people have a need to move more conveniently and quickly in all directions throughout the metro area? Or is it that we need to try to live in a more confined area and use public rail to get around?

Attempts to deal with an unclear definition of the problem in metro Atlanta during the past 30 years have produced poor results. Trying to get so many political subdivisions to agree on a course of action also contributed to poor outcomes.

For example:

1. MARTA – Putting expensive heavy rail in spread-out metro Atlanta doesn’t serve most of the people, and the fares collected don’t come close to covering expenses. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 3.3 percent of metro Atlantans use a MARTA train or bus. MARTA ridership has been declining for several years. Adding more heavy-rail hardware like this will only magnify the problem and do little to reduce traffic congestion.

2. GRTA – The idea here was to create a regional authority that would decide which transportation projects should or should not be implemented in the metro area. This agency has a poor track record and has done nothing to move us forward. It seems to have no real authority at all.

3. The failed regional T-SPLOST of 2012 — A perfect example of how not to do something. This project had fragmented problem definition and proposed solutions that had little to do with fixing real problems.

If the problem is not properly defined and then managed through one source, the progress made in the transportation area in the next 30 years will look a lot like the last 30 years.

The “one roof” that can properly handle a comprehensive transportation project is the Georgia Department of Transportation. Since half the state’s population lives within the economic engine called metro Atlanta, heavy GDOT support for the region’s transportation needs is justified. Its staff is qualified to do the work in an unbiased manner and in places where it will do the most good. It just needs funding.

How do we find funding? Georgia is one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, but it is near the bottom in per capita spending on transportation. Many states probably spend double the amount per capita on transportation that we do. One way to get more transportation funding is to increase motor fuel taxes for transportation use and/or direct more of the existing fuel tax money (including the excise tax portion) to transportation use.

Regional attempts to deal with metro Atlanta’s transportation problems have failed. Projects that have done little or nothing to relieve congestion are common. The numerous political subdivisions and agencies in the region exacerbate the difficulties of managing a solution.

DOT’s charge can be clarified to handle all aspects of solving transportation problems and relieving congestion throughout the state. This would include running a comprehensive bus system where needed, building and running toll lanes where needed, and perhaps introducing some light rail in select areas. Expensive heavy rail does little to relieve congestion in spread-out metro Atlanta and would not be necessary for GDOT’S goals and budgets.

Bringing per capita transportation spending in line with other states would help solve the funding issue. The assortment of transportation agencies in metro Atlanta would no longer be needed. However, MARTA would remain a separate agency to run the heavy rail system, and its budget would be separate from DOT’s.

The DOT’s updated charge would allow it to plan and execute projects where needed for the good of the entire state. There would be no new transportation agency. Solutions under DOT management would simply become new projects. The first big undertaking could be called, “The Congestion Relief Project – Phase 1.”

Joel Smith, a retired marketing executive, lives in Stockbridge.

Rail increases pedestrian traffic

By William S. Lind

Two years ago, the city of Jerusalem opened its first light rail line. Just over eight miles long, the line now carries a healthy 130,000 passengers a day.

An Israeli publication, Globes: Israel’s Business Arena, reported on Oct. 31 that, as we have repeatedly seen in this country, the advent of light rail has substantially increased pedestrian traffic in the area the line serves. Globes stated that two years after the light rail line began operating, preliminary figures indicate a sharp increase in the number of pedestrians in the Jerusalem city center. This can mostly be attributed to the light rail.

The number of pedestrians in the city center’s Nahalat Shiva areas rose 87 percent from July 2011, when the light rail line began operating, to August 2012. The overall number of pedestrians in the city center rose 41 percent during the same period.

Pedestrian traffic is the lifeblood of any city. So it stands to reason merchants should be strong proponents of building light rail and streetcar lines in the streets that serve their shops.

Regrettably, that is often not the case. My former home town of Alexandria, Va., offers a sad example of how merchants often work against their own best interests. Alexandria needs a streetcar line down King Street, connecting the Metro station with Old Town. King Street once had such a line; the rails exist to this day, buried under inches of asphalt. (The line had a healthy ridership within the confines of the city as well as providing a busy commuter connection between downtown Alexandria with downtown Washington. Alas, the line fell victim to the loss of its terminal in Washington to the Federal Triangle project and highway interests that wanted the trolley off the highway bridge over the Potomac.)

With one-way streets on either side of King, automobile traffic would suffer little inconvenience, even if King were converted to a pedestrian mall; streetcars and pedestrians co-exist nicely, unlike automobiles and pedestrians. Pedestrian traffic would increase substantially, bringing the street’s businesses more customers.

But merchants are strongly opposed to streetcars on King. Why? Most probably do not know how rail transit increases pedestrian traffic. All they can think of is customers arriving by car, even though there is little parking on King.

Some may also fear prolonged interruption to access to their businesses due to streetcar construction. This has happened in some places. But Portland, Ore., has pioneered an approach to building streetcar lines where access to a given block is interrupted for only two weeks. In view of the large increases in pedestrian traffic streetcars bring, two weeks of inconvenience is a small price to pay.

Rail transit has increased pedestrian traffic in the area it serves almost everywhere it has been built. Why are people in places not now served by rail transit seemingly unable to learn from the experience of cities that have it? I do not know the answer to that question, but I do know it is one of the more important questions facing the rail transit industry.

William S. Lind is director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation in Washington. A version of this column originally appeared on its website.

4 comments Add your comment

Matt P

January 8th, 2014
2:16 pm

Just wanted to loko at this one quote. “According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 3.3 percent of metro Atlantans use a MARTA train or bus. ” Now, as far as I know, the US Census Bureau doesn’t measure MARTA riders (happy to be proved wrong!) It does, of course, measure metro areas. According to the US Census, the 28 County Metro Area had 5.8 million people in 2010. In 2012, MARTA had average daily ridership of 422,000 passengers, bus and rail. MARTA, as we all know, serves only 2 counties.

Did the author really just divide MARTA ridership by a total census area? In other words, did he look at the total population (itself an odd number to use – why not use number of workers? or commuters?) of 28 counties, and compare it to how many people use a 2 county system? And that’s an argument to not expand MARTA?



January 8th, 2014
1:12 pm

Would have to disagree with your first statement. MARTA trains may not go everywhere. But MARTA buses can take you just about anywhere in Fulton and DeKalb you want to go. Just takes a little effort and time. But I agree with you on the rest. It’s unfortunate that it doesn’t serve the other core counties.


January 7th, 2014
4:50 pm

The problem with Atlanta is that its not dense enough to support Marta. The nuckleheads that have approved the zoning for countinuous suburban nitemarish development have ruined any chance for Atlanta to become a 24 hour livable, workable, walkable major city. Atlanta is just one big suburb with no major city identification. People here think the key to the transportation issue to expand roads…hello…that only motivates more people to drive. Are you going to have 8 lanes in both directions on 400 eventually?? Doesn’t solve the fact that when you get off 400 you go to 2 and 1 lane roads..It looks like an ant hill in Alpharetta every night.

Do the research and you will find that more and more people-younger generation, empty nesters, etc…don’t want to commute 1+ hours each way anymore. Sitting in my car is so much more productive and efficient than taking a train and getting work done, saving money on gas, saving miles on my car, getting into an accident…no? They want to be around restaurants, museums, theaters, etc.. When Atlanta starts to realize this and I think it slowly is, development will be located around transit centers and walkable parts of the city..ie Midtown, Buckhead, Dunwoody….these areas will become more dense and start to support more transit. Until then, its just one boring suburban shopping center after another.


January 7th, 2014
2:54 pm

MARTA is a joke. IT doesn’t go anywhere. The fact that they let the counties decide if they wanted MARTA rail service doomed it form Day 1, There needs to be a regional authority to deal with the issues. GDOT has way too many issues/projects to adequately deal with the Atlanta traffic problems. Until a regional light rail system is developed Atlanta’s traffic problem will continue to grow and businesses will look elsewhere due to the refusal of local leaders to address/fix the problems,.