Moderated by Tom Sabulis
With another winter storm forecast for metro Atlanta today, we present alternate views on what a commuter rail network could do for the region, and whether the state should find the money — and consensus — to implement one.
Commenting is open.
By William Tomlin
Georgia needs to look at its 2009 State Rail Plan and begin deploying commuter rail in metro Atlanta immediately.
Less than three inches of snow should never shut down a major American city and leave thousands of motorists stranded on frozen roads over night; but that happened in Atlanta Jan. 28-29.
When people, not used to driving in snow, tried to be responsible and get home before too much accumulation occurred, bad road management combined with the lack of any transportation alternative to create gridlock.
But the trains kept running.
Georgia boasts one of the most extensive freight rail systems in the country. According to the Georgia Department of Transportation, 5,000 miles of track serve most counties in the state, yet passenger rail service is almost unheard of.
That could change, and it could change relatively quickly. GDOT’s 2009 Rail Plan estimates that if Georgians were offered quality passenger rail service, they would take advantage of it in huge numbers.
The report estimates that a commuter and intercity passenger system stretching to Athens, Canton, Macon, and other cities would carry “10.7 million commuters and 2.1 million intercity passengers in 2030.”
If GDOT’s commuter rail plan, using currently operational tracks, was fully realized, the region would be transformed for the better. Residents would breathe cleaner air, drivers would see less congestion and shorter commute times, and people would no longer face being stranded in frigid temperatures because of snow.
Prior National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analyses have already concluded with a “Finding of No Significant Impact” for both an Atlanta-to-Athens route and an Atlanta-to-Macon route, clearing one hurdle and ensuring that the project would not degrade the environment.
Indeed, commuter rail would improve the environment by getting cars off the roads and helping the cars that stay on the roads burn less gas because of the reduced congestion.
The biggest challenge to commuter rail in metro Atlanta comes from the state’s apparent disinterest in the project. The 2009 Rail Plan begins by explaining that a more comprehensive plan was due out in 2011, but despite that assertion, a new plan has not emerged. The 2009 Plan is still the plan promoted on GDOT’s Rail page as the “State Rail Plan.”
Also, the 2009 plan explains that the Georgia Constitution restricts revenue from the state gas tax to use on roads and bridges and calls for the creation of a new fund to finance freight projects.
The state needs to face up to the necessity of funding passenger rail service.
Building healthier, more logical, and more sustainable cities makes all the sense in the world, but metro Atlanta needs immediate relief. Getting people in and out of the city is the region’s biggest problem on a daily basis. Commuter rail service, built on existing tracks with relatively modest improvements, can fix that.
William Tomlin is an attorney at King & Spalding in Atlanta.
By Field Searcy
Hardly anyone living in metro Atlanta was untouched by the recent snow and ice storm. Clogged interstates, major roads and streets all across the state were perilous. Many hundreds of thousands were inconvenienced. Others were put in harm’s way or even in life threatening and fatal situations. Not surprisingly, we are hearing the familiar refrain that rail transit is the answer to the problem. Really?
Some are calling for a regional governance solution to the transportation issues we face. We already have a solution. It’s called the State of Georgia. Under the direction of the Governor, we have two agencies directly tasked and funded to maintain our state roads and prepare for emergencies, the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.
Last month, we learned that GDOT spent $300,000 on an economic feasibility study for a commuter rail from Columbus to Atlanta. Depending on the system chosen, the estimated cost ranges between $1.3 and $3.9 billion for the three alternative train systems evaluated. The system would provide 1 stop between the two cities and take between one to 1.5 hours for the one-way commute costing between $33.50 and $41.42. Economic development is always touted as the major benefit. Of course, the real beneficiaries of these transit boondoggles are the private interests that stand to make money off taxpayer financed infrastructure.
The Concept 3 Regional Transportation Plan approved by the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) would cost $50+ Billion to build and operate through 2030. This plan consists of new heavy rail, light rail, commuter rail, bus rapid transit, other modes and transportation infrastructure for the 10 county ARC Region. Even with this massive investment, the argument for rail transit as a solution to deal with snow and ice doesn’t hold water. People still have to get from work to the train, to their cars, to the schools to pick up their children, and then home.
Consider that densely populated New York City, which probably has the most expansive transit system in the country with the most complex snow and emergency preparedness plans, is often shut down from winter storms.
To satisfy a cost versus benefit analysis and provide the density necessary to justify these kinds of investments would require a fundamental reorientation of residential housing and zoning encouraging or coercing citizens to move closer to mass transit arteries. What would happen to existing residential property values to accomplish this goal? To some this may sound like Utopia, to others, it’s reminiscent of “The Hunger Games.”
There are no guarantees when the next disaster will occur. No amount of trains, buses, or roads will outsmart Mother Nature. Fortunately, it was short lived. We didn’t panic. Through selfless acts of Georgians, we helped one another with food, warmth and shelter. Let this be a lesson. We should all take personal responsibility for our own emergency preparedness. Hopefully, the Governor, GDOT, and GEMA will coordinate and cooperate with county and city leaders to do the same.
Field Searcy, of Cobb County, represents RepealRegionalism.com, a campaign by the Transportation Leadership Coalition LLC, which opposed the T-SPLOST.