Will commuter rail help?

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.

Commuter rail an obvious fix for region

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.

Costly train network no answer for storm

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.

15 comments Add your comment


February 12th, 2014
3:42 pm

Thank you, Gerald. A digital gaming company moved from Gwinnett County to Decatur because the skilled young people working there wanted a walkable downtown with restaurants, pubs and MARTA close by. The City of Decatur didn’t have to offer the company tax breaks to move, it simply offered the amenities we already have.

We used to say, build the roads and the people will come. That has been replaced by build the stations and the people will come. Look at Virginia and DC for examples. Once off the train, BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) with its own lanes will get you the rest of the way.

Transit stations are like airports. Everybody needs to pay, whether you use them or not, because everyone will benefit from the jobs and workforce that grow around them. MARTAs fare box collections are better than most and they are the only large transit agency that receives no state funding – only state obstruction. This is a simple concept that enlarges freedom and opportunities.

Totally against privatization. Have you ever lived in HOA?


February 12th, 2014
1:43 pm

Norb Leahy:

Again, you are only dealing with the suburban portion of the problem. I have no problem with more highways, and the only ones who oppose them are the fringe 10% that are environmentalists and social engineers. The suburban NIMBYs block far more highway projects in this area than the environmentalists, and it was that crowd that blocked the northern arc by defeating Roy Barnes. And you like buses? It was Barnes who created GRTA with the express bus service. But don’t pretend that private bus services are going to solve infrastructure issues for a metro area of 6 million people especially when buses get stuck in the same traffic as everybody else. Seriously, this thinking is right wing think tank (many of them funded by oil companies) combined with thinking that this is still Mayberry of the 1950s.

But urban areas need rail. Only 3% of the population lives near MARTA? Only because so much of the population moved away from where MARTA goes. When MARTA was built, it served most of the population that lived there at the time. Now the solution is to expand MARTA to where those people live, including up to north Fulton and to south Cobb and south Gwinnett as well as to other places in DeKalb that want it, and to people in Clayton that want it.

That is the biggest myth of the MARTA bashers: that no one wants MARTA. It is totally untrue. The folks at Emory/CDC want MARTA. The folks in Lithonia want MARTA. The folks in Clayton want MARTA. And most – if not all – of the folks in north Fulton want MARTA. The biggest problem with MARTA isn’t that it isn’t being rammed down the throats of Cobb and Gwinnett citizens who don’t want it, but that it can’t be expanded to even places in Fulton and DeKalb that do. And the reason for that is because MARTA doesn’t have local control. Its financial operations are overseen by the state who refuses to contribute money. So the state won’t even allow MARTA to use its own money to expand in the areas where MARTA is already legally allowed to service.

Jet Graphics

February 12th, 2014
12:06 pm

The USA should never have abandoned its electric rail network and substituted an automobile based, petro fueled system. But that is the past. America is no longer Queen of Oil, and we can’t afford to subsidize the automobile any more.

❏ safer
❏ durable (cheaper over the long run)
❏ tracks and rolling stock can be used for decades – some over 100 years
❏ scalable with population growth
❏ more energy efficient
❏ regenerative braking recovers energy
❏ less polluting (no detritus from eroding tires, oil spills, etc)
❏ uses fewer resources
❏ less surface area

Government mismanaged tax payer funded rail is plagued by bureaucracy, politics, red tape, and cost overruns. (leave it to American government to foul up the most efficient form of land transportation!)

Do not let government meddle, period. No public taxpayer subsidies. Grant zero tax liability instead. Deregulate. Let private enterprise move the most customers for the least cost for the maximum profit. Private enterprise did it 100 years ago, with far less technology.

Let’s get Atlanta “back on track!”

Norb Leahy

February 12th, 2014
1:57 am

The auto traffic problem is separate from the public transit problem. The trains and buses only go where they go. 97% of Atlanta commuters don’t live at Marta Stations, nor do they work near Marta Stations. Until that happens, a $50 billion train expansion is unsustainable. What is sustainable is the continued effort to bring MARTA expenses down to match revenue. Private bus services operate on Buford highway with no tax subsidies. I think all bus service could be private. So, why are they not private? Federal funds for MARTA capital budgets are scheduled to drop from $51.7 million in 2014 to $30.4 million in 2015 and $14.3 million in 2016.
There has been little population growth in DeKalb, Fulton and the City of Atlanta since 2008 and the larger metro area has lost tens of thousands of jobs. Population increase projections for central planners have become worthless. The population of the 4 county metro area remains around 3.2 million. The commuters jamming up GA-400 come from largely from North Fulton. The I-285 traffic is interstate and commuter East to West. For a while, during the 1990s, when employees moved from jobs in Cobb to jobs in Gwinnett, they physically moved to Gwinnett. The interest rate spike in the 2000s slowed that trend.
Large cities who built highway grids over their cities and interstate bypass highways solved their problem. US 27 should be connected to I-75 and I-85 to give interstate traffic the option to bypass Atlanta. The EPA froze highway building in Atlanta for decades and we missed the window. Our current no growth economy has homeowners stuck where they are and open to jobs anywhere. Confidence that things will improve is very low. Many have already moved to rural counties and other states. If the economy does improve after 2016, jobs are likely to be created in the rural counties where land costs and taxes are lower. The current labor force participation rate is 62.8%. That means 37.2% of working age Americans are not working.

Jet Graphics

February 11th, 2014
11:00 pm

Anna: In addition to the conflict of interest between government and private rail mass transit, there was a distrust between the streetcar companies (electric) and the big railroad companies (steam). Often, this was played out by a deliberate choice of non-standard gauge for tracks, to prevent Big Rail from snagging the rights of way.
Likewise, there was intense competition between the Big Rail companies, that resulted in wasteful duplication of routes that paralleled each other and reduced potential revenues.
The end result was the death of passenger rail, and only profitable cargo service remained.
And due to taxation of ROWs, the track mileage has been torn up to save on taxes – a short sighted decision, for sure!