I like transit. Transit is not a liberal or conservative thing, per se, in places like New York City or London. Or in Brussels, where I used to take a streetcar to work every day.
How transit is done — now that’s another story. It is the story we’re still writing in Atlanta, with MARTA and other systems.
Governance matters: Atlantans haven’t always believed their investments in MARTA were being managed well. Funding matters: MARTA covers less than 30 percent of its operating costs with user fees (see page 72 of the PDF), a ratio that needs to increase.
In tandem with governance and funding, however, is vision. That’s one thing we have in Atlanta, if stacks and stacks of transit plans count for anything. But, says Beverly Scott, entering her third year as MARTA’s chief executive, “We never seem to get past the vision and plans.”
MARTA may be the country’s ninth-largest transit system, but transit is irrelevant to most metro Atlantans. Suburban systems add some accessibility. But there are three types of people here: those who use transit, those who don’t, and those who can’t. The last group is still too large.
We have to talk about governance and funding. But as lawmakers consider new funding, perhaps by allowing a referendum on a 1-cent sales tax for transportation, citizens need to know which elements of which plan the tax would fund.
We need that explanation before any new law is passed. That’s where the vision is lacking, and that’s what I asked Scott about. MARTA isn’t the only part of this puzzle, but it is a critical one. Here’s what she told me:
After stabilizing the current system (a necessary but, in my mind, insufficient goal for new transit money) Scott wants to increase frequency for existing lines. She notes that buses in Old Fourth Ward — “and how much more urban can you get?” — run only every 30 to 45 minutes.
“That is absolutely ridiculous in a city the size of Atlanta,” she adds. MARTA has a 600-bus system but “could easily go up to 1,400 or 1,500,” she says.
Frequency is an issue for MARTA, although I have some doubts about more buses on surface streets. Can these roads handle more buses? Do people really save time if they end up stuck in traffic on a bus? Time is a key decision-making factor. We need to know whether more-frequent buses could attract enough new riders to reduce traffic.
Next, in parallel with the BeltLine, would be a streetcar network with the Peachtree corridor at its heart. But wouldn’t this duplicate one of MARTA’s best existing services, the subway line that roughly tracks Peachtree?
Scott argues that streetcars and subways have complementary uses. True, but her streetcar priorities sound like today’s roster of MARTA stations: Five Points, Civic Center, King Center. Buckhead, which has seen tremendous growth in office and residential space while downtown has stagnated, and which has little room to add road lanes, might “be revisited” only later.
That’s a mistake. Transit may aid economic development, but its purpose is to move people, not money. A system with capacity and funds to spare might take on development-oriented expansion. MARTA isn’t that system.
Last, there would be new connections — either light or heavy rail — up I-75 to the Cobb Galleria, east along I-20 to Lithonia, up I-85 to Norcross, and west from the H.E. Holmes station to I-285.
There would be other “build-out” projects, but these are Scott’s priorities. Citizens and legislators will weigh governance and funding decisions in part on whether these priorities line up with theirs. She better be right.