It seems like a no-brainer. But those cases often make brains hurt the most.
Commuters along I-75 northwest of Atlanta want relief from traffic congestion. The state owns a railroad line that runs from Atlanta through the downtowns of Vinings, Smyrna, Marietta, Kennesaw and Acworth. It’s double-tracked most of the way, meaning there’s room for freight and passenger rail alike.
Make a few modifications, buy some train cars, and a commuter rail service for Cobb could be up and running within a few years — for a tiny fraction of the money that a 1 percent sales tax for transportation, or T-SPLOST, is forecast to provide if voters approve it next year.
Instead, transit planners want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more to build a lower-capacity light rail line. Which wouldn’t be completed for more than a decade. And which, even when finished, wouldn’t go beyond Cumberland Mall. To reach Acworth would take another decade and nearly $2 billion more, from a source TBD.
What was that about a no-brainer? State Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, asks the same thing.
“Why wouldn’t we use an existing resource that millions…of dollars have been poured into the last century…before we spend $100 million a mile to try to create a whole new architecture in a way that hasn’t been proven yet, and that voters haven’t shown a commitment to?” Setzler told me Monday.
The light rail plan calls for a new line from the Arts Center MARTA station to the Cumberland Mall area, barely inside Cobb. The exact alignment would be decided later, but the draft T-SPLOST project list assigns it $856 million for 8 miles.
Based on two state estimates since 2001, Setzler said his commuter rail alternative would cover roughly 30 miles and “can be done for considerably less than $100 million.”
With the savings, he would convert parts of Cobb Parkway and Windy Hill Road into “modified super-arterials” on which motorists could drive for miles with no stoplights. They wouldn’t be full super-arterials like Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, as some critics charge in arguing his cost estimates are too low. Instead, they would use the same, scaled-down model the T-SPLOST list envisions for a stretch of Tara Boulevard in Clayton County.
These two plans, he argues, offer more relief from traffic congestion, much sooner, than a $856 million light rail line.
“Perhaps light rail in 20 years makes sense to go to Cumberland,” he says. “It can creep north more slowly over time as the population moves and the density is created to support it. But…it’s just not the solution from a cost-benefit perspective. And you’re not forced to advance it so far so fast…if you’ve got another alternative to get people out of traffic.
“If it’s truly about traffic relief, use commuter rail to solve the traffic problem. And begin to see the redevelopment benefits in our historic downtowns.”
Listening to Setzler reminded me of a June conversation with William Lind, renowned conservative transit advocate. Some of the same people who support Cobb light rail brought Lind to Atlanta to pitch the benefits of cost-conscious transit.
One of his anecdotes about maximizing resources — with commuter rail, no less — now seems particularly apt:
“I had the head of the Columbus [Ohio transit] system say to me, ‘They wanted me to build a $1 billion light rail paralleling the existing double-track railroad,’ ” Lind told me. “The answer should be, ‘Hell no!’ ”
Like I said: No-brainer.
– By Kyle Wingfield