Atlanta Transit Should Stay off Tracks and on the Road


Atlanta Transit Should Stay off Tracks and on the Road

This legislative session, the Georgia General Assembly is expected to tackle transportation reform, with many hoping lawmakers address both roadways and transit. It appears they will: At a recent transportation industry gathering, state leaders including Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle detailed the importance of transit.

Unfortunately, Metro Atlanta has one of the most deficient transit systems of any major metro area in the country.

  • A recent Brookings Institution study ranked Atlanta 10th worst in the country for combined access to transit and employment.
  • Transit serves only 38 percent of metro Atlanta residents. Only 22 percent of jobs are accessible by transit.
  • Only 3.4 percent of jobs are a 45-minute, one-way commute via transit.
  • Only 21.7 percent of jobs are accessible in 90 minutes.

Put simply, metro Atlanta offers the worst transit service of any major metro area in the country. This service inefficiency places the greatest strain on transit-dependent riders who are often poor. Fortunately, successes and failures in Georgia and around the country provide a blueprint for service.

Despite our woeful transit system, some want to double down on an inefficient radial rail system that helped cause the problem in the first place. Radial rail systems are effective at transporting people between the suburbs and the central city. They work well in metro areas such as New York City, developed prior to World War II with a large percentage of their jobs downtown.

They are ineffective in post-World War II cities with dispersed land use and lower density such as Atlanta, where less than 20 percent of jobs are located within three miles of Downtown and more than half of the jobs are more than 10 miles from the edge of the central business district. Recent employment numbers show metro Atlanta employment is continuing to decentralize.

Some propose a rail system because it is “what non-auto driving millenials want.” In reality, most millenials drive cars; those who don’t drive want an effective transportation system. They don’t much care whether they travel by rail car, bus, or ridesharing application as long as gets them where they want to go – efficiently.

Further, metro areas that have tried to build extensive rail systems have had issues.

Due to costs, most regions have failed to build what they promised voters. In most instances, each locality lobbies to receive the first rail line, figuring that there will never be enough money to build the entire system.

We saw in 2012’s Transportation Investment Act what happens when a politically oriented system rewards the well-connected instead of those most in need of transit service: racial inequality, useless transit lines and public animosity. Worse, the high costs of transit force many cities to cut bus service. This happened in Dallas and Houston: Both regions have added new light-rail systems to their effective bus systems; the operating and construction costs of rail forced cuts in bus service. Today, each system carries fewer passengers than when it operated as a bus-only system. And many commuters who lost their bus service are transit-dependent riders who lost their jobs due to cuts in service.

Even if Atlanta wanted to build a comprehensive rail system, the cost would be astronomical. Using Government Accountability Office costs for rail lines across the country:

  • A heavy rail system would cost close to $30 billion
  • A comprehensive light rail system would total $20 billion
  • A comprehensive commuter rail system would also total $20 billion because most existing Atlanta railroad lines need to be double-tracked to accommodate passenger trains.

Clearly, we do not have the resources to build a rail system.

By comparison, a comprehensive bus rapid transit (BRT) system with 20 lines and an expanded express bus system with 20 more lines could be developed for approximately $3 billion. One reason the cost is so much less is that buses and cars can share the running way infrastructure.

There are other advantages to the substantially lower capital costs:

  • More money can be spent on operations, reducing headways (or the time between buses). This flexibility would allow the system to provide better service during heavy demand (such as Braves’ games) and reduce wait times.
  • The entire network can be implemented over 10 years instead of the 60 years it would take to implement a rail network.
  • More money can be spent upgrading local bus service, Atlanta’s biggest transit weakness.

A comprehensive bus network would include four components: local bus service that serves all areas; limited-stop bus that provides enhanced service during rush hour and on busy streets; BRT with technology features to quickly transport people longer distances on surface streets, and express bus service to transport people longer distances on freeways.

BRT can take advantage of existing arterial lanes to offer high-quality service. Express bus operators can use the network of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) and express lanes to offer high-quality, reliable express service on freeways. The new express lanes on I-75 in Cobb and Henry counties and I-85 in DeKalb and Gwinnett counties provide free passage to transit vehicles. To help improve express bus service, GDOT has plans to increase the size of the express lane network.

To examine how a bus-based network would work in Atlanta, consider North Fulton County. Instead of a $3 billion heavy-rail MARTA expansion from North Springs to Windward Parkway with three new stops, take advantage of the already-planned express lanes on SR 400 to offer high quality express bus service. Direct bus service would connect Windward with the Perimeter area and offer attractive pedestrian-friendly stops at Holcomb Bridge Road, North Point Mall and the Windward Avenue station. Add peak rush hour service that offers direct connections to Buckhead, Midtown and Downtown. Add regional service serving Norcross and Dunwoody. Then add local service on North Point Parkway and Holcomb Bridge Road to connect those communities and businesses to the SR 400 express bus service.

Then consider: For the same $3 billion MARTA expansion, we could add this level of service through most of the metro area.

Neither express bus nor BRT service are new to the metro area; in fact, both enjoy substantial popularity. MARTA offers two BRT routes on Memorial Drive and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority offers 34 express bus routes.

BRT and express bus have other major advantages. Implementation is faster: The time to plan and implement a BRT line is typically half the time to plan and implement a rail line. A bus network can also offer better network connectivity because local bus service can more effectively feed limited-stop, express or BRT service. BRT is also more flexible: Routes can be moved as needed and service frequency can be more easily enhanced.

Bus and BRT service can also be more effective at spurring transit-oriented development. Several reports have found that per dollar of transit investment, and under similar conditions, BRT leverages more transit-oriented development investment than light rail transit. It makes sense: With fewer funds needed to build the system, more can be spent on development.

Baruch Feigenbaum is a transportation policy analyst at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s Forum