Clayton County Georgia Benefits from Transit Service, but Joining MARTA not Best Option

After voters in Clayton County, GA voted to join the Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transportation Authority (MARTA), pundits were predicting MARTA’s expansion to future counties and a rail revival in metro Atlanta. But before purchasing stock in rail equipment, rail advocates need to dial down their euphoria and board the logic train.

As we discussed yesterday, residents of Clayton County, GA voted to join MARTA out of desperation for local bus service. Half of the sales tax proceeds will be set aside for local bus service. The other half will be set aside for high quality transit service. However, such service is much more likely to be bus rapid transit and expanded rapid bus than any type of rail.

While some advocates hope that “high-quality transit” is commuter rail transit (CRT), CRT has several disadvantages. First, commuter rail is more expensive. It requires track space that would have to be leased for significant cost from Norfolk Southern. Passenger stations would also have to be built along the corridor. Second, its location is by nature fixed so service cannot be changed in response to emerging development patterns.

Third, commuter rail is designed to transport people from the suburbs to the central city, in this case Atlanta. But most Atlanta jobs are located outside of downtown. Using commuter rail to access job centers such as Buckhead, Decatur or Perimeter would require connecting to a MARTA heavy-rail line. But with no multimodal center and plans for such a center scrapped, there is no place to transfer. Commuters could take commuter rail to the train station near the I-75/I-85 Brookwood interchange, transfer to a bus to the Arts Center Station and transfer again a heavy rail train. They might need to transfer again from the heavy rail train to a circulator bus. But most commuters will not transfer more than once. And this does not count the other job centers including Cumberland, Alpharetta and Gwinnett that are unlikely ever to have heavy rail service. Further, commuter rail does little to improve transit service within Clayton County. The county struggles, in part, because there are few high-quality jobs located in the county. Pursuing an economic development strategy that locates jobs in the county and developing a transit system that connects homes with jobs is a better use of funding.

But the biggest reason why commuter rail is unlikely in Clayton County is the rail corridor itself. The Norfolk Southern line is one of the busiest freight rail lines in the state of Georgia. And as the state’s population increases, the cargo volume of the Port of Savannah increases. The result is a more traveled rail line with insufficient capacity. There is not sufficient capacity on the line for both types of trains. And shoe horning trains in will not work because passenger rail travels at speeds (40-60 miles per hour) much faster than freight rail (10-30 miles per hour). The number of trains will be limited and the trains will face delays since freight trains are likely to have first use of the track most of the day. Operating rail service in such a heavy freight corridor will lead to substantial delays for passenger service reducing its popularity and increasing its costs. Further, Norfolk Southern will have to agree to such service and the company is less likely to do so given the popularity of the track. And a private company is not and should not be subject to government demands on its assets. Double-tracking the line would fix the problem. But due to right of way limitations, tracks likely will have to be added vertically, an unrealistic solution.

Even without the challenges of the Clayton rail track, BRT/Regional bus has many advantages over Commuter Rail. The first is cost. Constructing and operating BRT service costs less than making the needed improvements for a commuter rail line. The time to implement and plan a BRT line (2-4 years) is typically half the time to plan and study service on a rail line (7 years or more). BRT offers greater network flexibility as it easily ties in with existing local bus to create easier connections. BRT is also more flexible. County development patterns change over time and while eliminating a line is unlikely, transit providers could adjust headways (time between transit vehicles) based on changes in travel and development patterns.

Another major benefit of BRT is its positive effect on transit-oriented development (TOD). While BRT typically spurs development, commuter rail seldom does. While outside factors such as the strength of the land market are important, (and due to Clayton’s County’s low property values potential TOD sites are limited), BRT creates more investment and can be integrated into the land-use development pattern in a way that commuter rail cannot. The two cities with the most TOD development per transit dollar were both BRT lines-the Cleveland HealthLine at $115 and the Kansas City MAX line at $102.

While some advocates hope that Clayton forsakes CRT for HRT or LRT, that is even more unlikely. HRT and LRT would require new track making them even more expensive than commuter rail. The Atlanta region’s land use pattern makes HRT and LRT unrealistic in Clayton County until land uses change significantly which is unlikely over the next 30 years. To their credit, the county and MARTA are not even considering HRT or LRT.