Skeptical of South Atlanta Commuter Rail Project

Nice to see rail skeptics get some ink:

For months, the taxpayers of Clayton and Henry counties and other Southside communities have been reading about the debate over construction of a 26-mile commuter rail line from downtown Atlanta to Lovejoy. Residents keep hearing elected representatives and business leaders tell them the train will be a panacea for congestion while we sit in endless traffic just trying to get around our cities and counties. They believe they know our lifestyles, habits and bank accounts and assume we will abandon our cars to pay $11 for a round-trip daily commute to downtown Atlanta. As a business owner who has worked in Jonesboro for 27 years and lived in Henry County even longer, I can say that residents here are sick and tired of being told by their elected officials what is best for them. We want a voice in the decision. . . . . If there really is such overwhelming support for such a rail service to Atlanta, then why not hold a referendum in each county where the rail line will travel? Local taxpayers will be expected to kick in a minimum of $4 million annually to help pay for rail operations. But that’s only for the first few years. After that, no one really knows how much it will cost local taxpayers. . . . . Our elected officials should lobby the state to find ways to use commuter rail funds for other projects, such as adding lanes, installing turn signals or synchronizing traffic lights on highways such as Tara Boulevard. Experts say past behavior is indicative of future behavior, and the Atlanta Regional Commission projects that 25 years from now, 96 percent of us will still drive. Many of us believe it is a waste to spend $106 million on a project that only 800 to 1,500 people a day will use while thousands of us are stuck in traffic on local roads. When the state transportation board votes on the commuter rail line this week, I hope it considers what the people want and gives us a say in the matter. Neither the state, our local congressman, county commission nor the city council should have the right to commit other people’s money without a vote of the people.

Sounds perfectly reasonable to me, particularly given the high probability that the $4 million cost is a lowball figure. Predictably, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution takes a different view:

After more than a decade of thoughtful study (followed by months of mindless stalling), the board is expected to vote Thursday on a proposed commuter rail line between downtown Atlanta and the Clayton County town of Lovejoy. The project, which would be the first of its kind in the state, should easily merit the board’s endorsement. The 26-mile line is expected to siphon hundreds of cars every day from I-75 and other heavily congested traffic corridors in the fast-growing counties south of Atlanta. Initially, service would also include stops in East Point, Forest Park, Morrow and Jonesboro. If the service is successful, and there’s strong evidence to support that assumption, it could be extended farther south to Macon. About $106 million in federal, state and local funding has been earmarked for the project. That includes money to build and operate the rail service for the first three years and for the construction of a modest passenger depot near downtown’s Five Points. When that money runs out, however, the local communities served by the line must commit to defraying the projected $4 million annual cost to keep it running. Showing considerable foresight and political courage, the Clayton County Commission is forging agreements with its local communities to cover the line’s operating shortfalls. But critics are desperately trying to derail the project at the eleventh hour by complaining that the public should not be burdened with the costs of subsidizing it.

This last bit is so typical and frustrating — are the merits of this particular rail proposal so blindingly apparent that it is ludicrous to even question it? Doesn’t it make sense to question why the 95% of the public that won’t use it should be saddled with the costs to cover the transit usage of the other 5%? And about the “strong evidence to support the assumption” of success — is removing a couple hundred cars a day from a volume of tens of thousands some sort of stunning achievement? Sounds to me like the critics are rightfully skeptical.

As the population of metro Atlanta and other parts of the state continues to swell, simply building more roads, which inevitably creates more congestion and air pollution, is no longer a sensible approach to transportation policy. The DOT board members have an opportunity to begin improving the wretched state of affairs on our roads and highways by supporting the Atlanta-to-Lovejoy rail line. Gridlock-weary Georgians will surely be watching.

Nonsense. Joel Schwartz handily shredded the induced demand/congestion/air pollution canard in a piece last year. It’s just a shame that urban newspapers have become so infatuated with boondoggle transit projects that they have a knee-jerk predisposal for endorsing them. This certainly influences a lot of readers who don’t have a lot of access to alternative venues for local information. However, I will give the AJC credit for running Ms. Coffman’s rebuttal alongside their endorsement.