By Benita M. Dodd
A Georgia Senate committee heard this week from proponents and foes of a sales tax increase to fund public transportation projects including an 11.9-mile MARTA heavy rail expansion up Georgia 400. Witnesses represented developers, environmentalists, Millennials, elected officials and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
The Foundation’s Senior Fellow Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation analyst with the Reason Foundation and an affected metro Atlanta resident, testified that, “for one MARTA heavy-rail expansion we could provide 20 high quality bus rapid transit expansions.”
Transit activists frequently portray the Georgia Public Policy Foundation as “anti-transit” because our experts consistently rail against rail in metro Atlanta – heavy, light and commuter rail as well as streetcars. The “anti-transit” label is disingenuous. Transit is necessary, but the reasons to oppose rail are as clear as day: The region lacks the population density, hub-and-spoke workforce travel and funding for it. Unlike New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., the percentage of suburban workers traveling to downtown Atlanta is low. And unlike those areas, metro Atlanta, has earned its nickname as “poster child for sprawl” with the lowest density in the nation.
Further, transit agencies routinely overstate their ridership numbers when they try to get federal funding. The Transportation Fact Book, released just last week by the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), provides an example: The federal government was told that MARTA’s last rail expansion, completed in 2000, would add 33,000 riders per day by 2005. But the new ARC Fact Book reports current ridership of less than one third of that number. Worse, those numbers are from the North line expansion, starting point of the 11.9-mile plan for which proponents are seeking a 40-year sales tax.
In 2012, the Foundation was maligned for opposing the metro Atlanta project list in the regional transportation sales tax referendum. Told there was no “Plan B,” the Foundation came up with one. It included enhancing arterial roads, $100 million in state funding for mass transit and a comprehensive toll lane network that buses could use for a “virtual” bus rapid transit/express bus network.
Even then, our plan did not anticipate the ride-sharing economy that would follow. American ingenuity continually provides better, more cost-effective options in transportation policy. If only government would step aside, Americans would prove you need not “build your way out of congestion.”
Two reasons cited for rail transit are aging Georgians and Millennials who forgo cars. But for millennial workers, telecommuting is the most popular alternative mode; they no longer need to leave home even for groceries. Seniors are unlikely to take the train for their needs, either. They’ll opt for Uber, Lyft, Zip Cars, taxis and other private, on-demand, door-to-door, ride-sharing options and home deliveries. Private inter-city coaches such as MegaBus are far more popular, luxurious and timely than what was once the only option, Greyhound.
Technology facilitates traffic and trips for commutes and transit. Intelligent transportation systems offer overhead, real-time traffic information and traffic-signal adjustments. Traffic apps like Waze and Google Maps describe delays and offer detours and trip times. “Next-bus” apps provide arrival time alerts so waiting passengers stay informed.
Every day heralds another breakthrough in autonomous vehicles, which are expected to reduce wrecks 90 percent while increasing road capacity: When driver error is eliminated, vehicles can travel closer together, improving mobility. Unfortunately, overzealous regulators and legislators could stifle advances, the Competitive Enterprise Institute warned recently.
The most exciting development for transit, however, is the express toll lane network taking shape across the metro area under the auspices of the state Department of Transportation. Instead of the high cost of rail and this long-term commitment in an era of rapidly changing technology, bus travel will be expedited on toll lanes that provide a guaranteed trip time, making transit a more attractive, metrowide option that will take far more people, including low-income workers, far closer to their homes than a single, multi-billion-dollar rail line would.
Georgia policymakers understand that agitating for costly trains and other fixed-rail options into the suburbs is not sound transportation policy. The question should be how to get travelers from Point A to Point B as quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. That light at the end of the tunnel is Georgia’s future, and it shouldn’t be blocked by the train.
Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.