Transit: It’s About Scalability

image courtesy of MARTA

By Charlie Harper, Executive Director, PolicyBEST

On Monday, politics collided with epicenter of the sports world in Atlanta. The College Football Championship was played in Mercedes Benz Stadium. Just a few hours earlier and a few blocks down the street, the 2018 session of the Georgia General Assembly convened at the Capitol.

The backdrop provided an object lesson in one of the major issues legislators will grapple with this year: congestion relief in the face of rapid Atlanta regional growth. Conditions called for icing roads, and a Presidential motorcade was set to shut down one of Atlanta’s major interstates at the same time over one hundred thousand people were to assemble downtown. Many government offices and schools closed to minimize the impact of traffic on the slick roads with the increased influx of people.

MARTA, however, didn’t get the day off. Preliminary reports indicate that the rail stations that serve the stadium handled 20 times the number of passengers they would see on a normal Monday. Not 20% more. Twenty times more.

Even for a major sporting event, MARTA claims to have handled 30% more passengers Monday than at than this year’s other major events, including the more popular Falcons’ games and the SEC Championship. MARTA has demonstrated the ability to scale up operations to handle large influxes of passengers in a short amount of time.

This is possible because most people who wouldn’t think twice of getting in their cars to drive downtown understand the futility of doing so when too many others also will at the same time. The point is not that we need transit because we need to prepare for major sporting events. We’re good there.

Instead, think of this event and others like it as a one-day example of what the Atlanta region is facing over time. Georgia is growing at a rate which makes us the 4th fastest growing state in the country. We’re currently the 8th largest state, and on track to pass Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois to become the 5th most populous US state in the next 25 years.

We’re growing at a pace that is adding roughly 100,000 new Georgians per year, most of them concentrated in metro Atlanta. That’s 1 Million new Georgians per decade – about the time for a planning cycle to design, permit, and build a major transportation project.

The last major new limited access road project in the region was completed in 1993, which was the extension of Georgia 400 from I-285 to I-85. When the road was conceived in the early 80’s, The Atlanta Metro area was home to 2.6 million, and the entire state of Georgia had a population of less than 5.5 million people.

Today, Metro Atlanta has roughly 5.7 million residents. That’s more than double the number of people that lived here when our last significant new highway came online. Our population has scaled, but our roads have not.

In 2003, plans for a “Northern Arc” were shelved, ushering in an era where economic and political realities changed the perception of paving our way out of gridlock. The problems with solving congestion relief after density has been achieved are now represented by the letters NIMBY, as in “Not In My Back Yard”.

The result is that Georgia managed to avoid making tough transportation decisions for over a decade, and avoid significantly altering the metro areas transportation network for a generation. In 2015, the Georgia General Assembly stepped up with additional funding via HB 170. Much of this money was earmarked to catch up with repaving projects and bridge replacements, but GDOT has also been able to prioritize planned interchange upgrades throughout the region, as well as implement new lane miles via tolls.

The General Assembly also made available significant infrastructure grants to transit systems throughout the state. It wasn’t a transformative amount, but it placed a marker for the future. The state understands that more than half its population now lives in a region that is growing increasingly gridlocked. New roads are politically improbably and cost prohibitive. New solutions must be sought.

“Transit” is not a predetermined alternative solution. It doesn’t necessarily mean MARTA, though as the state’s largest transit agency they will certainly be part of the discussion, as will GRTA, SRTA, CCT, Gwinnett Transit, and a myriad of other agencies with acronyms.

Transit also doesn’t exclusively mean trains or busses. It could be Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). It could even be monorails, though that’s really more of a Shelbyville idea.

To move forward with transit solutions, the first step is to understand that transit is not an enemy of cars or roads. If the goal is ease of mobility and connectivity, then we must have a transportation network of complementary modes of transportation.

That’s the first part in resetting the conversation on transit. This isn’t about getting rid of cars. This isn’t about forcing predetermined solutions or agencies on communities that won’t support them. This is about figuring how to maintain mobility and quality of life in a region that has doubled in size since we last seriously considered the question, and will add that many more residents before we can complete another.

Let’s keep the conversation going, constructively.