Confessions of a rail skeptic

As I reflect upon all the recent rail-transit articles and editorials, it strikes me that we have a fundamental “chicken-and-egg” challenge: One has to pay for major infrastructure projects immediately, but the benefits do not pay off for a very long time.

Historically, I have been negative on rail transit, partly from growing up in and around the automotive industry. That’s also due to the huge investment and long time rail projects need to be competed, and the faith it takes to believe the benefits ever will occur.

But recent wins for the region in recruiting new corporations, and the reasons those companies list for choosing their sites including proximity to MARTA rail, have resulted in me becoming a supporter of heavy rail transit on dedicated rights of way not subject to our world-famous vehicle traffic impediments.

The additional challenge we face in metro Atlanta — as for any large, existing metro area that does not have preexisting heavy rail transit — is that no matter where new routes or stations are located, they are within walking distance of a very low percentage of the population. Yet we need the votes of over half the population to secure the funding.

As a child, I lived three 6-month stints in Stockholm and Oslo. Then and now, if you ride their phenomenally convenient rail transit, the sprawl that streams past does not look any different from U.S. metro areas like Atlanta.

But after you have lived there and walked the streets to and from the stations and looked at the area on maps or GoogleEarth, you can see heavy rail transit came first to largely open land. Then, development grew out in concentric rings from each station until over a long time, the space between them was filled. Thus, everyone is within a European’s perception of walking distance to a station — up to a mile, but generally less.

Of course, it is too late to get ahead of sprawl in Atlanta and most U.S. metro areas. But the recent wins in the Sandy Springs/Dunwoody area and near other MARTA stations are examples of further infill and densification within our low-density sprawl, with a MARTA station as the central node of each blossoming area. The same can happen on the proposed lines toward Stone Mountain and Alpharetta, and likewise into the long-overdue Cobb and Gwinnett counties.

But it is a bet on the Atlanta region that must be paid for by the taxpayers of today for benefits that will not fully come to fruition for another 25 to 50 years. While manywho pay now will never see the benefit, it absolutely needs to happen for the long run. And for it to bear fruit, it absolutely must start now. How do we get the votes? Are we collectively altruistic enough to pay for it? I hope so.

Jon T. Gabrielsen, a Smyrna resident, is president and CEO of J.T. Gabrielsen Consulting.

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