Not only is BRT quicker to implement than rail, it costs considerably less. MARTA took four years to build a two-mile extension to Sandy Springs (North Springs Station) from Dunwoody. Projected in 1999 to cost $381.3 million, it had cost $463.2 million when it opened in 2000.
The cost to extend heavy rail 12 miles up SR 400 from North Springs has been estimated at $2.2 billion to $2.4 billion. MARTA assumes a cost of $250 million per mile for heavy rail and $15 million per mile for freeway BRT.
Cost-effectiveness is a crucial consideration in low-density Atlanta: Transit dollars must go further to meet the needs of more people among the cobweb of destinations across the sprawling region.
BRT also offers flexibility. Traditional rail is most effective in densely populated areas. Transit use in metro Atlanta is already declining, competing with ride-share companies, taxis and telework. Instead of locking the region into a decades-long, costly romance with rail even as the rate of use drops, BRT enables policymakers to anticipate and quickly accommodate the fast-changing landscape in technology, travel and transit.
Further, piggybacking transit onto the growing toll network allows for the creation of a comprehensive regional transit network, serving more people, providing seamless travel far quicker and cheaper than building rail, and reducing dependence on taxpayer largesse to fund and maintain it.
Sharing the toll lanes makes logistical sense. Bob Poole, transportation analyst with the Reason Foundation, has noted how an exclusive BRT right of way “sounds pretty good until you think about how little those exclusive lanes would actually be used.”
Citing Connecticut’s (then-proposed) Hartford-to-New Britain busway, Poole pointed out in 2011 that even in peak usage, with buses three minutes apart, just 20 buses per hour would use the 9.4-mile route. Considering that a single lane of highway can handle about 1,600 vehicles per hour without congestion, an exclusive BRT lane wastes capacity. Even better, motorists opting to pay to use those toll lanes are, in essence, helping “paving the way” for BRT passengers to ride free.
If the governor’s plan takes place as envisioned, it’s the best of all worlds: a tool for transit in metro Atlanta that accommodates the widest need at the lowest cost to Georgia and taxpayers, and one that can quickly be adapted or discarded if it doesn’t.
Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation