EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: Emily Haney
Photo: Emily Haney

Opinion: Debate over transit priorities is a good thing

Supply and demand. It’s a basis of much of the hustle and bustle that powers economic activity.

We believe this underpinning of the private and public sectors also applies to funding and building transportation systems. Which makes the current debates important around just what to build, where and when. And, most importantly, how to pay for it with finite dollars.

We’d suggest that the current, scattered rumblings that planned transit projects in Atlanta will take far too long to build is actually a positive sign. This, even as we generally agree that the transit now crowd has a point. Criticism of the timetable might seem counterintuitive as a sign of progress, but it really shouldn’t as it shows latent demand for solutions that can effectively ease the gridlock that’s a way of life in metro Atlanta.

The congestion conversation’s most recent turn comes as feedback to details that are emerging about how the buildout of the More MARTA plan will proceed across coming decades. A big part of the worry expressed by transit advocates keys on the word “decades.” As in a good portion of the rail transit in the plan may not be rolling until the 2030s or 2040s.

By then, a couple million more people may have squeezed into metro Atlanta, significantly adding to the load factor on our current, inadequate transportation infrastructure.

All that and more seem behind the cries to move faster on More MARTA.

It’s appropriate to prod MARTA to move as urgently as possible in getting transit built as quickly as practicable. That’s a lot easier said than done, though. Punch-list items like environmental and other studies can devour years before construction equipment can begin rolling, to cite just one factor.

More importantly, money is perpetually an issue. When MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker garnered headlines earlier this year with a suggestion that a $100 billion “moonshot” was needed to truly make metro Atlanta’s mobility apparatus world-class, more than a few eyebrows shot upward. His broad point, though, was to get this region and state thinking bigger about the challenge before us.

It will take more than the jump-start of a transit sales tax approved by city voters in 2016 to haul this region where it needs to be. Gaining the next Amazon-like mega-project may well depend on our getting this work done well.

Which makes it a good thing, in our view, that the conversation and planning for future transportation needs has gained a higher profile regionally and at the Gold Dome in recent years.

More MARTA isn’t the only effort underway to begin reducing congestion. The state is now spending more than $1 billion annually long-needed road projects. Some of that spending is expected to help pave the way for a planned bus rapid transit (BRT) system using new toll lanes.

DeKalb County is working on a new transit plan. Even Gwinnett County is examining ways to bring a transportation proposal back to voters after a transit sales tax failed there in March.

These efforts are encouraging. And they seem to be pointing toward a Georgia-style solution to our congestion mess, such as stressing cheaper-to-build BRT lines. That cash-conscious focus will hopefully prove more palatable to voters in the future.

MARTA and other transit agencies, including new umbrella entity The ATL, should continue to be creative in looking at funding solutions, too. Public-private partnerships may have a place. And the federal government is still funding some transit projects too. San Francisco’s BART transit system received $300 million this month from the feds to boost heavy-rail capacity.

All in all, it’s encouraging that transportation improvements remain top of mind here in public conversation. We hope that leads to even more Atlanta-size projects sooner, not later.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

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