Opinion: Getting Atlanta’s new transit right

A new day for Atlanta transit has arrived, and with new leadership at city hall, the city has the opportunity to reconsider its transit direction to date. Fumbling along with the Beltline as its narrowly focused de facto transit planner and its mostly empty downtown streetcar as its only on-the-ground transit accomplishment, it’s time to get real.

A transit system is about connections between concentrations of origins and destinations – where people are and where they’re trying to get, in which coverage area and frequency of service are the most important factors in boosting ridership. Without ridership, transit becomes infeasible. Only after that kind of analysis does it become useful to consider what mix of transit modes best serves the system, evolving over time from right now on into the future. What do we need, who needs it most, and when do we need it? These questions must include consideration of fast-changing travel behaviors and technologies, like bike/pedestrian, Lyft and Uber, and autonomous vehicles. As part of that analysis, it is essential to consider cost and time of delivery. How are we going to pay for different modes, and how long does it take to deliver them?

Instead, somehow untethered from reality, our silly transit debate for years has been about streetcars versus bus modes, not about a multimodal system that provides transit for all our citizens. And, by the way, streetcars cost in the range of five times what bus rapid transit costs, a fact that affects both getting the money and the time it takes to deliver projects.

The city’s transit plan, prepared by the Beltline, serves at best only a quarter of the city’s area, and thus is on its face not feasible for lack of coverage. That plan, furthermore, calls for about 50 miles of streetcars, which, at about $100 million per mile, would cost in the range of $5 billion in today’s dollars and would take decades to implement. Understanding these points explains why no Beltline transit has happened over the life of its Tax Allocation District, now 13 years on.

The city should use this moment to close the widening gap between reality and fantasy in its transit planning. It should start by addressing the questions posed above and proceed in close collaboration with MARTA, whose recently released project report appears to align pretty well with transit planning best practices. In that context, though, probably only two rail projects in the city make sense. First, extending the downtown light rail to Ponce, thus boosting ridership by connecting high concentrations of jobs and housing, might make the forlorn streetcar become a good idea after all. With luck, this project could be completed in five years for about $150 million. Second, linking Lindbergh MARTA to the underserved Emory/CDC area, whether by rail or BRT, could solve the region’s most serious access problem. Again, high concentrations of destinations and origins would guarantee high ridership and ease the area’s present vulnerability to access disasters, like the I-85 shutdown.

Other pieces of the Beltline’s streetcar fantasies won’t happen and should be scrapped, considering instead enhanced bus service for routes that serve needs and boost ridership. City leadership should step up and redirect its Beltline agency, which the city has allowed to become a kind of “alternate city” within the city, to carry out its co-equal tasks of building affordable housing and completing its trail system, projects that can actually get done. The city’s new transportation plan, still in draft, carries this gentle admonition: “spend less money on things that are proven not to work.”

Mike Dobbins is a professor of practice in the School of City and Regional Planning at Georgia Tech.