Opinion: MARTA: Playing hard outside M-B Stadium

Even as some worried it would fumble, MARTA largely stepped up well in handling Super Bowl crowds. The game’s end takes us back to working toward improving regional mobility.
Passengers arrive at the Georgia World Congress Center MARTA stop before the Super Bowl 53 football game between the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

Passengers arrive at the Georgia World Congress Center MARTA stop before the Super Bowl 53 football game between the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

MARTA’s turf was outside the playing field of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but it seems the agency played hard and well to help make Atlanta’s Super Bowl experience a positive one.

That post-game analysis is good news for a growing region that is now sprinting toward additional alternatives to move people and products around town. The largely upbeat assessment is likely a surprise for many who worried, or predicted, that MARTA would stumble in the hefty task of moving thousands of visitors to and from game activities.

A troubled run-up to Super Bowl weekend made it reasonable for MARTA skeptics to have doubts. A few weeks ago, a MARTA train derailed just outside Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport — ground-zero for many Super Bowl travelers. Restoring service took longer than many observers thoughts reasonable. MARTA’s bus service was also affected by intermittent sickouts by some drivers, apparently angry over union contract negotiations.

In the end, MARTA and its workers stepped up, offering 24-hour service to move travelers, many of whom were unfamiliar with the system. In an era when news of missteps, or mishaps, can travel the world instantaneously, metro Atlantans should be glad the backbone of our transit network brought its A-game to the task.

That success makes it much more palatable for the region to turn its attention back toward improving Atlanta’s mobility over the long haul. Even former naysayers have become convinced that transit has a larger role to play in reducing traffic congestion. This even while metro Atlanta continues to rapidly grow. This multivariate equation won’t be easy to solve, but our future success depends in good part on doing just that.

It will require a lot of innovation, backed by the action of political courage and allocating sufficient resources where they’re most needed.

Toward that end, MARTA’s General Manager and CEO Jeffrey A. Parker garnered attention last month by calling for $100 billion in transit and technology investment over the next 40 years.

It was an audacious ask, for sure, and it should be seen as being a conversation-starter for a metro area that rocketed into international acclaim by being audacious at the right junctures in history. We didn’t add a million people a decade for nearly half a century by being overly risk-averse, we believe.

No one, including MARTA’s Parker, thinks that $100 billion is easy to come by. A dollar spent on transit won’t be spent elsewhere. And fiscal prudence has often served Georgia well.

That said, a place proud of noting it’s the best locale in the nation to do business should appreciate that Parker’s broad point seems grounded in economic principles of supply and demand.

Metro Atlanta and Georgia are growing, ratcheting up mobility needs. Newcomers don’t expect unreasonable delays on travel for work and pleasure. Businesses need free-flowing roads to move product in this era of just-in-time logistics.

That demand will rise in lockstep with population. On the other side of the scale is supply, as in how well our transportation networks meet current and future needs.

Of late, this region, and state, have made some strong efforts to improve how we get around. This comes after years of underinvestment. A hard-won state fuel tax is now paying for needed road improvements. And the Gold Dome stepped up in a big way last year to create The Atlanta Transit Link Authority to facilitate transit improvements across the region. The state’s even put $100 million toward future bus rapid transit along Georgia 400.

All of these are noteworthy, but we believe Parker’s on to something in asserting that they’re not enough. Not for a region projected to grow by nearly 50 percent in coming decades – a rate outpacing all but two other U.S. metros, Parker noted in his State of MARTA address last month. That means demand for both more-open roads and better transit.

It would thus be a mistake to laugh off Parker’s “moonshot” as a public-sector pipe dream in a deeply conservative state. Traffic gridlock shows no political favoritism; it hinders workers and employers alike, wasting dollars, time and potentially profitable opportunities.

A pro-business state should understand competition. And it should worry us that slower-growing peer metros around the U.S. are making transit investments that dwarf ours. Parker’s address noted that Los Angeles has committed $120 billion for “transformative transit projects over the next 40 years.” Seattle will put more than $50 billion into transit over 25 years, he said.

Parker’s audacity should lead us to ask what the region’s next infrastructure funding steps should look like? Parker’s correct in that a mix of local, state, federal and private dollars would be needed.

Unsaid but implicit in Parker’s proposal is that an end-point may spend less than $100 billion — but it should also be more than is on the project books today.

The Atlanta region seems already on its way toward part of this future. Gwinnett County will take a landmark transit vote in March and Cobb County is also talking about transit.

To maximize a prosperous future that seems in the cards for this metro, we must be willing to dream and build aggressively toward it, we believe.