But the potential rewards from tapping into genuine public enthusiasm for serious improvements in the region’s public transportation are great. They are hardly limited to the most visible tourist-related investments, such as the downscaled downtown streetcar project. And the benefits are certainly not confined to the injection of additional short-run economic activity during the construction phases of such projects.
Recent research done by urban planning scholars Daniel Chatman and Robert Noland concludes there are hidden but very tangible “agglomeration” economic benefits of expanded public transit service. These can be in the tens of millions of dollars per year, depending on city size, the magnitude of traffic congestion, and the degree of existing transit network capacity. There is also large academic literature regarding the “spatial-mismatch” between residential and job location that suggests significant benefits from expanded transportation options.
There is hope that the plans of new leadership at MARTA, and further state legislative cooperation with flexible use of funding, can reverse the trends in fare hikes and service cuts. Given the tortured history of suspicion, demography and race, and limited imagination regarding public transportation, one can only hope that the ARC survey results do reflect genuine support for expanding our transit options, and that regional leaders can turn those vague sentiments into concrete resource commitments.
Bruce A. Seaman is associate professor of economics in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.