For me, transit is something akin to a religious experience. Stepping onto a train immediately elicits a sense of calm because I know I can relax and that I will get to where I’m going in the same amount of time I always do. I can sit down (usually), listen to music, read a book, or get a head start on the workday. Being on the train makes me feel closer to the city and its people, a feeling that is hard to replicate elsewhere.
In October 2019, I shared the MARTA train with nearly 342,000 passengers per day on average, the last month for which data is available. I wouldn’t presume that all of those riders share my passion for public transportation, but it makes as much of a difference in their lives as it does mine. For people who can’t afford cars, for people with mobility issues, for people who want to be better stewards of the environment, and for people who just want to avoid traffic, MARTA has made it easier to get from home to work and back again.
Avoiding traffic is an increasingly pressing problem in Atlanta. Atlanta ranks as one of the worst cities for traffic in the country, coming in at number 11. That equates to 108 hours and $1,500 lost in congestion per year for each driver, working out to $3.5 billion in cost to the city. That’s billion. With a “B.” The Atlanta metro region is projected to grow by another 2.5 million people by 2040 and without drastic action, those numbers will only get worse.
State leaders have decided the solution to the problem is adding more Interstate lanes, such as a $4.6 billion project to expand the top end of I-285 with another four lanes. However, study after study has shown that adding lanes does nothing to mitigate traffic problems, and in some cases, may even worsen traffic. This is due to something called “induced demand,” which means that new traffic is a direct result of new capacity.
In other words, adding more lanes doesn’t work. The only thing that will improve traffic and the lives of Georgia’s millions of commuters is adding more public transportation. There is no shortage of good, effective ideas out there – heavy rail, light rail, and bus rapid transit all provide different solutions to different areas, depending on population density and local geography. That $4.6 billion that Georgia is spending on I-285 could pay for, by the most conservative estimates, 16 miles of heavy rail, 37 miles of light rail, or just over 100 miles of bus rapid transit. It’s not a question of if we have the money – it’s a question of how we spend it.
And transit funding should not be limited to the Atlanta metro region either. As a whole, Georgia ranks 37th in state spending on transit per capita and 45th in spending per transit trip. If we increased total investment in our public transportation systems, we could look at solutions which could revitalize our rural areas that have suffered the most over the last decade by linking them to urban centers. That would create access to jobs, incentivize investment, and increase economic mobility.
As we begin the 2020 legislative session, I would encourage state lawmakers to more closely examine how we address our transportation challenges and how we spend our money. Encouragingly, legislators have at least acknowledged the need for innovative transit solutions in recent years. In 2018, then-Governor Nathan Deal signed into law HB 930, which created a new board to coordinate transit funding and planning throughout Atlanta. Most importantly, it paved the way (no pun intended) to generate revenue for new projects through voter-approved sales taxes. Only one of the 13 included counties, Gwinnett, has attempted to pass such a sales tax, which failed in a controversial, low-turnout special election in March 2019. As a result, the provision could be on the ballot again as soon as this year, which would provide a better indication of the region’s appetite for transit.
A bill introduced last year, HB 511, would have created a dedicated source of funding for transit, adding $30 to $60 million for transportation subsidies, tax credits, and other unspecified programs. As noted by the AJC, this is a pittance compared to MARTA’s yearly operating budget of $981.5 million per year, but it is a start. It stalled in the Senate but will almost certainly be discussed again this year.
The first step to addressing a problem is acknowledging that we have one. Now that we’ve done that, we must take brisk, bold steps to addressing the myriad of transportation problems that plague our state. That will require innovation, leadership, and most importantly, investment. If we act now, we can transform our state for the better.
No one will miss the traffic.
Jeremiah Olney is a lifelong Georgian and Democratic strategist with Paramount Consulting Group. You can follow him on Twitter @JeremiahOlney