Much to the chagrin of Atlanta area commuters like me, Atlanta will be getting a new streetcar line rather than improving the capacity of the metro area’s roads. Officials from Atlanta and the US Department of Transportation this week announced the grant of $47 million in federal funds to build the streetcar line. The grant will be matched by $20 million in local money.
People who regularly drive into Atlanta realize that the city’s interstates clog quickly and easily during peak times. The worst traffic seems to be to the north and east of the city on I-85, I-75, and the roads in between such as I-575 and Georgia 400. Morning and afternoon traffic jams are a regular occurrence that can extend throughout the day and evening when traffic accidents or construction are present.
The traffic problem is compounded by the fact that Atlanta’s mass transit system, MARTA, is virtually nonexistent outside the I-285 perimeter. For commuters to use MARTA’s train and bus lines, they first have to negotiate the interstate traffic to get to the city itself. If it is necessary to drive several hours to get to a MARTA station, most commuters would reason that they might as well drive all the way to their destination rather than finding parking at a MARTA station, making a connection to mass transit, and then probably still having to walk to their destination from the MARTA stop.
For example, when I drive to downtown Atlanta, the nearest MARTA would cut only about fifteen minutes off of my drive time (not accounting for traffic). Then I have to leave my car in a bad neighborhood and wait (often at least fifteen minutes) for a MARTA train. It is much easier just to deal with the traffic and drive all the way.
The streetcar is very expensive with a total estimated cost of $72 million (not including the ongoing cost of operations). For that money, the city will get just over two and a half miles of track that runs east to west along Auburn Avenue, a tourist area. That is almost $27.7 million per mile. Estimated ridership is estimated at 2,330 per day and will be comprised heavily of tourists and Georgia State University students.
In contrast, one of the projects that received no DOT grant was a plan that could have helped commuters save time, energy, and oil by relieving traffic congestion. This would also reduce auto emissions and improve air quality. This plan involved adding toll lanes to I-75 and I-575 on the north side of Atlanta. The extra lanes would have added capacity for an estimated 34,000 vehicles. This extra capacity would have provided real value, saving both time and money, by helping to minimize the daily gridlock that plagues commuters.
Alternatively, the money could have been used to expand MARTA’s existing rail and bus lines into Atlanta’s suburbs where they could tie in with local bus service. This would allow Atlanta commuters to leave their autos at home saving gas, tolls, and parking fees as well as avoiding traffic. Such a move would also increase ridership on MARTA which would in turn help the organization’s ailing financial status.
If government officials were determined to provide transit service within the metro area, they could also have used the money to buy modern clean-fuel buses. These buses could be useful in a far greater area at a much lower cost. Service could vary since they would not be confined to a track. They could also be in service much sooner than the streetcar line’s estimated completion date of 2013.
With luck, the next governor and General Assembly will put together a sensible transportation plan for metro Atlanta that will help commuters find relief. Perhaps the next Congress will find a way to stop the waste of tax money on Atlanta’s undesired, unneeded street car.