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  1. SUNDAY, MAY 5, 2013 THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION Filename: A19-MAIN-AJCD0505-3THRE Date/Time created: May 4 2013 7:12:07:590PM Username: SPEEDDRIVER10…
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  • 1. SUNDAY, MAY 5, 2013 THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION Filename: A19-MAIN-AJCD0505-3THRE Date/Time created: May 4 2013 7:12:07:590PM Username: SPEEDDRIVER10 Sunday, May 05, 2013 MAIN 19A3DOT19ACyan Magenta Yellow Black 19ACyan Magenta Yellow Black 3DOT File name: A19-MAIN-AJCD0505-3THRE Date/Time created: May 4 2013 7:12:07:590PM Username: SPEEDDRIVER10 CREDIBLE. COMPELLING. COMPLETE. A193 ||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||| About this page Theeditorialpage offers the AJC editorial board’s insight and opinion on issues important to ourcommunity.It’s a keypart ofourforumwhere different viewpoints are represented. Theboard’smissionis to be a catalyst fordiscussion and solutions-oriented community action to betterboth theAtlanta area and Georgia. Whiletheeditorialboardwill offeropinions each Sunday,we recognize the importance of balance and ofshowcasing other views.Lookforthem on this page. Ourintent is to giveyou more than just ourviewpoint on eachweek’s topic —with itwill come awide varietyofinformation to helpyou make the best possible decisions. Building on this newspaper’s legacyofleadership in the region, we launchedAtlanta Forward in 2009 to tackle the major issues facing ourcommunity as the economyrecovers.This designation identifies these reports and community-wide discussions. Atlanta Forward “Askyourselfonequestion.‘Isitright?’Thendowhatyoubelieveisbestforyourtown, yourstateandyourcountry.”—JamesM.Cox,founder,CoxEnterprises EDITORIAL BOARD AmyGlennon,Publisher KevinRiley,Editor BertRoughtonJr.,Managing Editorand SeniorEditorial Director AndreJackson,Editorial Editor The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Editorial SUNDAY ISSUE: EASING YOUR COMMUTE Nine months after the T- SPLOST’s defeat, the Atlanta region is still grappling for a doable “Plan B” to begin reducing the traffic congestion that affects us all. Some counties are starting to talk about ways to work together on smaller-scale transportation improvements. Meanwhile, voters remain leery of big, costly solutions, yet indicate a willingness to pay for solutions they think will work. It’s imperative that civic de- bate continue around conges- tion relief strategies. One idea that should remain in the con- versation has been embraced in most other Atlanta-class cit- ies: commuter rail. It’s a con- cept that’s long been on public planners’ radar here. Yet the idea vanished from public dis- cussion several years ago, ap- parently being short of both political backing and actual funding. As this metro area looks to- ward future solutions, the con- cept deserves continued explo- ration. This is not to say com- muter rail is the magic fix for all of the region’s traffic woes; but we ought to at least consid- er it for our toolbox. What is commuter rail? It’s not MARTA, nor is it light rail; it’s conventional passen- ger trains, pulled by diesel lo- comotives, operating on ex- isting railroads. Commuter trains are familiar in older cit- ies like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, and are becom- ing increasingly so in plac- es that have introduced them in recent years, like Nashville, Minneapolis and Dallas-Fort Worth. “Of the nation’s 13 most pop- ulous metropolitan statistical areas (Atlanta is the ninth), 10 have a commuter rail system,” according to the introduction to the 2007 R.L. Banks and As- sociates study for the Metro At- lanta Chamber, Georgia De- partment of Transportation and Transit Planning Board. The broad commuter rail plan here envisioned seven commuter lines totaling 429 miles serving 55 communi- ties, and projected more than 40,000 passenger boardings a day (see map). That works out to about 20,000 people a day. The Georgia Regional Transporta- tion Authority’s Xpress com- muter bus system, by compar- ison, carries 9,000 daily riders on 33 routes and is touted for removing many drivers from area roads. The commuter rail plan es- timated capital cost for rolling stock and line improvements would be upward of $2 billion in 2007 dollars — unadjusted for inflation, granted, but still less than a third of what the T- SPLOST would have cost. Com- muter rail is cheaper than con- structing new, dedicated, MAR- TA-like lines because it uses ex- isting infrastructure. Even if the idea caught on here, it’s unlikely the entire rail system would be built at once. Service could begin on a sin- gle route to test the concept. If that line proved successful, trains could roll out on oth- ers as funding and local pub- lic support warranted. That’s the approach that surfaced here two years ago. During the T-SPLOST debate, state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, backed a 30-mile commuter rail line from Atlanta to Acworth that he estimated could be start- ed for “considerably less than $100 million,” compared with $856 million for a proposed 8- mile light-rail line from Mid- town to Cumberland Mall. Even given today’s tax-leery political landscape, the public may now be more receptive. A recent poll commissioned by The Atlanta Journal-Constitu- tion found nearly two-thirds of respondents were willing to pay a new fee or tax to cre- ate well-designed public tran- sit; more than two-thirds in Cobb and Gwinnett counties supported expanding train ser- vice beyond Fulton and DeKalb counties. If they’re willing to consider allowing commuter trains, the region’s major freight railroads, CSX Transportation and Nor- folk Southern, would need to be compensated for track and sig- nal improvements. The upside for them would be enhanced capacity for freight trains, a pressing need today that’s ex- pected to become even more so as traffic builds at the Port of Savannah and needs to move across the country. It should go without saying that if commuter rail is to have a chance, support must start with citizens and work upward through their mayors, coun- ty commissioners and business chambers. The process should be deliberate, inclusive and, yes, conservative: one city and one county at a time. That’s a lesson T-SPLOST taught us. Commuter rail may hold promise in bridging the dis- tance between in-city transit systems like MARTA and our far-flung suburbs. If the Atlan- ta region still has aspirations of being a global 21st-century city, we may want to include com- muter rail in the discussion about our transportation fu- ture. Many of our competitors are already there. David Ibata,forthe Editorial Board. Commuter rail merits study A different kind of transit may help us bridge the distance between in-city transit systems like MARTA and our more remote suburbs. And much of its infrastructure already exists. THE EDITORIAL BOARD’S OPINION Atlanta Canton 43 miles Bremen 52 miles Seven lines would total 429 miles, serve 55 communities and see more than 40,000 passenger boardings a day. Gainesville 53 miles Senoia 38 miles Madison 68 miles Athens 72 miles Macon 103 miles 19 85 85 285 75 75 20 20 Commuter rail plan 985 575 LINDA SCOTT / STAFF Source: Georgia Department of Transportation BIBB CO. MORGAN CO. ATHENS- CLARKE CO. HALL CO. CHEROKEE CO. HARALSON CO. COWETA CO. Stationstop How Nashville got aboard with trains ByPaulJ.Ballard Where is the only commut- er railroad between Chicago and Miami? Surely it must be a city the size of Charlotte, which has light rail, or Atlanta, which al- ready has heavy rail in its sub- way. The answer, surprising to some, is Nashville, where the Music City Star has operat- ed along the 31 miles between Nashville and Lebanon, Tenn., since 2006. The Star was the least costly construction proj- ect of its kind in modern U.S. history. It was built for $41 mil- lion, combining federal, state and local funds. Leaders from seven Mid- dle Tennessee counties that formed the Regional Trans- portation Authority came to- gether to improve the area’s development, environment and quality of life with a proj- ect that seemed alternately challenging or just plain im- possible. Ridership on the Star be- gan with 500 rider-trips per day but steadily increased each year to the present aver- age of 1,000 to 1,100 daily rid- er-trips. The passengers are al- most exclusively people who had never used public tran- sit in any form, a close-knit group so loyal to the Star that they will never willingly plow through the daily commute by car again. While these transit consum- ers understand what we mean by “quality of life,” the term does not impress skeptics. They want to know if com- muter rail will pay for itself. Of course it won’t: No pub- lic transit system in the world pays for itself. Transit is a key to development benefiting the whole community, however. Regional economic devel- opment was a primary stimu- lus for building the Music City Star, and now that planning is paying off. A prominent devel- oper has forsaken building sin- gle-family homes on large lots and is instead constructing Hamilton Springs, a mixed-use transit-oriented development along both sides of the train tracks in Lebanon. It features a platform stop for the Star. This is the kind of fore- sight that allowed Nashville to build commuter rail in the first place. Support from the Chamber of Commerce has been crucial to the Star. The most active business lead- ers in Middle Tennessee have formed a Transit Alliance to promote public transportation funding. Championed from in- ception by Nashville’s May- or Karl Dean, the Middle Ten- nessee Mayors’ Caucus has put public transit funding first in its list of priorities. With strong regional cooperation, we hope to expand commuter rail to Clarksville, Tenn. The Music City Star has be- come an important part of a public transportation network that currently provides almost 11 million passenger trips an- nually. Middle Tennessee is an inviting, vibrant and economi- cally healthy region expecting 1 million new residents over the next 20 years. They’ll need commuter rail when they get here. This column is based on a presentation by Ballard at the North Carolina Railroad Conference on March 6 in Raleigh. ANOTHER VIEW Paul J. Ballard is CEO of the Nashville MTA and Regional Transportation Authority. Commuter rail costs too much, does little ByWendellCox The fiscal challenges facing metropolitan Atlanta and the nation are clear. Tax funding needs to be as prudently spent as money in a household bud- get. The proposed commuter rail system would be a classic example of the opposite. The proposed commuter rail plan would add virtually noth- ing to the metropolitan econ- omy, and would do so at great cost. Seven lines would con- verge on downtown Atlan- ta. Travel times would not be quick. Macon line commuters would spend up to 4 hours 20 minutes on the train, and Ath- ens line commuters up to 3½ hours each day. The Senoia line would have the shortest max- imum commute time, at near- ly two hours. In a metropoli- tan area where round-trip com- muting averages one hour com- muting each day, so few riders would be attracted that there would be no reduction in traffic congestion. A report for the Metro Atlan- ta Chamber of Commerce in 2007 indicated that of the re- gion’s nearly 2.5 million com- muters, barely 20,000 people (projected ridership was about 40,000 daily boardings) would ride the trains each day. Updat- ing the cost estimates to 2011 dollars and applying federal discounting standards, the total annual subsidy would be more than $13,000 per rider, assum- ing a very optimistic 40 percent of the operating costs would be paid by passenger fares. The average Atlanta area house- hold spends about this much on housing each year. The tax- payer subsidy could be even higher if the typical cost over- run and overly optimistic pa- tronage projections document- ed by the leading international research were to occur. The At- lanta region has opened more high-capacity rapid transit (MARTA) over the past 35 years than any metropolitan area be- sides Washington, D.C. Yet, on- ly 3 percent of the region’s com- muters use transit, and most of them use buses. This is not be- cause transit is undesirable. It is rather because transit does not and cannot go where people need to go in a time that is com- petitive with the automobile. Transit’s commuting impact is largely limited to downtown, which with Midtown is less than 10 percent of employment in the metropolitan area. Less than 4 percent of the metropol- itan area’s jobs can be reached by transit in 45 minutes by the average employee, according to Brookings Institution research. Commuter rail wouldn’t change that. Traffic congestion can on- ly be alleviated by providing sufficient capacity for the rap- id door-to-door travel peo- ple require. This is a problem in Atlanta with its sparse free- way coverage and less than ro- bust arterial street system, a factor covered in my Jan. 17, 2010 Atlanta Journal-Constitu- tion commentary (http://bit.ly/ 100djwu). The expanding HOT lane program is a step in the right direction, though there is much more to do. Traffic congestion can be re- duced, but only if available funding is used to reduce trav- el delay the most per million or billion dollars of spending. Slow trains cannot compete on a ra- tional basis. ANOTHER VIEW Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy firm. He was ap- pointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transporta- tion Commission.
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