Are rail transit systems beneficial?

The Brookings Institution recently released a paper entitled “On the Social Desirability of Urban Rail Systems.” The paper concludes that only one urban rail system provides a positive benefit to it’s city.

The purpose of the paper is to estimate the contribution of U.S. urban rail systems to social welfare. The authors define the net benefit of a rail transit system as the difference between its benefits, broadly measured, and its net cost to taxpayers. If this difference is positive, it means that the dollar value of the rail system


  1. Flatpickpaul says:

    One more thing…look at the major contributors to the Reason Foundation (Exxon among the most generous), and the objectivity of their arguments can be discredited very neatly.

  2. Flatpickpaul says:

    Ok Doug, how would you respond to the economic certainty that more road/highway capacity only breeds more congestion as the short term gain in capacity makes the marginal cost per trip cheaper to the user until equilibrium (or the current and worsening state of congestion) is reached? Also, how would you respond to the fact that highway construction costs are more expensive than rail construction costs by a margin greater than 3 to 1 ($18+ million per lane mile of road versus $5+ million per mile of rail)? Not to mention the ability for rail to accomodate increases in users/ridership in a way that is nearly impossible for roads?

  3. Flatpickpaul says:

    Steve – when you mention the Brain Train supporters, you failed to mention, Emory University, Mercer University, Central Atlanta Progress, the Lt. Governor (who stated his support last year during the transportation candidate forum), along with more than 70% of voters polled in Gwinnett, Barrow and Oconee Counties, scores of University of Georgia students (Bulldogs for the Brain Train) and other enthusiastic students at Mercer, GSU and others…shall I go on, or is this sufficient rebuttal to discredit your post?

  4. Decaturguy says:

    This is ridiculous. Can you imagine New York City without a subway system? I don’t care what sort of formula was used, if they claim that having rail in NYC is not a net benefit to society, then I will ignore everything else they have to say. That city would simply not be able to function without mass transit.

  5. StevePerkins says:

    Emory (the school, not the developer) pitched in $50K… or at least PLEDGED it, I don’t know if they ever wrote a check. I’m not aware of financial support from any of the other parties you mentioned… the lion’s share of muscle behind this “astroturf” fake-grassroots movement has come from a single powerful developer with a lot at stake.

    Have you actually READ that “70% support” poll that was run by Landmark Communications. No disrespect to Mark Roundtree… I like him and he’s good at his job… but that was a shameless push-poll. The options put forth were basically “Do you want more transit?” or “Do you think there’s not a problem at all and we should do absolutely nothing”. It’s embarassing for the rail-crowd that the result was only 70%.

    Moreover, you do realize that “scores” of students means “multiples of 20”, right? At least be crafty enough to LIE and say that hundreds of people have come to rallies for this rail line… having one of the proponents themselves say, “Yeah, we’ve got a few dozen students on our side,” is awfully damning in its faint praise.

  6. dlb says:

    How do you reduce social welfare to a number? How much social welfare was in these cities? And how did Robert Poole

  7. GabrielSterling says:


    It wasn’t a push poll. In fact, the poll asked 5 questions in favor of rail and 5 questions opposed to rail. Only after both positives and negatives had been given did the 70% number come out.

    You can see the poll for yourself at the link above. The questions you “quote” simply aren’t in the poll. If the questions you site were there, it would be a push poll.

    Before the positive and negative questions were asked the poll was rolling at 75%.

    Also, you let us know that the Brain Train supporters aren’t “objective”. Well, yeah…that’s why they are supporters. They favor the rail and want to it built.

    As to the underlying question of “economic benefit” the analysis is extremely subjective. Let’s remember, this is commuter rail…not mass transit or light rail. It is a completely different animal.

  8. gboy303 says:

    As a recent graduate of UGA I feel obligated to clear up Steve’s confusion over the level of support the Brain Train has received from the students, faculty, and general population of Athens. FlatPick is indeed on the right track when he discusses the “scores of UGA students” that threw their support behind the Brain Train last year. It is my opinion that the efforts of these students are indicative of the desires of the future leaders of our state. Twenty-something students such as myself have the most to gain or lose from a commuter rail system in Atlanta throughout the course of our academic, professional, and personal careers, and we can conclusively say that simply building more roads will never solve Atlanta’s traffic problems. Rail simply makes sense as an alternative.

    Since Steve was not at UGA last year like I was to witness the outpouring of support from our state’s best and brightest students, let me point out that that multiple volunteer groups across a myriad of disciplines did in fact volunteer considerable time and energy to studying and promoting the idea of commuter rail to their peers. The student run ad agency voluntarily created a team to work specifically on the project, as did the public relations student society. A campaigns professor picked up on the enthusiasm of her students and adopted the Brain Train as the subject matter of a full semester long course.

    An entirely different group of students took to campus polling their peers and produced some shocking results. While their studies were technically unscientific, the fact that their surveys revealed that nearly 4,000 of last year’s undergraduate students had been involved a traffic collision on Hwy 316 or Hwy 78 cannot be ignored by anyone.

    As we all can see, while skeptics like Steve questioned the motives of Brain Train supporters and searched for feeble explanations as to how this “astro-turf” grassroots campaign grew, “scores of UGA students” truly did throw their support behind the Brain Train and took action to improve their state. In fact, the Student Government Association, the official representative body of the UGA students, formalized the support of the student body when it conducted its own poll and was so overwhelmed by the student support that it drafted and ratified a Resolution of formal support for the Brain Train concept.

    Regardless of all the arguments about traffic, the environment, economic development, or what some deem to be questionable social benefits, the bottom line is that something must be done to improve transportation in Georgia or young leaders like some of those dedicated students at UGA simply will not want to live or work anywhere near Atlanta once they graduate. The loss of leadership and talent like this is paramount to the economic losses that our state suffers every day when businesses specifically chose not to locate in Atlanta due to our horrendous congestion. Unfortunately, to every study, these losses are unquantifiable yet invaluable.

  9. Icarus says:

    From DLB:

    “How do you reduce social welfare to a number? How much social welfare was in these cities? And how did Robert Poole

  10. Jason Pye says:

    The questions on rail are LOADED. You can butter anything up to make it sound good until you look at the bottomline, something that seems to be left out of the debate entirely.

  11. StevePerkins says:

    Arguments from the Brain Train poll (linked by GabrielSterling above) in favor of the rail line:

    1) It would get thousands of cars off the road and provide traffic relief for everyone.
    2) Up to 80% of riders will be from Gwinnett.
    3) The line will create high quality jobs.
    4) It will help to clear up the air in Atlanta.
    5) The Federal govt. will pay the majority of startup costs.

    Arguments against the rail line:

    1) People won’t use it, so why try?
    2) The 6 counties involved may have to pay $6 million a year combined.
    3) It’s not a complete cure-all.
    4) It’s expensive.

    I don’t know, maybe I’m being unfair here… I think that speaks for itself, but others can judge. To me it sounds like the “for” arguments are written in a more favorable light than the “against” arguments… and the against arguments add up to saying, “It’s not perfect, so let’s not do anything at all.” I think that’s a very poor and unbalanced representation of the pro’s and con’s, and the Brain Train proposal SHOULD get at least 70% support when the arguments are put forth as they were here.

    gboy303’s response about UGA students is VERY well-written. However, I had only spoken about UGA to the extent that the “groundswell of support” at Brain Train rallies has been limited to 2 or 3 dozen kids. gboy303 seems to agree with that rather than dispute it.

    Just for the record, and I’ll ask my libertarian friends to plug their ears for a moment, my views on subsidized commuter rail have softened over the past year. Since I started law school at Georgia State, I have started riding MARTA on a regular basis and found that some of my impressions were unfounded. Today, I would support Gwinnett joining Fulton and DeKalb in MARTA funding… and would like to see the northeast line extended to at least Lawrenceville. However, that doesn’t mean I’m going to jump on any transit scheme put out there just because it’s “something”. The Brain Train proposal seems to me more of a hand-out to a few well connected parties in the private sector rather than anything that would make financial sense for me or most people I know to use. I think we could do much better is all.

  12. Jason Pye says:

    1) It would get thousands of cars off the road and provide traffic relief for everyone.

    It will also put more 18-wheelers on the highway during rush hour.

  13. Mark Rountree says:


    Thanks for the (mostly) complimentary comments above . I do wish to go on record on a couple of things.

    1. The poll we conducted was simply researching the questions asked. We could have asked far more “skewing” questions, both favorable and unfavorable, but tried to be reasonable in the arguments both for and against. We actually argued as a negative argument that “it was too expensive”, and people basically responded that the problem far outweighed this argument.

    People see that the current transportation system is a disaster: it is failing and the suburbs are in very quick decline in metro Atlanta.

    Just Look at the numbers: many of our suburbs are in full-scale evacuation mode because of transportation: douglas, rockdale, and much more.

    I say (half lightheartedly) that chrisishardcore is the only person I know of who is delighted at this suburban collapse: it’s bringing more Democrats to the suburbs as property values fall.

    2. Yes, Emory Morsberger sounded the alarm on the Atlanta transportation crisis– louder and clearer than anyone. To just discount him as “owning tons of land” is just opaque thinking. He owns some in Lawrenceville, one stop on the entire line. He knows that the entire line would benefit by increased property values. Think about it: he might just be right, man.

    3. a). Commuter Rail, especially along EXISTING TRACK lines, costs about 70% LESS than building roads; b). we MUST diversity the transportation system in Atlanta before it’s too late (and it may already BE too late…); c). Rail can be up and running and fully operational in 30 months, roads take 10 years; d) in reality, we’re going to subsidize transportation with tax dollars, either roads or rail. RAIL is partially paid for with ticket fares (paying for 40-45% of cost), ROADS are entirely a government handout.

  14. Mark Rountree says:

    word correction: “diversify” is what i meant: we must diversify the transportation system in Atlanta before it

  15. GabrielSterling says:


    It will not put more 18 wheelers on the road. The plan calls for increasing capacity in the rail corridor.

    Wherever the rail line is not already double tracked, it will be. It will increase overall capacity, by (in broad numbers) 75% while taking around 20% of freight capacity for passenger rail.

    So the argument that it will increase 18-wheelers is simply incorrect.

    With no passenger rail commuter rail is taking 0% of 100% of the rail. With passenger rail, commuter rail will take 20% of 175% of the existing capacity.

    CSX gets more capacity, the state gets commuter rail and in fact there would be likely fewer 18 wheelers in the corridor.

  16. StevePerkins says:

    I don’t necessarily disagree with (most of) your points, and do not take an absolutist stance against subsidized commuter rail altogether.

    However, my understanding of the Brain Train proposal is that round-trip fare into town would cost me somewhere between $10-12 per day. Plus, the drive those of us in west Gwinnett (Duluth in my case) would have to make to get to a rail stop would be such a pain that we’d be better off cruising down to Doraville and getting on MARTA there for a $3.50 round trip (or far less with volume discounts). I just don’t see how anyone could make the argument that this makes sense for riders who don’t already live next to a proposed rail stop, and I’m highly skeptical that the reduction in traffic from those who do would offset the additional tax burden we would all share.

    I don’t take the hard-line that some do against ALL subsidized rail in general, I just don’t see the numbers adding up with this particular rail proposal.

  17. Jason Pye says:

    It will not put more 18 wheelers on the road. The plan calls for increasing capacity in the rail corridor.

    So, not only are you pushing a pork project that is destined to fail, you are pushing for corporate welfare too?

    Taxpayers deserve so much better than this.

    Jill Chambers has said, “the growth of the freight rail industry in Georgia soon could render the debate over commuter rail moot because there won

  18. Mark Rountree says:


    I agree that the Brain Train is not “The” solution, just Part of a solution.

    The line is not a panacea: it’s just one line. People in eastern Gwinnett and up the Athens line will doubtless ride it more than those in the western area of Gwinnett.

    BUT think about this: those riders will no longer be on 85 if you go south no it from Duluth.

    As far as the cost: no one knows the cost. If it’s $5 per trip, it’s cheaper than driving though. The gas, oil, maintenence, tires, etc will cost you more than commuter rail.

    High-end Commuter rail will be used by some, not others. But everyone benefits from the lower cost of construction, the cleaner air, the cheaper cost than driving, and the fact that people will no longer be on YOUR road when you do drive. You win, too.

  19. Mark Rountree says:


    Why do you insist on hanging onto the current failing transportation system?

    The current road-only system is destroying the suburbs by making traffic and quality of life unbearable. Rockdale and Douglas are already in real decline, and if nothing is done, Henry is next.

    You need to wake up, my friend. Henry county is going to face the same decline unless the regional transportation system is fixed.

    Metro Atlanta’s county commissioners CANNOT DO THIS alone, they don’t have anywhere have the resources. The solution HAS to be a new, regional approach to fixing transportation, and more roads cannot be built (reasons: federal prohibition against new roads, the decades it will take to build substantial numbers of new roads, the insurmountable cost, and more).

    Jason, this is not a libertarian vs. everyone else issue. I can argue the pro-libertarian argument all day long (… and, for those who know me, know that I quote Ayn Rand 10 times a day and probably give away one Atlas Shrugged per month. My mailing company is named “Atlas Mailing”. See where i’m coming from?)

    Why do you want to continue the approach of paying for roads with tax dollars but not rail, when rail is cheaper AND partially paid for by the USER (which roads don’t).

    A=A, to quote Rand. Be objective: if we don’t all unify around some new transit approaches, metro Atlanta will begin to fail as we know it, which it already is.

    What is your solution if not rail? Rail is a major part of a solution — not THE solution, but a PART of it. Henry County

  20. StevePerkins says:

    Ehh… the devil’s in the details. The hypothetical fare rate you’re throwing out is less than half the figures I’ve heard up until tonight, and GabrielSterling’s insistance that the single-track line will ultimately be double-tracked is the first I’m hearing of that (who’s paying for that?). We’ll see…

  21. Mark Rountree says:

    Steve, the double-track has been the whole point of the entire proposal from the beginning. It was never a single-track idea. The whole point is that the existing track line would be used but in some places the land would have to be expanded to make room for the second track (some areas have enough land).

    In fact, many riders would pay zero because in reality large downtown corporations are likely to provide their employees with paid passes. The corporations would be HAPPY to pay for this if it gets their employees to work on time (and the employees will be happier because they can actually spend more time with their families, reliably getting home instead of sitting in traffic).

    This approach (corporate paid express tickets) are done elsewhere and are successful.

  22. StevePerkins says:

    I do agree that Georgia needs to start organizing transit at a state (or at least regional) level, rather than this patchwork of country-run systems.

    The main reason that transit makes zero sense for me right now is transfers. I actually live walking distance from a Gwinnett bus stop, so I COULD buy a $55/month pass and use transit to get to work and school via a MARTA transfer. Transfers from Gwinnett transit to MARTA are free. However, what about getting home? My Gwinnett fare pass would NOT be good for a trip that starts on MARTA. Therefore, I would also need a $52.50/month MARTA pass as well… to handle my trips home in the evening (vice-versa, my MARTA Breeze card is useless on a Gwinnett bus).

    That’s just nuts. The metro transit systems should be integrated such that a commuter can buy a month-long pass and transfer to and from any system they need to, starting their trips on any of the systems.

  23. GodHatesTrash says:

    The problem with rail will be getting suburban Republicans to ride – so make sure the mens rooms are extra friendly. ;>

  24. StevePerkins says:

    Actually, GodHatesTrash does have a point. Since neither my house or office are right next to a rail stop, it would probably take me 2 or 3 times as long to use transit (with all the waiting on buses and transfers) than it does to just sit in traffic. If you have the density of New York, it makes sense… but with the layout of Atlanta, transit will always be a limited-purpose option for only certain uses (e.g. driving from my office to the Lindbergh station and riding MARTA to Ga. State for night class).

    Here’s a wild and crazy thought… why not actually encourage white-collar job growth in the suburbs? Alpharetta and Roswell have tons of high-end jobs… whereas Gwinnett, Hall, Barrow, etc are stuck in this retarded model of building endless subdivisions and strip-malls, believing that commutes of 120 miles or more to where the real jobs are is sustainable. Are we going to eventually have to commute in from South Carolina if we work a job that requires a college degree?

  25. Mark Rountree says:

    The question is not reality: just saying you want white collar jobs does not make them appear; people buy homes and builders build them where the market pushes them. Those sound great, but it’s not real – world.

    Here’s what’s real: the stops for the Brain Train would be at major employers: Emory University, the CDC, the bio research corridor in Gwinnett, Georgia State, UGA, and more. Tens of thousands of people would ride weekly.

    Again, the Brain Train is not designed to get you to dinner in Alpharetta while living in Lawrenceville.

    The purpose is industrial-level moving of people –thousands of them daily — from the northeast into the areas of many of major employers and colleges & universities (which is why it is nicknamed the “Brain Train”).

    It’s not intended as a comprehensive solution, just a major one for many people.

  26. StevePerkins says:

    Absolutely. However, if we’re going to talk in the language of free-market realities… just saying you want a rail line doesn’t make it appear, you have to make a public policy decision to subsidize it. Most municipalities that attract high-end job growth these days do so by subsidizing that too (through targeted tax breaks and outright grants).

    I’m just floating the idea that maybe this is a policy decision to consider at some point also. Maybe that policy decision is more unrealistic or less unrealistic than others, I don’t know… but that kind of chatter is pretty much what blogs such as this are all about. I think we can all agree that at some point, it’s unsustainable for most people in the entire region to commute forever each day for a job inside the Perimeter.

  27. Trackboy1 says:

    The devil is in the details. And as Gwinnett, Cobb, and all those other ring counties grew as fast as any counties in U.S. History during the 90’s, that was the time to plan with rail, HOV, BRT, etc. in mind. And MARTA’s waste, graft and incompetence in the 80’s and 90’s sure didn’t help it gain confidence (thank you Jill Chambers for bringing it sanity). There’s one person who could get regional transit done in a way that would appeal to pro-road/highway & pro-transit, conservatives & liberals, pretty much everyone, and that’s Sam Olens (Sam as CEO and Jill Chambers as COO is a dream team).

    Also believe that a well planned, scenic but fast, rail line from ATL to Savannah/the GA Coast (via Macon) could be a world-class tourist attraction. Does tourism justify a rail line; no of course not, it has to work as a commuter line too, and it can, if Macon ever reaches its potential, and Clayton continues exploding population-wise. The state tax coffers and Delta wouldn’t mind a major tourist draw. Europeans love Savannah, for good reason, and St. Patty’s Day there ain’t too bad.

  28. Jason Pye says:

    Why do you insist on hanging onto the current failing transportation system?

    Why do you insist on supporting a transportation system that is destined to fail? Atlanta is far too spread out to have any success with it.

    The issue is taking a significant amount of our transportation funding, as Reason magazine showed not too long ago, and putting it to a mode of transportation that simply doesn’t get the results that justifies the money.

    And I haven’t mentioned the first damn thing about libertarianism or Ayn Rand, who wasn’t a libertarian, but a capitalist. Using her words or philosophy to attempt to justify this is laughable. Rand supported the markets, less taxes and less spending. She was minarchist.

    There are other ways to address our transportation issues that no one is discussing.

  29. Mark Rountree says:

    Jason, you just say things generically like “a system that is destined to fail” with no evidence of this. Hundreds of thousands of cars sit jammed in traffic during rush hours — with many going to the exact same employers and universities and airport, and more — you just write this stuff.

    On top of this, imagine where Atlanta will be in 20 years. It will be a far worse mess when our population DOUBLES — and are driving on virtually the EXACT same roads we are today. Twice as many cars.

    Emory & CDC have TENS of thousands of employees living in Gwinnett and the surrounding northeast areas, but are working/driving in that land-locked area daily. Georgia State has tens of thousands, Athens has tens of thousands…it goes on and on.

    The proposed depots are not “spread out”, these are in fact quite dense academic and employer areas. They would be used by smart people whose time means more to them than $5-$6 an hour.

    To say that the issue is taking significant amounts of transportation funding in Georgia is laughable. The Brain Train isn’t even built, it’s not costing you a penny.

    On the statement I made about moving away from the ideological opposition to commuter rail: my point is that if there is no credible libertarian answer to the transportation problem, and in this instance there is not, then the choice is patently between other options. Tarteged Commuter Rail is cheaper, more reliable, and is partially offset by the User. A roads-alone is more than twice as expensive and has zero paid by the user, except on tolls. I am stating that commuter rail is a better choice from a libertarian and capitalist point of view, given that no answer is perfect.

    Yes, let’s expand the roads and highways where we can. Most everyone’s for that, so that’s not the issue. The issue is that we have to diversify our solutions, not force people behave like transit robots all doing the same thing and jamming the same roads.

  30. Jason Pye says:

    No evidence? Throughout the United States transit systems are always in the red. They are heavily subsidized, pulling heavily from transportation budget. The Reason article I linked shows that the ARC is planning to spend $57 billion on transportation over the next 25 years. Nearly 40% of that funding is slated for transit, which has a market share of under five percent.

  31. Flatpickpaul says:

    Interesting that no one has presented a ‘con’ argument to my statement about the economics of roads and how expansion of roads breeds more congestion: the marginal price of a trip declining with new capacity attracting more users until the congestion reaches the same equilibrium or worse (as we see here in regional Atlanta).

    I thought readers might find a few ridership (conductor’s count) numbers from Los Angeles’ MetroLink commuter rail service of interest:
    FY 06/07 11,026,264
    FY 05/06 10,589,815
    FY 04/05 9,946,566
    FY 03/04 9,481,228
    FY 02/03 8,946,355
    FY 01/02 8,510,556
    FY 00/01 8,312,258
    FY 99/00 7,740,644
    FY 98/99 6,933,222
    FY 97/98 6,591,404
    FY 96/97 6,025,076
    FY 95/96 5,213,227
    FY 94/95 4,207,312
    FY 93/94 3,291,172
    FY 92/93 939,456

  32. Mark Rountree says:

    Roads are always in the red, Jason: airports, roads, buses, rail, sidewalks…they virtually all are.

    Transportation expedites commerce, that’s where it makes money. The biggest “in the red” program of them all is ROADS — which are nearly ALL government-paid for and subsidized.

    With more roads, eminent domain is heavily used. But eminent domain would be less-used with the Brain Train because that transit would run along generally existing track line areas.

    Just throwing out “privatizing existing roads”, which in effect you say above (as you wrote, “building new roads isnt the answer”, and I assume you don’t want to give eminent domain authority to private companies…) is not an answer.

    Privatizing existing roads would not bring traffic relief. Commuter rail will.

  33. Mark Rountree says:

    you writem, “You claim about eminent domain is a scare tactic, nothing more.” how do you propose a private company builds a new superhighway from gwinnett into atlanta without domain? or from cobb? or from henry?

    the financial numbers (profit) isnt’ aren’t there to pay tens of billions to buy out subdivisions and companies. it won’t work.

    the best first-stage solution to this mess is to create commuter rail that runs along existing roads and along existing track lines — along existing areas where a hundreds of thousands of people twice each day sit jammed on air-polluted, congested highways.

    it’s not intended as THE solution to everyone’s transit problems, but is part of the solution for many.

    talking “market share” is a cute statistical trick, by the way. My compliments. The fact that there is no commuter rail in place along these major thoroughfares in Atlanta sure makes it hard to have “market share”.

  34. Jason Pye says:

    You can deny the facts all you want. Rail won’t work and isn’t worth the cost for the “benefits” it provides.

    how do you propose a private company builds a new superhighway from gwinnett into atlanta without domain? or from cobb? or from henry?

    Didn’t I say they should take over existing roads? Yeah, I did. Go back and read that.

  35. rugby_fan says:


    You are an ideologue on this issue. Pure and simple. I don’t trust you (any more than I trust myself) to have an iota of objectivity on this issue.

    The “smart growth” you lampoon is a much smarter idea than what we currently have.

    Let’s just look at some of the things having more roads does to our fair city.

    Urban Heat Islands and the lovely little summers they create here in Atlanta. Few things in life are more enjoyable.

    More pollution. I simply love brown hazes over fair city. Oh, and it then costs everyone (individuals and corporations alike) in America more money when there is more pollution.

    Building more roads at the costs of not building rail means people spend more on cars for transit meaning they have less money for themselves.

    Look I could go on but I want to get something achieved today, and speaking to you on this issue will not achieve anything.

  36. Harry says:

    Jason and Steve,

    Thanks for carrying the water for those of us who are skeptical about the cost-benefits. Nobody has convinced me that the cost of ownership per passenger mile of commuter highway isn’t a lot less than subsidizing a passenger mile of the Bring-Home-the-Bacon Train. Projections I saw indicated the usage would be minuscule, and even then, only a few would ride the entire distance. By the way, most white collar workers in the private sector are scattered in places like Perimeter, Alpharetta and Suwanee. They’re not centralized in downtown Atlanta anymore. The workable model is, having them live closer to where they work – which is what’s happening now.

  37. AlanR says:

    The point Icarus makes about amortized costs is important.

    One of the problems with older rail systems is that they no longer go where people need to be — the infrastrucure went where people needed to go based on the best guess at the time they were designed. Mass transit, rail all will be beneficial if people use it — and they won’t use it if it doesn’t get them where they need to go. New York’s subway and rail system is a good example because it still works, as does the T and rail in Boston.

    Where all this comes apart is when the spoke and hub system no longer applies. When people need to go from Marietta to the Capital MARTA is pretty good. But if growth continues the way its going, in ten years people will need to commute from Duluth to Kennesaw. Then what?

    Crazy business, eh?

  38. rugby_fan says:

    “in ten years people will need to commute from Duluth to Kennesaw. Then what?”

    Extend the rail service.

    What, you weren’t going to build more roads?

  39. rugby_fan says:


    Perhaps I could have made my above post more succinct by saying, I can’t think of a major city in the world with out an extensive rail system that isn’t utilized heavily by its citizens.

    Moreover, I can’t think of any expanding city with any semblance of a clue as to how to grow smartly that isn’t including rail services in its city engineering.

    But you know, rail systems aren’t beneficial and don’t work and all that.

    Let’s get you on a plane and educate the fools in the world about the error of their ways.

    And next time mate, maybe you’d like to give us a critique from an urban engineer about why rail services would or wouldn’t work in a city as opposed to an ideologue’s perspective.

  40. Jason Pye says:

    Our region doesn’t have the density like Chicago or New York.

    You can’t change years old planning habits and suddenly expect smart growth policies to work.

  41. Jason Pye says:

    There are too many vagaries with rail, not to mention the amount of future spending already being set aside for it. Forty percent of transportation spending for a small fraction of riders just doesn’t make sense.

  42. Harry says:

    We gotta set priorities…MARTA, BrainTrain, Grady, government pensions, government schools, food stamps for illegals…lots of priorities there.

  43. rugby_fan says:


    No we don’t have the density of Chicago or New York.

    No, I’m not expecting rail to change Atlanta’s quality of life overnight.

    But, you serve no one, that’s right, no one, with your stance on not building rail.

    Rail is not destined to fail. Rail does provide benefits. Look all over the world where it has been implemented with a something resembling a brain. Every city depends on rail.

    You talk about how rail is destined to fail and doesn’t benefit anyone, jokes if ever I’ve heard one, and yet you continue to support a system that has unequivocally failed and genuinely doesn’t benefit anyone. I just do not get that at all.

  44. Flatpickpaul says:

    I’m absolutely sick of this state’s cost-benefit fascination. It’s important, to be sure, but it should not usurp common sense. Making cost-benefit analysis the sole criteria for transportation project assessment when the state spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually on roads and we’re left with worsening congestion is ludicrous. Who’s actually coming up with the formulas for those analyses? I can only hope our legislators take meaningful action on transportation priorities and funding in the next session instead of putting it off…again.

  45. bsjy says:

    Cost-benefit analysis is not appropriate here because the costs and benefits are difficult to quantify. The equation is filled with assumptions based on small and incomplete data sets. On the other hand, there needs to be some kind of assessment of the best use of limited funds. Without that discipline, the process becomes a tug of war between dilettante transportation “visionaries” who like what they like because they like it and their opponents must be blinded by stupidity or greed or laziness or some other character fault.

    The cities for which rail systems work are characterized by high density work centers. As spread out as the bedroom communities around Washington DC and San Francisco are, the employers are geographically concentrated, so rail makes sense. Most of the cities noted by advocates of rail systems are older cities with all the challenges for surface transportation systems that come from old cities built by hand. So rail systems are going to have to go underground if they are to reach into cities like Atlanta. That raises the cost significantly.

    Rail systems between cities should be complementary to the road systems between the cities. Why not investigate ways to build railroads in the medians of the divided highways that already connect the cities? Trains would have to build bridges or tunnels here and there to get through intersections, but it seems the already public rights of way are a candidate for some increased density and multi-modal transport systems.

  46. Flatpickpaul says:

    For what it’s worth, I think that $6 million per year is estimated operating expenses not anticipated to be covered at the farebox for Athens-Atlanta service.

  47. Flatpickpaul says:

    Victor: if we had to wait for GDOT, well, wait, we have been waiting for GDOT…for about 20 years. I’ve simply lost faith there.

    One of the most interesting things I heard at the commuter rail symposium this afternoon from representatives of the LA, Dallas and Virginia is that local support (cities & counties) is paramount. Their states do/did little other than enabling SPLOSTs for the areas, a portion of which funds the net operating revenue shortfall.

    I would encourage readers to remember that rail is just one tool in the toolbox. We will always need more capacity, roads, rail, buses, etc., wherever we can get it. Commuter rail in the Athens – Atlanta – Macon corridor is simply the fastest way to add the equivalent capacity of one new lane of interstate highway at a fraction of the cost and deliver a highly reliable, safe, comfortable mode of transportation in a corridor where congestion will never improve. The corridors are already in place.

    The cities and counties need to work together to make it happen. Hoping the state will do something about it anytime soon is unwise, in my opinion.

    Steve: the Transit Planning Board through RL Banks is working on updated numbers on ridership, capitalization and operating costs. I believe that data will be released later this month.

  48. Mark Rountree says:


    $6 m for 6 counties is the number based on 2003 dot study, based on georgia doing the rail at that time. The cost may have increased since then, may not have though. The reality is that the longer we wait to build alternative transportation, the more expensive land and construction gets.

    Note: the Brain Train’s public opinion survey, conducted by me and my company, Landmark Communications, is now a year and a half old. However, realistically, since I have been polling metro Atlanta and the state on various issues for more than a decade, I can tell you support for choices in transportation has likely increased since then, not decreased.

    The personalization of transportation is important if we are to find relief from congestion. Continuing to ram everyone into the same formula — roads — is nothing short of Soviet-minded.

  49. StevePerkins says:

    Mark… I like you, dude… and you’ve made some good points… but you’re overdoing it a little bit (i.e. name-dropping Ayn Rand, and this Soviet comparison).

    Rand is an influence, to be sure, and we all read the books when we were teenagers… but half the libertarians I know think today that she was basically a crazy cult leader, who does libertarian philosophy more harm than good by association.

    The “building roads makes you a pinko COMMIE!!!” argument is just so bold-faced retarded I can’t stop laughing long enough to respond.

    I guess what I’m saying is that if you want to do a little outreach and send “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” signals to the libertarian-leaning crowd that you have affinity with them, the best way to go about it is more subtle. The Rand and Soviet references kinda remind me of Howard Dean trying to reach out to Southern voters, by saying that he thinks the Dems should target “people with Confederate flags on their pickups”. It made Dean look a bit silly and disingenuous, because most of us in the South don’t drive trucks with Confederate flags on them.

    I don’t have any report in front of me that offers enough detail to pick apart… but in general I am saying that I will flatly disbelieve anybody’s report that claims the line will cost remotely in the neighborhood of $6 million/year. I just pulled up MARTA’s annual budget for last year from their website, and they took in roughly $350 million in tax subsidies alone (the overall budget was around a half-billion). Granted, MARTA is more ambitious than a single light rail line, but it’s not 5,833% more ambitious! When the professional consultants cook up the next batch of numbers, I hope they pull something out of their asses that’s at least *plausible*! Don’t talk to me about objective and neutral the consultants are… I worked in consulting myself for a decade and know better.

  50. Mark Rountree says:


    Steve, it’s hyperbole on the Soviet joke. Just kidding to make a point: The point I am making is that it’s time to individualize and personalize transportation choices for people, not just force ONE governmental decision on millions of people.

    I have asked our friend Jason Pye for an alternative that will get traffic moving again. He came back with no answer but to sell existing roads (which does nothing) and then a link to Reason Magazine.

    THEIR proposal is to build a $27 billion tunnel underneath the city (…by the way, how do you do that without massive eminent domain?), and make it privately funded… come on. that’s just not real world, and no one is going to fund $27 Billion private roads repaid over decades.

    The 1950s so called “Eisenhower interstate road system” has been a huge success and brought this nation culturally and financially together. There IS a place for government to lead in transportation. It’s not always the answer, however, and where private business is willing to do it, it should!

    Not ALL rail makes sense. I’m not debating that. But it DOES make sense to build rail along existing track lines in high-density areas where support is over 70% — just what the northside Brain Train offers.

    By the way…thanks for sticking in there for our (now) 63rd POST on this topic!

  51. Jason Pye says:

    I have asked our friend Jason Pye for an alternative that will get traffic moving again. He came back with no answer but to sell existing roads (which does nothing) and then a link to Reason Magazine.

    The Reason article, which is primarily focused on Atlanta, has some potential solutions to traffic woes. Did you even bother to read it?

    And Steve…as much as I love Ayn Rand’s work, you are right. And don’t forget, she hated the libertarian movement.

  52. Mark Rountree says:

    Jason, yes I have definitely read the article. I wonder if you have.

    Please RE-read it. Here are some of the GEMS:

    1. Abbreviated, it says “(The number of people living in the Atlanta area increased by more than 200,000 during the same four years (1998-2002.)” Now that’s a gem. Atlanta grows by over 100,000 every single YEAR. Gwinnett alone added at least 120,000 residents from 98-02, much less the other dozen and half counties. This grossly underestimates our growth and shows a sloppiness in reporting.

    Reasson’s “solutions”? did you read them?

    here they are:

    Build a tunnel under Atlanta… (remember that rail is already 1/3rd less cost than roads, and that is compared against ABOVE-ground roads, much less underground Big Digs)

    Double-decker roads: see above. I’m all for it…but it’ll be massively more expensive to build than regular roads. Further, REMEMBER that 85 and 75 and 20 are FEDERAL roads and the feds will never allow this. Atlanta is already prohibited from building new major roads because we exceed smog and pollution standards. This answer would take decades… the Brain Train could be created and OPERATIONAL within 30 months.

    ELIMINATE PARKING SPACES (thus making existing spaces more valuable and rentable) to discourage people from driving (without saying how people would still get around). Now there’s a grand idea. This is a proposal for traffic relief?

    “eliminate 2 way streets. better traffic light coordination.” Talk about simply shuffling the the deck chairs on the Titanic.

    Privitization. Hey, all for it. But privatizing existing roads does nothing at all but change ownership of the road. NO traffic relief here, either, just new tolls on existing roads.

    Too many people are just ideologically opposed to rail without being willing to think about the personalization and individualization of transit. I used to be there myself. I have simply researched re-thought this issue.

    This is clear as day and night. It’s time for commuter rail along dense areas. From Gwinnett to Henry, the suburbs are entering a period of very seriousl decline period if we can’t fix this transit problem.

  53. Jason Pye says:

    The tunnels that Reason has proposed are PPI, nearly 80% or more of the cost will be derived from private sources.

    You cannot justify using 40% of transportation spending on rail, something that will carry less that 5% of commuters.

    But privatizing existing roads does nothing at all but change ownership of the road. NO traffic relief here, either, just new tolls on existing roads.

    Does nothing? It does relieve the taxpayer .

    Too many people are just ideologically opposed to rail without being willing to think about the personalization and individualization of transit.

    When you have organizations like the Henry County COC tossing out the word “progressive” to describe commuter rail, it doesn’t really help your cause. Most people look at that word negatively.

    From Gwinnett to Henry, the suburbs are entering a period of very seriousl decline period if we can

  54. joe says:

    Rail alternatives are beginning to sound better and better. One thing I still don’t understand is how much it is going to cost to get 50,000 a day to ride rail. Each of the major bottlenecks in the Atlanta area has 200,000 or more cars every day. To make any appreciable difference, rail would need to offer a 10% reduction for each highway.

    Please tell us again how to get 50,000 on a train in Atlanta.

  55. Mark Rountree says:

    Jason writes: “If it were financially feasible the market it would provide it.”

    Jason, I was prepared to cease my responses on this posting line until i saw this one. But it just opens up the silliness of your argument.

    I know you are well-intended…but this point of yours is utterly silly and I think lays bare for everyone that your opposition is based on ideological theory rather than reality.

    While metro Atlanta is choking on congestion, you offer “let the private sector fix this problem?”

    While you sit waiting for the next thousand years for Bank of America and CW Matthews to come up with enough interest and money to build a $27 billion toll tunnel underneath Atlanta (…somehow without eminent domain) the rest of us who care about saving this city from choking to death will be arguing for commuter rail and a series of serious solutions.

  56. Mark Rountree says:

    Joe, that’s good question. Wish you had been in here earlier.

    The ridership projections depend on too many things to say: depends on how many depots, how many train cars, if the line is based on the Northside or Southside or both, OR if 6-10 lines are ultimately created along all major thoroughfares.

    Current estimates that I’ve seen say that the Brain Train, which is only the northside line (Athens to Atlanta) would handle 10,000 a day. It could be expanded to handle more later.

    The southside commuter rail folks can speak for themselves. I don’t know.

    This Northeast line (Brain Train) is only part of a solution, not the whole solution.

    Some of Brain Train line could be running within three years if it’s given the OK and if the state works out an acceptable agreement with CSX (after all, it’s really their line, they lease it from the state)… The depot in Athens has already been built and stands empty…The general track line already exists (I grew up along it) but a second rail has to be put along it (which would require some widening of the land along the line).

    It’s the fastest way to provide some relief. it’s the most reliable, too. And most importantly, it’s the cheapest.

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