Commuter Rail: Something Atlanta Badly Needs

The AJC is taking another look at commuter rail possibilities to link Atlanta to other areas in Georgia.

If commuter rail ever comes to Atlanta, what would it look like? Seven lines using existing freight railroads and extending as far as Macon and Athens have been studied for years. But only recently, with Gov. Sonny Perdue’s support of a pilot line from Five Points south to Griffin, have commuter trains had a chance of serious consideration by state policymakers.

That’s critical, because a substantial investment of public dollars will be necessary — from $100 million to $500 million per line in start-up costs, according to a report by the consulting firm of R.L. Banks & Associates. The payoff? Faster commutes, less traffic congestion and cleaner air.

You can read the rest of the AJC article here where they also have links to other articles that have appeared regarding commuter rail.

I often ride MARTA but I also drive quite a bit, more than I should.  The MARTA system in itself isn’t all that bad, however when compared with New York, Washington DC and especially London the MARTA system does become a joke.

The United States in general lags behind most of the world when it comes to commuter rail (with the exception of the north-east AMTRAK corridor but it still isn’t Europe where train stops are as frequent and convenient as bus stops) and we’re really starting to feel the hurt.

Now I know I’m about to get blasted by those of you who for one reason or another, be it legitimate or just plain foolish, oppose commuter rail and the expansion of MARTA, however it is something we simply need in Atlanta…  hopefully we can elect leaders in Atlanta and the state with the vision to lead us into the 21st century.

43 comments

  1. Dave Bearse says:

    We sure will. The “fiscally conservative” Georgia GOP sure knows how to strike when the iron is hot. Commuter rail will cost a third more now than it would have had implementation began a half dozen years ago, but that’s the cost of leadership that absent crises only panders to the base.

  2. heroV says:

    Trevor, most on this board believe that commuter rail should pay for itself or even turn a profit with the fares collected.

    You know, just like our uber-profitable and self-sustaining road infrastructure does.

  3. ramblinwreck says:

    As Harry points out this is a feel good but impractical plan. I’ve looked and I can’t find one profitable passenger rail line anywhere in the US. If anyone can find one please tell me where it is. Even in places where they have what should be effective passenger rail systems the ridership is not high enough to cover the costs of operation much less of future improvements/expansion. Look at AMTRAK, it sucks up billions per year and has not ever been profitable enough to not need government subsidies.

    If passenger rail service is a good idea some private entity will see an opportunity to make a profit from it and make it happen. I moved out of Atlanta in 1995 and MARTA wasn’t profitable then. Is it profitable now? I’d bet no. Regardless of which party controls the gold dome you’re not going to find enough money to fund the money pit of passenger rail service because if you charge enough for tickets to cover the costs the demand will drop so low that is cannot sustain itself.

  4. btpull says:

    Commuter rail only make sense when you have a large number of people going from point A to point B at the same time. For a county such as Gwinnett, where I live, commuter rail does not make sense. The county is too spread-out and only a relatively few residents would benefit from such a costly system.

  5. Ramblin:

    Somehow I doubt the credibility of your search. The MTA has positive net revenues at the end of every year.

    http://mta.info/mta/investor/pdf/2008/Appendix%20B_MTA%20Financials(final).pdf

    Ask yourself this when determining the value of a rail system to a city: what would happen to New York, Boston, London, Moscow, Sydney, D.C., &c. if they lost their mass transit systems for even a week. I can answer that for you, it would be bedlam at best. These cities simply can not operate without rail and a robust mass transit system.

  6. bowersville says:

    Yeah, these cities cannot operate without a rail system without the goberment.

    Kind of like the Palin rail system between Juneau and Anchorage?

  7. Decaturguy says:

    I’ve looked and I can’t find one profitable passenger rail line anywhere in the US.

    Are there any profitable roads? If the airlines decide they can’t make money anymore (which none of them currently are) are you willing to shut down the air transit system in our country? Would that be beneficial to our economy?

  8. bowersville says:

    “are you willing to shut down the air transit system in our country?”

    Does Palin have her private float plane on eBay Decatur Guy?

  9. midtown_maven says:

    The north Dunwoody line is commuter rail. It connects downtown, major league sports and entertainment arenas, Midtown and Buckhead business districts, two busiest shopping centers in Atlanta, two universities, a couple hospitals, arts and museums, another major business district in the Sandy Springs area, and the world’s busiest airport.
    Parking garages are available with free daily parking for commuters. It is a line perfectly suited for commuters and traffic reduction,
    I’ve ridden that train at 6 P.M. on a weekday with five people in a car when 400 and the connector is in total gridlock. If it wasn’t for the downtown arenas and airport that line would be even more of a ghost train.
    If the north line is not being utilized to it’s potential with $4 gasoline, why would additional commuter rail be any more successful?

  10. So bowersville, are we to assume that you would be comfortable shutting down transit in the cities most vital to the world economy (and thus, shutting down the cities themselves) simply to prove your point that government is evil (when in fact, this proves your argument is wrong)?

  11. ramblinwreck says:

    I still don’t believe a passenger rail system in Georgia would work. I also used to ride Marta from stations in DeKalb to downtown and there were times when there would be virtually nobody on the train. Again, I say that if passenger rail would work some private firm would already be doing it. We’ve become accustomed to looking to the government to fix every problem no matter it is. There’s even talk of a maglev from ATL to CHA. Talk about a waste of tax dollars.

    When people get tired enough of sitting in traffic, like I did in 1995 before moving out of Atlanta, and paying near $4/gallon for gas the free market will figure out a fix.

    What would happen if any business that could do so would allow employees to telecommute 2 days per week? I moved every employee in my office into home offices in 1993 and save tens of thousands in office rent and overhead and got more productivity to boot. Just a thought.

  12. bowersville says:

    Rugby as soon as you believe in your own accomplishments or the lack there of, come back and tell me how the goberment helped get you ahead.

    Until then, zip it. Go to Wassila, you might learn independence, but I doubt it.

  13. ramblinwreck says:

    rugbyfan:

    The link you listed didn’t work so I went and looked up the individual result for the Long Island Railroad and the Metro North Railroad.

    Metro North was budgeted to lose $176 Million thorough May and has actually only lost $160 Million. woo woo.

    http://mta.info/mta/ind-finance/month/mnr-financial.htm

    The LIRR is worse. It’s lost $387 Million YTD.

    http://mta.info/mta/ind-finance/month/lirr-financial.htm

    Where do we suppose that money to make up a May YTD deficit of over half a billion comes from?

    Local city routes in large metro areas may make money, I doubt it, but if passenger rail serving the burbs was going to make a profit, or break even, Amtrak would have done it decades ago. It hasn’t.

    As for the question whether the rail systems should shut down, that’s up to the customers. If you can’t run them with each passenger paying a rate high enough to fund the operation, yes.

    As for airlines, I would not subsidize them either. Why tax the vast majority of people who don’t fly to subsidize those who do? There’s no good reason except that since we no longer adhere to the Constitution and there are no limits on the federal government, they can do it and probably will continue to do so.

    (sorry I couldn’t figure out hot to make the links work.)

  14. Dave Bearse says:

    Some opponent please explain why subsidation of passenger rail differs from subsidation of highways, ports, waterways and air?

    The idea that road users fund roads is substantially a fallacy. Property owners and the general public, not road users, fund local roads via property and sales taxes, and certainly not at a profit. If road users were truly funding roads at the state level, they’d be paying an additional 3% sales tax. State sales taxes paid at department stores for example aren’t dedicated to funding the department store infrastructure and maintenance.

    Midtown Maven—Commuter rail is significantly different than MARTA which is heavy rail transit.

    btpull—Take the long view. There is currently no general successful US model for suburban renewal that doesn’t involve higher density redevelopment. Gwinnett County will be unable to maintain its transportation infrastructure 20 years after the county is built out (when the local road infrastructure currently being constructed at developers expense will require capital maintenance at taxpayer expense) without substantial tax increases.

    And someone please identify any significant government agencies other than those dedicated to collecting taxes that is making a profit.

  15. Progressive Dem says:

    If this country is serious about reducing dependence on foreign oil, we will start investing in transit, and high speed rail. Yes, it will require subsidies just like highways, but trains can run on electricity, reduce pollution, improve travel times, increase productivity, save lives, reduce insurance costs and reduce our military spending in the mid-east. Constructing, supplying and managing the network will also create many American jobs. It is a smart investment.

  16. midtown_maven says:

    What commuter rail route would be effective in transporting workers to reduce traffic along 285 between I-75 and I-20?

    New York and D.C commuter trains merge into subway and bus lines near heavily concentrated work areas. Before the commuter lines, the bus and subway lines were in heavy use. Thus the network was easily expanded.

    Cobb Community transit can barely fill a bus. The Atlanta Beltline is slowly coming along, if that system flies and MARTA can improve local ridership, fine lets build on it.
    Otherwise you’re adding unneeded capacity to an unused system.

  17. Dave Bearse says:

    midtown maven is correct that no commuter rail route would be effective in reducing highway traffic along I-285 between I-75 and I-20. No such service has been proposed however, and she’s delusional if she thinks CCT is barely filling buses during peak commuting hours.

  18. Harry says:

    Whether you like the or not the personal vehicle is not going away. When petroleum becomes too expensive, hydrogen produced from natural gas will then come on line. Hundreds of prototype hydrogen cars are already on the roads – within a few years they’ll be millions of them.

  19. Harry says:

    Of course there are the special interests like Sen. Biden, who want to dip in your pocket to pay for their ride, or expand their base with public transit unions.

  20. midtown_maven says:

    Delusional is a nice try at discrediting me, lets consider numerical data.

    How many people fill up a bus?
    How many full buses do you need to fill a train?
    How full would this train be in non-rush hour times?

    You have tax dollars to spend:
    Do you construct a multi-million dollar commuter rail line in an attempt to match the existing
    routes? Which one? A rail line is a fixed bus route with higher capacity. Is that the best use
    of the tax dollar when the goal is to reduce traffic congestion?

    Is there adequate demand for the existing system to justify this infrastructure project?
    Now tell me, who is delusional, and who is thinking in the long term interest of taxpayers,
    the environment, and commuters.

  21. Decaturguy says:

    Cobb Community transit can barely fill a bus.

    That is just simply wrong. They Cobb and Gwinnett buses that come to downtown Atlanta are so full that it is standing room only.

  22. gt7348b says:

    So our roads are profitable? Then why does the GDOT have a funding issue because they’re spending everything on maintenance and why is the National Highway Trust Fund moving towards a $0 balance in 2009 meaning that there will be more projects cut? As for the impact of transit – even UGA says the MARTA system more than pays for itself because of increased labor productivity through unifying the Atlanta employment market. Don’t believe me – read it here: http://www.tpb.ga.gov/Documents/GEMS_MARTA_FinalReport.pdf

    And for those of you who need everything spoon fed, please go to slide 5 here which shows that between 2000 and 2006 the economic impact of MARTA was 2.2 – 3 times greater than what we spent: http://www.tpb.ga.gov/Documents/TPB/June08/062608%20-%20Presentation%20Impact%20of%20C3.pdf

  23. btpull says:

    Roads are public goods; commuter rails are not. It is impractical to limit access to a road system. It is very simple to limit access to a commuter rail system. My consumption of a road does not prevent someone else’s consumption of the same road at the same time. My consumption a seat on a commuter rail prevents someone else consumption of the same seat. Everyone benefits from an effective road system, whereas a relatively few benefit from a commuter rail system.

    Roads being public goods should be provided for the public by the government. Rail systems being a non-public good should be provided by the private sector. So please stop comparing a rail system to a road system. If a commuter rail system is a viable economic solution, we would not be having this debate; the private sector would be providing the service.

  24. midtown_maven says:

    Okay then let’s assume you can fill a bus.
    Do you spend your tax, bond, fare revenue to replace one route with a rail line?

    How would you connect this new commuter line into the Marta system?

    I would rather see improvements to the I-75, 285, 85 corridor. Such as truck volume reduction during rush hour, better interchange design, lane and sign improvements.
    Add bus capacity which is more flexible in demand and routes.

    I just don’t see the population and workplace density to build commuter rail.

  25. bird says:

    btpull, your logic doesn’t make sense. There is a direct analogy between the highway system and commuter rail. Both have a finite amount of space–you seem to suggest that because a train has seats there’s difference. Nonsense. They are both public goods.

    And your use of a road does limit everyone else’s ability to get somewhere quickly on the same road. I’m guessing you don’t commute in traffic. In fact, roads become overloaded, they whole system fails to work properly. With trains, you can increase the number of cars and frequency of the trains to accommodate increased usage. The more lanes there are, the more cars will use the highway, so they’ll always be congested. You see this pattern in every major city. Additionally, every time you widen a highway, you have to literally destroy homes and businesses to do so. Then you have a massive bridge that no one wants to cross on foot, so you created more incentives for people to drive, exacerbating the problem.

    And Henry and others concerned about the money–this is a no brainer. The Feds have allotted a lot of money for the Griffin leg. So start with that before the money is diverted to some pet project in South Dakota or Nevada. Georgia’s cost for this line will likely be less than the costs for the 85/316 interchange.

    Because of Atlanta’s gridlock, we’re unable to continue to attract Fortune 500 businesses that are seeking to relocate. That harms the entire state. We’re also creating stress and frustration for commuters that have to deal with traffic, and we’re keeping people away from their families while they’re stuck on the highway. Commuter rail won’t solve the problem, but it is a piece of the puzzle. And we are dense enough–Atlanta is one of the 9 largest metropolitan areas in the country, and if our growth continues, we may well be in the top 5.

  26. Harry says:

    bird,

    Just give us honest numbers on how much it’s gonna cost to develop, and the cost per passenger mile to operate it. And double the development cost estimate because that’s the true cost. And halve the number of passengers because a train from Griffin to downtown Atlanta with a bunch of time-wasting stops isn’t going to attract so many riders. The so-called Brain Train is another boondoggle. How many people will ride from Athens on a daily basis, and how many passengers would want to tolerate the 20 intermediate stops along the way that will be dictated by political correctness?

    Please, this jive is far more expensive and counterproductive than any bridge from nowhere.

  27. btpull says:

    bird – I am glad that we are in agreement that roads are a public good that should be provided for by public funds. Yes, I do commute every day.

    The biggest issue with our road system is that it is not designed to keep traffic flowing. My commute time could be reduced by 40% if a couple of back-ups could be eliminated by extending turn-lanes and eliminating redundant traffic lights.

    Just because a road has a capacity limit does not qualify a rail system as a public good. Again it is very easy to limit someone access to a rail service by charging a fare. Again if I am sitting on the second seat of the first car on the 5:15 my consumption is preventing you from consuming the same good (seat and time).

    If your goal is to reduce traffic congestion then there are more effective methods than a rail service such as paying employers to allow employees to telecommute, giving tax breaks to employers for setting -up satellite offices, and subsidizing employer sponsored van pool. All these alternatives can be implemented in a matter of weeks or months and are much less costly than a commuter rail.

  28. Dave Bearse says:

    Maven:

    Responding to a questions in your prior post, commuter rail serves commuters during peak periods, so your question “How full would this train be in non-rush hour times?” isn’t pertinent.

    One bus seats 40, one bi-level commuter coach 140, which can well be a great operational cost benefit. It takes two or three employees to operate a four-coach train carrying 560 people, where it would take 14 buses/14 employees.

    Moving to the subsequent comment, there’s been no discussion of “replacing” any route with a rail line. As I mentioned previously, there’s been no discussion of commuter rail on I-285 between I-75 and I-20 either, so there is no answer to a question about how such a line would connects to MARTA.

    I’d like to retract the delusional comment, but I’m not sure if you just admitted that your statement that CCT “can barely fill a bus” is false, or you’ve just advocated for more empty CCT buses.

    You finished strong however, because concerns about about population and workplace density are valid.

    btbull:

    Your consumption of roadway capacity is little different than that of a seat, the difference being that once the roadway is at capacity (i.e. the seats are gone), nobody gets anywhere efficiently. All road users are punished with delay, and the economy and public are punished by energy inefficiency and pollution.

    The public/private argument you make is inconsistent and perhaps self-serving. Public subsidation of rail passengers is no different than public subsidation of highway user or air travelers, but define your road user subsidy as a public good while a rail subsidy is not.

  29. Trackboy1 says:

    Yep, they’re idiots in metro Chicago, Boston and Washington DC with their commuter rail systems. And those European cities with great rail and transit, well, they must have incredible density to support rail. Even though the entire country of Denmark doesn’t have that many more people than metro Atlanta.
    And the elected officials and chamber of commerce types in conservative bastions like metro Salt Lake City, Charlotte, Houston and Dallas, man are they fools to build rail systems. Jim Wooten and the Reason Foundation are going to read them the riot act.

    Yep, here in the Peach State, we’re just smarter than the rest of the world. Let David Doss and the road builder-funded Georgians for Better Transportation set our transportation policy. Give us 40 billion dollar tunnels under Atlanta. Give us 23 lanes at 75 & 575. Make sure GDOT pays C.W. Matthews a half a billion annually.
    Let’s keep taking toll money from GA 400 way after the date we were told it would stop. Keep paving, keep paving, keep paving!

  30. Harry says:

    Don’t try to hang David Doss on us. That guy is a tax and spender. As long as he can blow money to build his little fiefdom, he doesn’t care if it’s roads to nowhere or trains to nowhere.

  31. midtown_maven says:

    Thanks for the retraction Dave.
    We all toss around words a bit too easy on the internet trying to get a boom.

    “barely fill” not acurate, an ineffectual exageration.

  32. Decaturguy says:

    Trackboy,

    They know that Atlanta’s lack of transit alternatives is killing economic development in the metro Atlanta region and causing Dallas, Houston and even Charlotte and Nashville to outpace Atlanta in economic growth.

    Their Atlanta hatred is excactly why they oppose it. These anti-growth zealots want Atlanta to fall behind, Nothing would please them more than if Atlanta became the next Detroit.

    And for all of you “pro-lifers” out there, how many lives would be saved by avoiding traffic accidents if we had real transit alternatives in the Atlanta region? Is there not a public benefit to saving lives from traffic accidents if transit use was dramatically increased in the region? How can you be “pro-life” and oppose something that would probably save hundreds of lives in Georgia every year?

  33. btpull says:

    Dave Bearse:

    A rail system by it very nature is a private good, since it can and should effectively limit access to the system by charging a fare. Your point that the public might benefit from a commuter rail system by potentially reducing congestion and air pollution still does not make a rail system a public good.

    Personally I would use a train, bus, or other mass transit means to commute if it was a viable alternative. However, I do not expect my neighbor whose commute is about 2 miles to subsidize my commute costs.

    Also, unless a station is built next store cars will still be on the road causing congestion and pollution. Thus, the net benefit will be reduced proportionately.

    Again if the goal is to reduce traffic and air pollution there are more cost effective and viable alternatives that can be implemented in a matter of weeks or months not years or decades.

  34. Trackboy1 says:

    “Also, unless a station is built next store cars will still be on the road causing congestion and pollution.”

    Ummm…greater Boston, the Chicago suburbs, Northern Virginia, Maryland surrounding DC, Westchester NY, all of North Jersey, etc., it’s pretty common to drive a few miles to the train station, then take the train into work, the airport, the game, etc. Big difference driving your car just a few miles to the station than fighting traffic for an hour plus, for air pollution, congestion, etc.

  35. btpull says:

    “greater Boston, the Chicago suburbs, Northern Virginia, Maryland surrounding DC, Westchester NY, all of North Jersey”

    These areas have greater population densities than the metro Altanta area as a result of growing during the pre-Suburban era. For these areas commuter rail makes more sense.

    LA would be a better example of the potential benefits from commuter rails for metro Atlanta to study. Has their system made a significant impact? Does not LA still have some of the worst traffic and pollution problems in the country?

    Anecdotally it appears telecommuting is starting to become more acceptable at least on apart time basis. It sure would be a shame to find-out in the middle of the multi-decade commuter rail project that the ridership numbers are not there because the culture has accepted telecommuting as a viable alternative.

  36. Decaturguy says:

    Personally I would use a train, bus, or other mass transit means to commute if it was a viable alternative. However, I do not expect my neighbor whose commute is about 2 miles to subsidize my commute costs.

    I almost never drive on the interstate highways either to get to work, shop, or whatever compared to many people. Why should my tax dollars go to subsidize those commuters when I never use it?

    btpull,

    I think you are really confusing “commuter transit” (which is mainly used by exurban and rural areas to get to the city or the city’s suburban employment centers) to light rail, which does require significant urban density to succeed. Commuter rail does not require so much density, because as trackboy said, we assume that most drive a few miles to get to rail so they can travel 40-50 miles on rail.

  37. Bill Simon says:

    I almost never drive on the interstate highways either to get to work, shop, or whatever compared to many people. Why should my tax dollars go to subsidize those commuters when I never use it?

    Why should I pay for kids being educated in government schools when I don’t have kids in there?

    DG, you are TOO easy to demolish in a debate, Dude.

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