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Posts from the Atlanta Category

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Reminder: Just Laying Track Is No Guarantee Riders Will Come

Atlanta's streetcar route is still surrounded by parking lots. Photo: Streetcarviews/Tumblr

Atlanta’s streetcar route is still surrounded by parking lots. Photo: Streetcarviews/Tumblr

Laying track isn’t enough to build a successful transit system — as some cities are learning the hard way.

A slate of new rail projects — mostly mixed-traffic streetcars, but that’s not the only way to mess up — are attracting embarrassingly few passengers. Some of these projects may be salvageable to some extent, but for now, they don’t provide the speed, frequency, and access to walkable destinations that make transit useful for people. Here are four cautionary tales about the inadequacy of just putting down rails and praying things work out.

Dallas

Dallas’s streetcar line opened last April and is attracting just 150 to 300 riders a day, Robert Wilonsky of the Dallas Morning News reports. The 1.6-mile streetcar connects downtown Dallas to the neighborhood of Oak Cliff. It cost $50 million, and the city hopes to expand it.

Before it opened, Peter Simak, writing for D Magazine, said the line was simply too short, and Dallas simply not walkable enough, for it to have much of an impact. The entire line covers ground formerly served by four bus stops. Still, some advocates maintain that ridership will climb once new development fills in and planned expansions are built.

Atlanta

Ridership on Atlanta’s 2.7-mile streetcar has been underwhelming as well. The project has been roundly panned by the local media, who have pointed out it’s barely faster than walking.

Read more…

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Does It Make Sense for Transit Agencies to Pay for “Last Mile” Uber Trips?

Should transit agencies subsidize short “last-mile” Uber trips to expand transit access for people who live outside comfortable walking distance of a train station?

Is it smart of transit agencies to use Uber subsidies to expand their service areas? Map of Atlanta's MARTA plus a three-and-half mile buffer via CAP

The green areas denote where people would be eligible for ride-hail commute subsidies. Map: CAP

Columbus, Ohio, has proposed something along these lines as part of its application for U.S. DOT’s Smart City Challenge. The city is one of seven finalists competing for a $50 million federal grant.

New technologies associated with ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft make such a program more feasible, but is it a good idea? In a new report, the Center for American Progress explores how such a program might work for low-income residents of Atlanta.

CAP’s Kevin DeGood and Andrew Schwartz don’t reach a firm conclusion about the merits of such a program, but their report suggests it would have very limited impact.

They start by defining who would be eligible for the subsidized ride-hailing program, mapping out a radius of 3.5 miles from MARTA stations while excluding areas closer than half a mile away from a MARTA rail station or a quarter mile away from bus lines that connect to rail.

In one of their scenarios, any commuter living in that zone who doesn’t own a car would be eligible for a $3 ride-hailing subsidy for each trip to or from work. That would reach an estimated 8,300 people and cost $12 million per year.

In the other scenario, the same subsidy would be available for workers in households below the poverty line with three or more children, regardless of car ownership. CAP estimates this would encompass 3,300 people and cost $5 million per year.

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The Promise of Expanding Atlanta Transit Inside the City Limits

It looked like the Atlanta region’s ambitious transit plans might have been thwarted late last month when state lawmakers shot down a bill to allow Fulton, Clayton, and DeKalb counties to hold ballot measures potentially raising $8 billion to expand MARTA. But maybe that was a blessing in disguise.

Extending commuter rail to Alpharetta would have been very expensive. Image: MARTA via Curbed

Extending commuter rail to Alpharetta would be very expensive and divert resources from urban transit needs. Image: MARTA via Curbed

Transit expansion plans for Atlanta are moving ahead again in a new form. City leaders have decided to go it alone with a ballot measure that would put a city-only sales tax increase for transit expansion to Atlanta voters. The bill enabling the referendum overwhelmingly passed the House last week. If the Senate and Governor Nathan Deal approve it, and it musters a majority vote in November, the tax would raise about $2.5 billion for transit in Atlanta over 40 years.

Fulton County, which includes Atlanta’s northern suburbs, may also get a chance to raise its own tax for transit. But here’s why an Atlanta-only transit measure could be even better than a combined one.

To be politically viable in Fulton County, a transit tax would have to pay for commuter rail to suburban Alpharetta, 27 miles north of the city. That project would be very car-oriented — picture park-and-ride lots serving a rail line running along Georgia 400 — and very expensive: about $2.5 billion to construct, according to Curbed Atlanta.

Instead of building transit to serve sprawling suburbs, an Atlanta-only measure can focus on putting transit in the densest areas, where it can serve more people and support walkable development.

It’s not clear which projects an Atlanta-only transit tax would support, but Mayor Kasim Reed has said the funding would go toward “a much larger light rail component,” which, unlike the struggling Atlanta streetcar, would be separated from traffic. Those projects are likely to include rail along the Atlanta Beltline — the ring of transit, trails, parks, and new development taking shape along defunct freight tracks encircling the city.

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BeltLine Visionary: It’s Time to Radically Reconceive Urban Infrastructure

beltline

Photo: Atlanta BeltLine

Ryan Gravel was just a graduate student at Georgia Tech when he came up with the idea for the Atlanta BeltLine — a ring of parks, trails, and transit that would encircle the city, repurposing derelict space around abandoned train tracks.

Ryan Gravel, the visionary behind the Atlanta Beltline. Credit: Josh Meister

Ryan Gravel. Photo: Josh Meister

The first phases of trails and parks are now underway, and the Beltline has already catalyzed a wave of construction of walkable housing. Taxes from the development will help fund new transit routes. Broadly speaking, the BeltLine has inspired a model of walkable growth in one of America’s most sprawling regions.

In his recently published book, “Where We Want to Live,” Gravel says what’s happening in Atlanta with the BeltLine is part of a bigger shift: taking 20th century infrastructure and repurposing it for 21st century needs. Moreover, projects like the BeltLine provide a healthier model for infrastructure investment that is enduring, equitable, and creates the “places we want to live.”

Streetsblog recently spoke to Gravel about the BeltLine and his book. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our talk.

Can you explain the thesis of the book?

Projects like the BeltLine represent something much larger than the specific improvement that it’s making to the city. It’s part of a much larger cultural momentum that’s going to fundamentally change the way we build cities.

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Georgia Lawmakers Won’t Even Let Atlanta Vote on Transit Expansion

Once again, state lawmakers in Georgia have undermined urban transport in Atlanta. A bill to allow residents Fulton and DeKalb counties to vote on a half-cent sales tax to fund transit died in the Georgia Senate this week when leaders refused to bring it to the floor for a vote.

There's strong support for expansing MARTA among voters, but Georgia state lawmakers are stranding in the way. Photo: Wikipedia

There’s strong support for expanding MARTA among Atlanta-area voters, but Georgia state lawmakers are standing in the way. Photo: Wikipedia

A successful referendum would have raised $8 billion to expand the MARTA transit network. But for now there’s still no relief in sight for Atlanta’s stifling traffic and car dependence.

Polling by the local chamber of commerce revealed strong public support for the MARTA expansion proposal. But Georgia lawmakers won’t even give voters the opportunity to decide for themselves.

The bill was not taken up on the last day it could be considered by the House and Senate this legislative session. “It’s dead,” Republican Senator Brandon Beach of Alpharetta, who sponsored the legislation, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The news means “the future of metro Atlanta’s public transit is uncertain,” writes alt weekly Creative Loafing, which relays rumors that resistance from lawmakers in North Fulton County ultimately spiked the bill.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed does hold some leverage in the situation. Reed said yesterday that “the issue is not over” and that he would block revenue raising measures for road expansion unless the MARTA ballot issue is allowed to proceed, according to the Saporta Report.

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$8 Billion Expansion of Atlanta Transit Clears First Hurdle

This dream map of Atlanta transit is looking more and more possible. Map: Jason Lathbury via Curbed

This dream map of Atlanta transit is looking more and more possible. Map: Jason Lathbury via Curbed

Atlanta’s regional transit network, MARTA, isn’t known as a dynamic, growing system. While cities as varied as D.C., Minneapolis, and Houston have rolled out new high-capacity transit routes, MARTA has stagnated.

But has MARTA’s moment finally come? The prospects of major transit improvements for the region are looking more hopeful today than they have for a generation.

Last week a Georgia Senate committee passed a bill that would allow Fulton, Dekalb, and Clayton counties to levy a half-cent sales tax for transit over the next 40 years. The measure, if approved by voters, would generate $8 billion in capital funding to expand MARTA.

The above map from Curbed Atlanta shows what might be on the table in an $8 billion MARTA expansion. All of the specifics still need to be negotiated.

It could include extending the Red Line with commuter rail up Georgia 400 to Alpharetta, or extending light rail to the northeast side of the city, serving Emory University and the CDC. The measure could also fund a rail line along the city’s circular Beltline, Curbed reports, or extend rail or bus rapid transit eastward, as far as Conyers.

Meanwhile, a series of public opinion polls shows that Atlanta area voters, even suburban ones, are coming around to idea of expanding MARTA. In fact, many polls show they strongly favor it.

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Braves Stadium Relocation Shaping Up to Be a Disaster

When the Braves announced they were leaving Atlanta for suburban Cobb County in 2013, logistically it seemed to make some sense. After all, the new stadium site is more centrally located in relation to the highest concentration of fans who attend games.

How will Cobb County fund the "magic bridge?" Image: AJC

Cobb County needs to build a foot bridge over a highway so people can reach the new Braves stadium, but it won’t be ready by opening day. Image: AJC

But it turns out that relocating a sports stadium to a sprawling, car-dependent area is really tough — because of the enormous infrastructure outlays necessary to transport thousands of people to the same place by car.

After putting $400 million in public money into attracting the Braves, Cobb County officials are having an embarrassingly hard time getting the site ready for opening day.

The location for the new field is right by the nexus of two enormous highways, I-75 and I-285, and it is bound to the southwest by the Cobb Parkway — another giant, high-speed road.

Somehow, “neither the Braves nor the county has released any information about its plans for traffic control, pedestrian safety, or parking,” the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports.

Problem is, there’s not enough room for everyone to park right near the stadium. There are, however, about 2,000 parking spaces and a bus hub just across I-285.

Walking can’t be completely eliminated from the stadium planning — all those people still have to cross the highway on foot. So Cobb County will construct a foot bridge over I-285 for $9 million.

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Here’s What a Billion-Dollar Interchange Expansion Looks Like

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In case you were wondering what a $1.1 billion highway interchange looks like, feast your eyes on this rendering from the Georgia Department of Transportation.

In an effort to “ease congestion” on this confluence of highways north of the city, Georgia will spend three-and-a-half years widening about four miles of I-285 and about one mile of SR 400, reconfiguring the place where they merge, rebuilding flyover ramps, and widening access roads into this gargantuan tangle of roadways. The interchange carries about 461,000 vehicles a day.

Governor Nathan Deal called it a “crucial economic engine.” Curbed Atlanta called the project an “orchestrated traffic jam” that is likely to be congested again by the time it is finished.

The cost for this interchange, through the sprawling Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs, is so large, Georgia officials couldn’t even come close to assembling the money through the usual public funding channels. Instead the state proceeded with private financing to fill the $610 million gap. But private financing is not cheap — the additional cost helps explain why the price tag has ticked up from initial estimates of $650 million to $1.056 billion over the last few years.

Under the revised financing plan, the state will still be paying for this project in 2027, at which point it will make a final balloon payment of $62 million, a figure that is equal to about 20 percent of Georgia DOT’s current annual capital budget, points out the Southern Environmental Law Center.

So this road expansion will constrain Georgia’s ability to invest in transit and other alternatives to driving long after it gets jammed with cars again (since more roadway space will generate more traffic).

According to GDOT, environmental studies found “no significant impact” for this project, which goes to show how meaningless those studies can be.

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Major MARTA Expansion Could Transform the Atlanta Region

MARTA hopes to expand its rail service in Fulton and DeKalb Counties. Image: ##http://wabe.org/post/8b-marta-rail-expansion-proposal-explained##ItsMARTA via WABE##

MARTA hopes to expand its rail service in Fulton and DeKalb Counties. Map: ItsMARTA via WABE

Transit planners in the Atlanta area are getting serious about the largest expansion in MARTA’s history. MARTA officials have proposed new, high-capacity service into North Fulton County and east into DeKalb County that could link important job centers by rail for the first time. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says it could “change the face of Atlanta.”

The new rail service would finally connect residential areas to the rapidly growing area encompassing Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control, just east of the city limits. It would also extend all the way north to Alpharetta, a booming business center 25 miles north of Atlanta in Fulton County.

Officials from Cobb County, just west of Fulton, have long resisted and even ridiculed the idea of bringing transit access there, and Gwinnett County to the east is too low-slung and suburban to consider rail service at this point. But Fulton’s charge ahead into a more urban future could cause its neighbors to reconsider their ways.

MARTA Board Chair Robbie Ashe says the transit expansion could propel a new model of growth in the region. “Corporations are increasingly demanding immediate proximity to transit stations,” Ashe told the AJC. “State Farm did it when they came here. Mercedes did it. Worldpay did it when it relocated. Kaiser is going to be located two blocks from here because of the Arts Center Station.”

Best of all, according to Darin Givens who blogs at ATL Urbanist, these new stations, even the ones far out in the suburbs, are likely to be surrounded by transit-oriented development rather than park-n-rides.

“MARTA has now accepted that it’s time to undo its park-n-rides,” Givens said. “They’re trying to turn all these park-n-ride lots around MARTA stations — around a lot of them — into transit-oriented development.”

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Atlanta Streetcar’s Early Ridership Numbers Disappoint

The first batch of numbers are in for ridership on Atlanta’s brand new $98 million, 2.7-mile downtown streetcar — and the project is off to a rocky start.

The Atlanta Streetcar is underperforming projections. Photo: City of Atlanta

So far, the Atlanta Streetcar is not meeting projections. Photo: City of Atlanta

The streetcar, which opened December 30, is carrying 18 percent fewer riders than anticipated, according to data released by the city this week. That’s actually worse than it sounds because the streetcar is still offering free fares. Passengers will start having to pay $1 per trip in the coming months.

In its first six weeks of operation, the streetcar carried 102,000 people. Project sponsors had predicted 124,000, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The city, which is running the streetcar, also says operating costs are 50 percent higher than anticipated. Service was expected to cost about $3.2 million annually. Instead, it will cost $4.8 million.

The cost overruns aren’t as alarming upon closer examination. A big chunk of the additional expense comes from introductory fees the city is required to pay MARTA for its cooperation on the project. Those will wind down next year. The city also decided to spend $1 million to seek federal funding for additional transit projects, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports, and that expense has been budgeted to streetcar operations.

Critics of the project, including many national transit advocates, have pointed out that the route, which mainly connects the city’s tourist destinations, is of limited use. It also runs in mixed traffic, which makes it painfully slow at times.

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