Red, Blue & You: More Transit Needed
The world’s richest country has a unique challenge and opportunity for innovative transit expansion.
The U.S. Interstate Highway System is partly funded by the federal government but owned and maintained by individual state governments. We like to think of ourselves as a nation of big ideas – a nation of innovators, entrepreneurs and leaders that can show the rest of the world how to get things done. In many cases, there is a lot of truth to be found there. However, when it comes to how we get from Point A to Point B, the richest country in the world has a unique challenge and opportunity for innovative transit expansion.
Part of that is our love for cars, and I love my car. A car represents the freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want. It can be a status symbol or an expression of one’s personality.
It can also be a massive financial burden, costing the average American nearly $11,000 per year to operate, according to AAA. For commuters, there’s also the loss of time. Assuming an average commute time, Americans spend 250 hours in traffic every year, or more than 10 days.
There is a better way, one that our peers discovered and invested in long ago – mass transit. The U.S. has taken some steps to get there with Amtrak and a handful of major cities developing their own rail and bus networks. With the exception of places like New York City and Chicago, however, the vast majority of us have been left to deal with the tyranny of the open road.
The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) is making major investments in the state’s transportation network to deliver interchange and bridge projects. The Major Mobility Investment Program (MMIP) will help with these improvement projects by creating additional capacity, enhancing safety, improving freight movement and decreasing travel times.
The federal government and the state of Georgia have invested billions of dollars in our highway system, yet traffic never seems to get better. MARTA’s transit services alleviate some of the burden in Metro Atlanta. But its average weekday ridership is only 83,400 people on its heavy rail lines.
MARTA leadership has done a tremendous amount to improve existing rail and bus routes, with plans for additional bus rapid transit (BRT) and light rail lines in the future. The problem now is with priorities and perspectives. Twice in recent years, Gwinnett County residents have voted down referendums to expand transit into the county, largely based on false narratives. Now, instead of a relaxing trip on a train where riders can read, listen to music and even close their eyes, hour-long car commutes into Atlanta will remain the norm for the foreseeable future.
Make no mistake, though – transit is not a need only for Atlanta. Our rural communities have been devastated by a mass exodus of people, jobs and opportunities. Georgia has recently added manufacturing jobs in the Southeastern and Northern regions. But there are 535 cities in Georgia, many of which are disconnected from the rest of the state by long drives.
Now, imagine a transit corridor running from Atlanta to Athens, one of the most common drives in the state. Depending on the route, you could pass through a dozen smaller cities and towns where it would make sense to put a stop. As we have seen with recent development in Atlanta, if you can get to a transit stop within five minutes, companies will line up to put offices, housing and businesses there. If these communities could be reached by high-speed rail in minutes, the potential is limitless.
Imagine something similar going all the way to Macon and Savannah.
These are big ideas that will take bipartisan leadership. Thankfully, visionary state legislators like Sen. Brandon Beach (R-District 21)and former Rep. Kevin Tanner (R-District 9) have shown an openness to working with Democrats and exploring how we can make transit work for Georgia. For example, just two years ago the legislature passed HB 511, creating the Georgia Transit Trust Fund. It marked a small but historic step toward recognizing the critical transit needs in our state.
Even if we put shovels in the ground now, the dream of a truly interconnected Georgia is still years, if not decades, away.
However, we should not make the same mistake as our predecessors by delaying this investment and denying future generations a greener, more mobile future.