Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sonic-death-scream mode on transportation funding

Reader Ciambellina dropped me a note regarding MARTA's dire funding situation, where they are considering axing an entire rail line to make their budget. Part of me wonders whether that is just trumped up rhetoric that they are using to try and get through to GOP legislators, but it also highlights a conundrum with public transit. Heavy and light rail lines generally do more for communities - people prefer using them over buses, they stimulate development, they help contribute to an area's 'sense of place', and they increase property values (see: land around the BeltLine). However, I'm pretty sure that buses are more economical to operate, as well as being more flexible in a budget crisis.

This means that MARTA could cut one rail line, or they could cut a ton of bus routes, which might actually serve more people. For example, you can see on this map I posted a while back that much of southeast Atlanta has pretty good MARTA access despite the fact that there isn't a rail line serving the area:

Back to the MARTA issue - what I found most interesting about the article was the history lesson from former Mayor Sam Massell. The short of it is that the current cap on operations spending was the result of Lester Maddox wanting to keep "winos" off the system, so he advocated for the cap on spending to force MARTA to charge for tickets. It wasn't about trying to force MARTA to be 'wise' in its spending or anything, but about the state wanting to control who had access to the system - not entirely dissimilar from how Cobb and Gwinnett wanted to keep out "that element".

This is also a good chance to link to Pecanne Log's absolutely awesome post on an old GQ magazine featuring Atlanta. Some of the money quotes Christa picks out:
If you want to sell something to Atlanta, just convince a handful of the right people that Atlanta can’t be a Big League City without it, and the proposition is as good as taken....

Civic-minded Atlantans are sensitive about their city’s progressive reputation. It’s not a chip that they carry on their shoulders, but an earnest sweat on their brows. Criticize Atlanta for what it lacks and the response is less likely to be “Whaddaya mean?” than “Okay, we’ll get one.”
Atlantans may not have changed that much, but the difference is that we used to have a state government that worked with the city a lot more. Sure, some folks ran against "those liberals in Atlanta," but when they got in office they understood the importance of the city to the entire southeast region. The business community is going into sonic-death-scream mode when it comes to the regional transportation, but the GOP is too busy fighting with each other to hear. Pehaps they'll pass something, but I'm not optimistic.


  1. Thanks for writing about this issue.

    You raise an interesting point about buses being cheaper to deploy.

    But I feel like when I see buses in my neighborhood, they are frequently only a quarter-full, versus Marta trains, which seem much fuller and actually run more frequently (say, every 15 min versus every 25/30 min for the bus during off-peak hours).

    Thanks again for shining a light on this issue.

  2. Actually, buses are more expensive to operate per revenue hour per rider than a train would be. A great reason for this is the labor involved: trains are on automatic control (at least MARTA trains are) and have one operator to control for emergencies, check that the entryways are clear before shutting doors, etc. That is one person for a six-car train, each car of which holds 80 people in peak travel hours. Buses need a driver for a bus that can hold 60-70 people when absolutely packed (which MARTA buses rarely are).

    Add to this the fact that MARTA rail actually has higher average daily ridership than MARTA buses, even though there are only two trunk rail lines and over 100 bus routes serving far more of the city's and Dekalb County's geography. Higher rail ridership than bus is the case for only three other transit systems in the US: New York, DC and Boston (cities with higher population density, greater overall surface traffic congestion and a relatively high jobs-to-population balance).

    With this, it might make sense that MARTA would preserve rail service: after all, it generates ridership and provides a greater recovery of farebox revenue relative to costs (this is always higher on rail than bus, anywhere). However, this would come at the expense of cutting bus routes, which are highly political. Rail gets built where it can be built-- there are significant engineering concerns and it can't just go anywhere. But buses tend to be the domain of political pressures and often do go where a greater number of actors want them.

    The bottom line is that it puts MARTA in an awful conundrum-- drop rail and lose money faster, or drop buses and stir up a political firestorm.

    [Sorry for the long and wonkish comment-- I really enjoy reading your blog!]


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