Georgia Rail Supporters Need to ‘Board the Logic Train’

Published January 5, 2015

After voters in Clayton County, GA voted to join the Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transportation Authority (MARTA) in November 2014, some pundits were predicting MARTA’s expansion to future counties, and a rail revival in metro Atlanta. However, before purchasing stock in rail equipment, rail advocates need to dial down their euphoria and board the logic train. 

Residents of Clayton County, GA voted to join MARTA out of desperation for local bus service. Half of the sales tax proceeds will be set aside to fund local bus service. The other half will be set aside for high quality transit service. However, such service is much more likely to use buses, rather than any type of rail.

While some advocates hope that “high-quality transit” will mean commuter rail transit (CRT), CRT has several disadvantages.

Hubs and Spokes

First, commuter rail is more expensive. It requires track space that would have to be leased for significant cost from Norfolk Southern, and passenger stations would also have to be built along the corridor.

Second, its location is fixed, so service cannot be changed in response to emerging development patterns. 

Third, commuter rail is designed to transport people from the suburbs to the central city… in this case, Atlanta. However, most Atlanta jobs are located outside of the downtown area.

Using commuter rail to access job centers such as Buckhead, Decatur or Perimeter would require connecting to a MARTA heavy-rail line. With no multimodal center and plans for such a center scrapped, there is no place to transfer.

Commuters could take commuter rail to the train station near the I-75/I-85 Brookwood interchange, transfer to a bus to the Arts Center Station and transfer again a heavy-rail train. They might need to transfer again, from the heavy rail train to a circulator bus.

Most commuters, however, will not transfer more than once. Also, this scenario does not count the other job centers including Cumberland, Alpharetta and Gwinnett, which are unlikely ever to have heavy rail service.

Furthermore, commuter rail does little to improve transit service within Clayton County. The county struggles, in part, because there are few high-quality jobs located in the county. Pursuing an economic development strategy that locates jobs in the county and developing a transit system that connects homes with jobs is a better use of funding. 

The biggest reason why commuter rail is unlikely in Clayton County is the rail corridor itself.

The Norfolk Southern line is one of the busiest freight rail lines in the state of Georgia.

As the state’s population increases, the cargo volume of the Port of Savannah increases. The result is a more traveled rail line with insufficient capacity. There is not sufficient capacity on the line for both types of trains.

Shoehorning trains in will not work, because passenger rail travels at faster speeds than freight rail. The number of trains will be limited, and the trains will face delays since freight trains are likely to have first use of the track most of the day.

Operating rail service in such a heavy freight corridor will lead to substantial delays for passenger service, reducing its popularity and increasing its costs.

Further, Norfolk Southern will have to agree to such service and the company is less likely to do so given the popularity of the track. A private company is not—and should not be—subject to government demands on its assets.

“Double-tracking” the line would fix the problem, but, due to right-of-way limitations, tracks likely will have to be added vertically: an unrealistic solution.

Cost and Flexibility

Even without the challenges of the Clayton rail track, regional buses have many advantages over commuter rail.

The first advantage is cost. Constructing and operating BRT service costs less than making the needed improvements for a commuter rail line. The time to implement and plan a BRT line is typically half the time to plan and study rail service.

BRT offers greater network flexibility, as it easily ties in with existing local bus services, to create easier connections. BRT is also more flexible.

County development patterns change over time. Although eliminating a line is unlikely, transit providers could adjust headways—time between transit vehicles—based on changes in travel and development patterns. 

Another major benefit of BRT is its positive effect on transit-oriented development (TOD). Where BRT typically spurs development, commuter rail seldom does.

Although outside factors such as the strength of the land market are important, BRT creates more investment, and can be integrated into the land-use development pattern in a way that commuter rail cannot.

Some advocates hope that Clayton County chooses heavy-rail transit or light-rail transit over commuter rails, but that is even more unlikely. Heavy rail transit (HRT) and light rail transit (LRT) require new tracks, making them even more expensive than commuter rail.

The Atlanta region’s land use pattern makes HRT and LRT unrealistic in Clayton County until land uses change significantly. To their credit, the county and MARTA are not even considering HRT or LRT.

Baruch Feigenbaum ([email protected]) is a transportation policy analyst for the Reason Foundation. An earlier version of this story appeared at Reason’s Out of Control Policy Blog at Reprinted with permission.