This legislative session, the Georgia General Assembly is expected to tackle transportation reform, with many hoping lawmakers address both roadways and transit. It appears it will. At a recent transportation-industry gathering, state leaders including Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle detailed the importance of transit.
Unfortunately, Georgia’s transit system is lacking in many areas.
Despite our woeful transit system, some want to double down on an inefficient radial-rail system that helped cause the problem in the first place. Radial-rail systems are effective at transporting people between the suburbs and the central city. They work well in metro areas such as New York City, developed prior to World War II with a large percentage of their jobs downtown.
They are ineffective in post-World War II cities with dispersed land use and lower density, where less than 20 percent of jobs are located within 3 miles of a downtown and more than half of the jobs are over 10 miles from the edge of a central business district. Recent employment numbers show metro employment is continuing to decentralize.
Some propose a rail system because it is “what non-auto-driving millenials want.” In reality, most millenials drive cars. Those who don’t drive want an effective transportation system. They don’t much care whether they travel by rail car, bus or ridesharing application as long as it efficiently gets them where they want to go.
Further, areas that have tried to build extensive rail systems have had issues.
Due to costs, most regions have failed to build what they promised voters. In most instances, each locality lobbies to receive the first rail line, figuring that there will never be enough money to build the entire system.
We saw in 2012’s Transportation Investment Act what happens when a politically oriented system rewards the well-connected instead of those most in need of transit service: racial inequality, useless transit lines and public animosity. Worse, the high costs of transit force many cities to cut bus service. This happened in Dallas and Houston. Both regions have added new light-rail systems to their effective bus systems; the operating and construction costs of rail forced cuts in bus service. Today, each system carries fewer passengers than when it operated as a bus-only system. And many commuters who lost bus service are transit-dependent riders who lost their jobs due to cuts in service.
Furthermore, the cost of building a comprehensive rail system would be astronomical. Using Government Accountability Office costs for rail lines across the country:
• A heavy-rail system would cost close to $30 billion
• A comprehensive light-rail system would total $20 billion
Clearly, we do not have the resources to build a rail system.
By comparison, a comprehensive bus rapid-transit system with 20 lines and an expanded express bus system with 20 more lines could be developed for approximately $3 billion. One reason the cost is so much less is that buses and cars can share the running-way infrastructure.
There are other advantages to the substantially lower capital costs:
• More money can be spent on operations, reducing headways (or the time between buses). This flexibility would allow the system to provide better service during heavy demand and reduce wait times.
• The entire network can be implemented over 10 years instead of the 60 years it would take to implement a rail network.
• More money can be spent upgrading local bus service.
Bus service also can be more effective at spurring transit-oriented development. Several reports have found that per dollar of transit investment, bus transit leverages more transit-oriented development investment than light-rail transit. It makes sense: With fewer funds needed to build the system, more can be spent on development.
Feigenbaum is a transportation policy analyst for the Reason Foundation and a senior fellow at Georgia Public Policy Foundation.