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A Case Against Commuter Rail, and The Sierra Club

May 16, 2012

This post started out as praise for an AJC editorial that supported TSPLOST, and mainly for that reason.  But as I continued to write my keyboard and fingers continued to churn out my disagreement with the Sierra Club for not backing TSPLOST, a point made by the OpEd writer. 

I previously was in full support of the Sierra Club, but I am finding it increasingly difficult.  A lot of it has to do with their unwillingness to support TSPLOST.  I understand their reasons for not doing so, and I think that they make some very good and valid points about what is missing from this vote.  But there are also some contradictions in their argument, as well as an unwillingness to do the unthinkable.  Compromise.  I agree that there should be more transit in this proposal, but there is also a level of practicality that must be taken into account versus idealism. 

Their points on governance, funding, and pulling the politics from transportation.  Bravo!  I agree.  But this isn’t the time or the place for that.  This is purely a vote on a tax to fund projects.  The acronym that constitutes SPLOST is even tells you that.  It is not about politics, or getting the state to throw in more money on a regular funding basis. 

But perhaps the thing that got me most is the issue of commuter rail.  Sierra Club’s position on commuter rail is such: “It Likely Kills Commuter Rail For Another Decade, taking off the table one of the most promising strategies for providing commute alternatives and promoting sustainable development.”  Commute alternatives; possibly.  Sustainable development; definitely not.  Now I am not entirely opposed to commuter rail.  It gets some cars off the road.  It allows for efficient access to towns and cities on the fringe of civilization.  But here is the problem.  A commuter rail line does not promote any sort of sustainable development whatsoever, no matter what your definition of development may be.  What it does, is allow those people in Griffin to continue living in their low density, car dependent developments.  It might get a handful of them off the interstate to get to Atlanta for work, but on a day to day basis they will still drive to the grocery store, to the mall, to school, to doctor’s appointments, and all other daily activities that usually count for a substantial amount of miles driven.  Putting a commuter rail line to Griffin, or any other suburb, will not instantly make them urban, or green, or really anything that could be considered a major driving force in the purpose of the Sierra Club.   It will not instantly or even in the future, make them change their way of life where they are not so car dependent.  Look at the commuter suburbs of New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago.  These cities and towns are not highly urbanized areas.  They constitute one commuter rail stop and maybe a small downtown and that is it.  There is no highly urbanized development surrounding most of them, and the patrons that use it often drive to it.  Otherwise the residents depend on their automobiles for everything else.   And that should be the primary goal of transit.  Not to further support an unsustainable way of living and to reduce congestion.  It should be to alter the way our oil and car dependent lives operate.  Commuter rail reaffirms that their lifestyle is the right choice, while only taking them off of the roads during rush hour.  Commuter rail at some point should be implemented but not until the city has achieved all of its transit needs first.  Not until those that choose to live a less car dependent life are taken care of first and foremost .  The order of importance of commuter rail in the long line of things that need to be done to encourage less driving are as such:

  1. Complete Atlanta’s transit system (or at least get the ball rolling.  This includes filling the gaps and extending the lines to the edge of the city/perimeter.)
  2. Raise parking rates in the city of Atlanta
  3. Narrow major arteries in Atlanta (interstates, Peachtree Rd, Piedmont Rd., Ponce, etc.)
  4. Extend rail lines to nearby suburbs (Norcross, Smyrna, etc.)
  5. Institute congestion pricing
  6. Narrow the downtown connector
  7. Implement commuter rail lines
  8. Close all intown park and ride lots and redevelop the land.

I put commuter rail all the way near the bottom because if we truly want to reduce car and oil dependency as well as improve quality of life and change how we live while developing for the better, driving must be made as difficult as possible first.  As long as it is easier to drive, people will do it (see Atlantic Station).  But this only works if the supporting transit system is sufficient enough.  Otherwise you will get economic stagnation.  The point we are at now. By providing those in Atlanta access to more transit you get more residents out of their cars beyond commuting for work.  If you get them out of their cars, congestion begins to ease up, which will only encourage those outside of the city to continue driving in.  So you raise the rates to park so it costs them more, and narrow the major thoroughfares that most of them use so that it becomes more difficult to navigate.  The rail lines extended to nearby suburbs offer those living closest to the city the opportunity to redevelop while getting them out of their cars.  Now that you have all of those in the immediate vicinity of Atlanta taken care of, hit the burbs with congestion pricing.  Show them the true cost of driving, while raising money for their desired commuter rail.  That will help remove more cars from the roads, and encourage them to use the abundance of park and rides offered at MARTA stations.  Now that traffic volume is reduced, narrow the downtown connector.  Take some of that land back and reconnect west midtown to midtown.  Now the traffic capacity is lower.  All options to get people out of their cars, and encourage them to move closer or into the city are exhausted.  Then you give them commuter rail while simultaneously closing park and rides.  Think this causes problems for cities?  Think again.  The only thing on that list not incorporated by major cities (New York, Chicago, Washington, Seattle, San Francisco) is congestion pricing.  And even that can be argued that it is being done with rather high toll roads and bridges which were long ago paid for.  And guess what?  Businesses didn’t leave.  People aren’t fleeing the city or its surrounding burbs.  They didn’t flounder in economic stagnation.  But they did achieve some of the highest rates of transit use in this country.  Some of the smartest and most dense developments.  Cleaner air quality.  Increased life expectancy and quality of life.

I think the campaign to relieve congestion is a good selling point to a novice.  But if all we are doing is trying to remove cars from roads, we will quickly learn that those that abandon roads for transit, particularly those in the burbs, will just as quickly be replaced by others that see more open roads available.  It is another version of induced traffic. The Sierra Club is right in saying that there is a lack of long term vision, but much of that vision is in policy not part of, nor should it be, to this tax vote.  Cities such as New York and Chicago will always have congestion, even with the first and second most used transit systems in the country.  Congestion will always be there as long as there are roads and high population.  Washington’s system is fantastic, often the bar to which we are compared to.  But they still have horrendous traffic.  Solving congestion is a futile exercise.  We have tried it with wider roads.  More routes.  HOV and HOT lanes.  Car pooling.  And it is still there.  It always will be.  The goal should be to make driving more difficult while having an excellent supporting transit system.  That will spark redevelopment and economic prosperity.  The Beltline does this.  The Clifton Road Corridor will do this.  So will the often hated downtown streetcar project.  Commuter rail will not.   Sierra Club has the right idea, but is standing on the wrong ground to prove its point.  Commuter rail is a case of “its transit so it must be good.”  It does little more to change peoples’ traffic patterns or congestion as will the road projects that are on this list.  So if I have to choose some road projects versus a commuter rail on this list I will take the road project simply because that it will help garner the support of some of those suburbanites to vote yes.  Sure it will be a waste of money.  But it will help achieve other more important goals.  Those of better connecting the city.

So while I appreciate where your heart is Sierra Club, you aren’t doing any good by sticking to ideals.  If this list was devoid of smart transit projects in Atlanta then I would say go for it.  Vote no.  But the transit projects on it are smart.  Clifton Road Corridor is a terribly underserved, rapidly densifying area. The Beltline closes many holes and gaps, while serving as the intowners’ version of the perimeter.  But saying no because of commuter rail (and lots of other reasons that I will have to tackle in another post because I have already horribly exceeded my self-imposed word limit) is foolish and being an idealist for the sake of being an idealist.  Fundamentally it also goes against many of its beliefs. 


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