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Archive for September, 2011

The design of HB 277: Transportation Funding virtually assures the give and take of political discussion.  It is the politicians who are deciding which projects are going to be on Atlanta’s list, but it will be the voters who decide if they’ve done a good job. In the language of the day, we no longer use the term “spending”, now it’s “investment.”  As in the Transportation Investment Act of 2010.  And, we don’t use the term “1% sales tax”, it’s a “penny sales tax”.  As in “For pennies a day, you can support a stalled commuter  in Atlanta.”  But I digress.

It’s a daunting reality, since I will be voting on projects in places that I do not know.  And others from places that I do not know will be voting on projects that affect me.  As a resident of the Brookhaven Free State (north DeKalb County), I do take an interest in some of these projects, even though they do not directly improve my life.  The Atlanta Beltline is one such issue, and I’ve covered parts of it earlier.  The original concept of the Beltline was that of a continuous ring around the City of Atlanta.  Built in splendid isolation, the line would not connect to any other line.  There would be no street running.  From the beginning, the line was a gauzy combination of park, running trail, electric railroad and urban development plan.  Reality was bound to stick its head in eventually, but I respect what the Beltline planners were able to accomplish, which is to get Atlanta to think about its transportation structure.

In my opinion, the first phase of the Beltline should have been constructed from the Lindbergh station complex down to DeKalb Avenue.  Doing so would connect two MARTA heavy rail lines with Ansley Park, the Botanical Gardens, Piedmont Park, Grady High School, whatever they’re calling the old Sears building on Ponce, the new 4th Ward Park, the Carter Center and lots of residences along the way.

Of course, that would never do.  Out of respect for the political implications, the City of Atlanta’s leadership has broken the Beltline project up into two parts.  There will be a short segment of about 2 miles on the east side of Atlanta.  And there will be a short segment of about 3 miles on the west side, along with another short segment of about 2 miles that connects the west side to the Atlanta Streetcar Project.

The cars used on the Beltline will probably similar to this Charlotte car:

Siemens S70 Type

The plan is to share storage and maintenance facilities with the Atlanta Streetcar project.  Because these cars ride on flanged wheels rather than rubber tires, getting them out to the Beltline requires rail lines.  For the east side Beltline, a 0.7 mile-long right of way runs from the Beltline along Irwin Street and Jackson Street, connecting to the Atlanta Streetcar at the corner of Jackson and Auburn.

In addition to the Beltline trackage itself (2.6 miles), the west side line requires a connection to the rest of the system.  So the west side of the Beltline project will continue, operating on D. L. Hollowell Parkway to Northside Drive, then to North Avenue, ending at the North Avenue MARTA Station (2.2 miles).  A short segment (.7 miles) connects the west side line to the Atlanta Streetcar line at Centennial Park.  Here, the specifics of these two projects, complete with breathless bureaucratic prose:

TIA-AT-004

The red line is the Beltline right of way, the yellow line is the connector line to the Atlanta Streetcar project.  Here’s the pitch from the promoters:

This project will improve rail transit access to multiple regional employment and activity centers, including downtown Atlanta, by extending the TIGER II‐funded streetcar to the northeast Atlanta BeltLine corridor. The project includes the construction of a streetcar line with stations approximately every ½ mile and 10 years of operations and maintenance funding. It also includes upgrades to the TIGER II‐funded streetcar light maintenance facility at Edgewood Avenue and I‐75/85 as necessary to support a larger vehicle fleet. This project is included in the Atlanta BeltLine Redevelopment Plan, Connect Atlanta Plan, and PLAN 2040. The project begins at the eastern terminus of the TIGER II‐funded streetcar and proceeds through the King Historic District to join the BeltLine corridor at Edgewood Avenue or Irwin Street. The alignment follows the Atlanta BeltLine corridor across North Highland Avenue, SR 10 (Freedom Parkway), North Avenue and US 78/278 (Ponce De Leon Avenue). It terminates north of the intersection of 10th Street and Monroe Drive, which is the southeast corner of Piedmont Park. The project connects Centennial Olympic Park, Downtown Atlanta, Georgia State University, Inman Park Village, Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, Peachtree Center MARTA Station, Piedmont Park, Ponce City Market (AKA City Hall East), The Carter Center, and Woodruff Park.

The observant will notice that they’ve squeezed in some money for the Atlanta Streetcar Project in the form of improvements for the yet-to-be built service facility which will be located under the Downtown Connector.  In any case, the hard numbers: $173,941,758.

  •  Total Mileage: 2.6 miles
  • Cost per mile: $66,644,351.

TIA-AT-007

The red line is the Beltline right of way itself, the green line is the necessary connection to the balance of the streetcar system, which will be a revenue generating route.  The yellow line is the connector line to the Atlanta Streetcar project.  And, the breathless prose:

This project will improve rail transit access to multiple regional employment and activity centers, including downtown and midtown Atlanta, by extending the TIGER II‐funded funded streetcar to the southwest Atlanta BeltLine corridor. The project includes the construction of a streetcar line with stations approximately every ½ mile, an infill station on the MARTA Green Line and 10 years of operations and maintenance funding. It also includes upgrades to the TIGER II‐funded streetcar light maintenance facility at Edgewood Avenue and I‐75/85 as necessary to support a larger vehicle fleet or a new light maintenance facility on the west side of Atlanta. This project is included in the Atlanta BeltLine Redevelopment Plan, Connect Atlanta Plan, and PLAN 2040. The alignment begins at the intersection of SR 139 (Ralph David Abernathy) and Cascade Avenue and follows the Atlanta BeltLine corridor north across I‐20, Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and Joseph E. Boone Boulevard. At US 78/278 (Donald L. Hollowell Parkway), the alignment transitions to the street and follows US 78/278 (Donald L. Hollowell Parkway, Northside Drive and North Avenue) east to Luckie Street. At this point, the line splits with one branch turning south on Luckie Street to connect to the TIGER II‐funded streetcar at Centennial Olympic Park and the other branch continuing east on US 78/278 (North Avenue) to the North Avenue MARTA Station. The project includes an infill station on the MARTA Green Line at Joseph E. Boone Boulevard. The project connects Centennial Olympic Park, Downtown Atlanta, Georgia Aquarium, Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, Historic West End, Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, Midtown Atlanta, Peachtree Center MARTA Station, the Coca‐Cola Company headquarters, Washington Park, Woodruff Park and the World of Coca‐Cola.

The cost, tag, tax and dealer prep:  $427,950,719.

  • Total mileage: about 5.4
  • Cost per mile: $80,283,673.

The cost per mile for this project is higher because of all the street trackage.  One interesting addition is the “ infill station on the MARTA Green Line at Joseph E. Boone Boulevard.”  At this location, the Beltline right of way is occupied by the underutilized MARTA Green Line, so they’ll have to have parallel trackage because the Beltline cars and the MARTA cars are not compatible.  Since there will be track work built in close proximity to the MARTA line, they might as well build a station there.  Of course, it’s only 3/4 of a mile down the track to the Bankhead station on both lines, so you wonder why they’re building this.

As I said at the outset, my sentiments are toward the construction of a longer segment somewhere, rather than a series of shorter disjointed segments everywhere.  But that’s not the way the politics plays out.  And this is all about politics.  Also, there’s a lot of dewy-eyed optimism here, especially for the North Avenue to Bankhead Station segment.  You can just hear the promoters sighing “If you Build it, They Will Come“.  This quote comes from Field of Dreams, and it is helpful to remember that the movie was a work of fiction that centers on the absolute improbability of the events shown in it.  Say what you will, the political process that accompanies this vote, however messy, at least exposes proposed projects to the scrutiny of those who will be paying for it.

The bigger questions remain unanswered.  What is the intent of the Transportation Investment Act?  Does the Beltline fit into this intent?  How long will it take for the Beltline projects to have an effect upon Atlanta traffic?

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A couple days ago, there were two op-ed pieces in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, which I covered, here.  The subject centered on the Atlanta Beltline, which has a decided interest in the money collected by the proposed sales tax for the Atlanta region.  In one corner, mayor of the City of Atlanta Kasim Reed; in the other corner, mayor of the City of Sandy Springs, Eva Galambos.  In her op-ed piece, Galambos stated:

A close examination of the Beltline website maps reveals an astounding fact: Not a single segment of the proposed Beltline intersects the MARTA system at MARTA stations.

As it turns out, that wasn’t exactly right.  In today’s AJC, Thomas Weyandt, Jr., Senior Policy Adviser For Transportation in Mr. Reed’s office, called her on that statement.  As it turns out, there are now three proposed connections to MARTA.  They are, according to Mr. Weyandt, located at North Avenue station, Peachtree Center station and Joseph E. Boone Boulevard.  By the way, I had to look it up, but Joseph E. Boone Boulevard used to be called Simpson Road.  I’m not sure where the MARTA connection is on Boone Boulevard; it is possible that Mr. Weyandt is thinking of the MARTA Green Line station on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway.  (If you’re curious, that used to be Bankhead Highway…).

In any case, Ms. Galambos’ confusion is understandable.  I took the very interesting Beltline tour a couple years ago and at that point there was only one planned MARTA interface, at the Lindbergh Station complex.  During the tour, it became apparent that there were several other interesting problems that the designers were still wrestling with.  For example, there is no clear route between DeKalb Avenue and Memorial Drive due to the substantial presence of a railroad yard.  Another example is the stretch between the Water Works and Lindbergh Station.  Likewise, the Beltline will be operating near but not connected to at least two MARTA stations, one at West End and at Ashby.

Also apparent at that time was the fact that the Beltline system designers were dead-set against street running; that is, they did not want the Beltline’s cars going down city streets.  There’s a reason why:

In subsequent months, things have changed somewhat, but there has been precious little publicity of the changes.  Likewise, there are still issues.  Take a look at the maps for the Beltline, recently downloaded from the web site.

  • The orange lines are the Beltline Corridor
  • The yellow lines are MARTA heavy rail track
  •  The blue lines are the route of the Beltline driving tour
  • Black lines are walking and bicycling paths
  •  The gray line inside the orange line is the likely rail right of way

Consider these issues:

Inman Park / Reynoldstown Station

The presence of the CSX Intermodal Container Freight yard is an intimidating problem.  Only the famous Krog Street tunnel goes underneath the main body of the yard.  In looking at recent Beltline maps on their website, it appears that some of the problems are being addressed.  Note, below, that the Beltline Corridor, but not the track, has been extended up to the Reynoldstown side of the MARTA station.

Corridor Connection to Inman Park/Reynoldstown

At the same time, the exact routing of the Beltline right of way in this area is still not established.  And is unlikely to be established any time soon.

West End Station

So, too, the Beltline right of way goes near, but does not connect to the MARTA station at West End:

West End

Ashby Station

Continuing northward from the West End neighborhood, the Beltline misses Ashby Station, too:

Ashby Station

So, what about Mr. Weyandt’s statement that the Beltline connects to MARTA at Joseph E. Boone Boulevard?  Here’s the map of the locality:

Bankhead Station

Note that while the Beltline Corridor bicycle path connects Bankhead Station to the Westside Reservoir Park, the actual rail component of the Beltline is several blocks away from the Bankhead MARTA station.  Also, substantial bridge and street work is already being performed at the corner of Marietta Boulevard and D. L. Hollowell.  Presumably the Beltline right of way has been incorporated into the design.

[Note:  Subsequently, I discovered that there is a station planned for the intersection of the Beltline and the MARTA Green Line at Boone Boulevard.  At that point, the Green Line occupies the Beltline right of way, which means that the Beltline will have a new parallel right of way at that location.  So, they have planned to build a station at this location which will interface with MARTA.  The larger question is ignored, however.  The 1.5 mile long stand-alone section of the Green Line will have three stations located within .75 miles of each other.  This is a service density worthy of downtown, serving 50-storey buildings, not a residential neighborhood such as the area that the Green Line serves.  RO’C]

And, what about the connections at North Avenue station and Peachtree Center station?  The Peachtree Center Station connection is actually part of the new streetcar line from Centennial Park to the King Memorial Center, discussed here.  And the North Avenue Station?  It is miles from the Beltline corridor.

North Avenue Station (Center)

There is a semantic issue here.  Does having the Beltline Corridor constitute a connection to MARTA even though the Beltline cars will not stop at the MARTA stations?  While Ms. Galambos might be wrong about the Beltline’s connections to MARTA, she does point to another interesting issue.  Just what, exactly, is the Beltline project?  Is it transportation or is it urban renewal?

In an AJC Article, Reed hits back at Beltline critics, there is this statement:

But ridership and traffic mitigation were never touted as the main goals of the Beltline, Reed said. Instead, they were job creation, economic development and quality of life. The project is intended to make pedestrian lifestyles in the corridor more feasible and attractive, and thus attract denser growth like condos and office buildings to increase economic development. Reed noted that supporting economic growth was established as a primary goal for project selection, as approved by the roundtable, and that the Beltline was approved as an eligible project.

The proposed sales tax is supposed to enable the Transportation Investment Act.  How much of what we call the Beltline is actually transportation?

In the next few days, a closer look at the two Beltline components of the proposed tax.

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The City of Atlanta has always been rather proud of itself.  Tall buildings, a big airport on the south side of town, arts, entertainment and cuisine.  In so many ways, Atlanta offers a dose of sin for those deprived individuals who are not fortunate enough to call the City of Atlanta as home.  The City even promotes itself that way, “The ATL” and all that.  It’s like we’re a giant Stuckeys on the Interstate of Life.  “See the Two-Headed Calf!  The ATL Only 20 Miles”.  “Chenille Bedspreads.  The ATL Only 15 Miles”.  You get the picture.

Needless to say, this high opinion is not always shared by everybody, and there’s more than a little resentment from those outside of The ATL.  And, in some cases, the City of Atlanta serves as a cautionary tale who view us as a second-rate Gomorrah.  They’ve got due cause; consider that in the 1960’s the suburbanites would drive into town with their kids to stare at the hippies collected at 10th & Peachtree.

[Photo courtesy: Boyd Lewis]

So, in a few words, the City of Atlanta is both a source of entertainment and a source of irritation, all at once.  But, our view of the world is a bit shaded, like the “Map of New York”:

And Atlanta’s not even on their map.

So, the City of Atlanta’s view of the world can be pretty self-centered.  For example, consider today’s editorial page of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, in which the current mayor, Mr. Kasim Reed, avers that the Atlanta Beltline project is a regional transportation project and worthy of receiving funding from the proposed regional transportation tax.  To wit:

The Atlanta Beltline, with its direct routes into the heart of the city, provides critical last-mile connectivity to major activity and employment destinations in the downtown and Midtown business districts such as Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, CNN, the Georgia World Congress Center and Piedmont Park. There are more than 100,000 jobs within a quarter mile of these transit routes. In combination with other critical investments on the list, Atlanta’s transit project will strengthen the region’s core.

Key to this statement is the unspoken assumption that the MARTA heavy-rail system is a regional transportation system.  Which it currently is not.  Because of a variety of issues, MARTA remains a city system that might one day become a regional system.  It is not there yet.  Consider this statement from “Sales Tax Boosters Press for Transit Overhaul” (Atlanta Business Chronicle, September 16-22, 2011, page 2A):

Supporters of a 1-cent regional transportation sales tax are betting that downplaying the role a polarizing MARTA plays in Atlanta transit will convince voters to pass the tax referendum.

I’m a fan of the Beltline, if for no other reason than it was the project that actually got average people to seriously think about transit solutions to Atlanta’s traffic problems.  But the Beltline’s fortunes are inevitably connected to the fortunes of the MARTA heavy rail system.  And to call the Beltline a “regional solution” flies in the face of the realities.  A “regional” belt line railway solution would go from Marietta to Douglasville to Fairburn, to Jonesboro, to Conyers, to Snellville, to Lawrenceville, to Roswell and back.  Now, that’s a belt line.

Needless to say, not everybody in the 11-County regional transportation voting district are as breathless as Mayor Reed.  Consider the words of Eva Galambos, mayor of the just-slightly suburban City of Sandy Springs, who points out an inconvenient truth:

A close examination of the Beltline website maps reveals an astounding fact: Not a single segment of the proposed Beltline intersects the MARTA system at MARTA stations.

In other words, folks who will be riding whatever transit system the Beltline might eventually adopt (possibly streetcars) will not be able to get off those conveyances to transfer to MARTA trains at the MARTA stations.

Actually, the Beltline will interface with MARTA at the Lindbergh Station complex, but, overall, it’s not like we haven’t been here before.  The City of Atlanta is already enamored with another streetcar project that will do nothing to solve the Atlanta region’s traffic problems; please see here.  However good and potentially useful the Beltline project might be, it is beginning to look like just another ego-centric City of Atlanta project to the other voters for the transportation tax.

And it points to the larger fact that we as a region are being asked to vote for a lot of projects that are not in our immediate area of life.  There’s nothing right now but a lot of seemingly unrelated projects that just sort dab small solutions here and there that serve the special interests of one area or another.  As of this writing, there is no common thread that everybody in the region can fix their hopes on.    What we seek is a plan for a comprehensive solution for our region’s traffic problems.

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Pacific Electric Streetcar

If you’ve seen “Who Framed Roger Rabbit“, you pretty much know the story.

If the will is not found by midnight, Toontown will be sold to Cloverleaf Industries, which recently bought the Pacific Electric system of trolley cars…..  Since he owns Cloverleaf and Acme’s will has yet to turn up, he will take control of Toontown and destroy it with a mobile Dip-sprayer to make room for a freeway, then force people to use it by dismantling the trolley fleet.

Of course, what makes this interesting is that there really was a “Cloverleaf Industries” that bought the 1,000 mile long Pacific Electric and dismantled it, forcing people to the freeways.  In this particular case, Hollywood got it right:

Remaining Pacific Electric passenger service was sold off in 1953 to a company known as Metropolitan Coach Lines, whose intention was to convert all rail service to bus service as quickly as possible.  Jesse Haugh, of Metropolitan Coach Lines was a former executive of Pacific City Lines which together with National City Lines and General Motors acquired local streetcar systems across the country with the intention of shutting them down and converting them to bus operation in what became known as the Great American Streetcar Scandal.

The scandal goes kind of like this:

In 1935, the Congress of the U.S. passed a law forbidding electric utility companies from operating public transportation services; this is where the conspiracy begins. A group of companies had been formed earlier to begin to buy-up these trolley companies and municipal electric railways. Once in control of these conspirators, the push was on to convert the electric systems of public conveyance to gasoline and diesel powered buses built by the lead conspirator General Motors, under a subsidiary named “Omnibus Corporation”.

GM and other companies were subsequently convicted in 1949, of conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses and related products via a complex network of linked holding companies. (Some of the convicted co-conspirators included Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California and Mack Trucks, to name a few).

It should be noted that many of the fledgling street car companies and interurban lines had originally come into being because of the electric power generating industry.  It was a natural outgrowth of their business, starting in the late 1800’s and continuing for decades until the industry fell apart in the 1929 crash.  Where once the streetcar companies had reigned supreme, now the industry had fallen out of favor.  Samuel Insull would be the poster child, but as with so much else in American business, while Congress giveth, Congress can also taketh away.  After a sufficient amount of money is spent on lobbying.

Nor was this process of dismantling confined to Los Angeles, it happened all over the country.  Including Atlanta.  Where once there were large systems of electric powered streetcars, National City and other companies soon replaced them with buses that ran on rubber tires and used hydrocarbon-based fuel.

Students of the nation’s streetcar systems usually shrug when people discover that this really happened.  You can’t change history.  Probably the bigger question is:

  • Did National City and other such companies merely respond to market conditions?
  • Or, did they deliberately destroy the streetcar systems to further their own marketing goals?

It’s an interesting problem, and there’s more than a little evidence to support each position.  Certainly in post-war America, people were ready for change.  And that change was in the form of the automobile.  Likewise, the trolleys had been around forever, making them a memory of the past rather than a view of the future.  So, too, the automobile represented freedom.

The Bus Ascendant

One of the key players in the Atlanta transportation scene from the 1920’s until the 1970’s was John C. Steinmetz.

John C. Steinmetz

In so many ways, Steinmetz was Greyhound’s man in Atlanta, but it was more than that.  In addition to purchasing and disassembling the Atlanta & Northern, mentioned in my earlier blog item, Steinmetz built up a series of bus routes throughout Atlanta:

Steinmetz Bus Routes, 1950

[It should be noted that the above route map shows the city’s Interstate routes, but they are there for reference only.  In 1950, there was no Interstate highway system.]

In any case, these bus routes were eventually sold in 1951 to a subsidiary company of the Atlanta Transit Company, which itself had originally been a subsidiary of Georgia Power.  At about the same time (1949), Atlanta’s streetcars had been removed from the city, replaced with electric powered buses.

Atlanta Trolley Bus

By 1963, the trolley buses (also called trackless trolleys) would be gone too, completely replaced by diesel powered buses, most of them built by a General Motors subsidiary.

An Interesting Discovery

An interesting discovery turned up during research for this blog series.  I had read the text before but had not paid attention to what I was reading.  In Jean Martin’s “Mule to MARTA, Volume II” (Atlanta Historical Society, 1977), an entire chapter is devoted to John Steinmetz.

Martin states on pages 167 and 168:

“….he consolidated his bus ventures and ultimately expanded them to provide motor coach transportation from Miami to Chicago, from Augusta to New York, and from Atlanta to Birmingham and Montgomery.  Steinmetz was ably assisted in his scheme by William B. Hartsfield, his legal counsel and close friend, who negotiated the acquisitions of the diverse jitney lines in Georgia and other states to eliminate unwanted competition.

But aside from fashioning strong bonds of friendship between the two men, their frequent business trips by the coaches of Steinmetz also planted the seeds of Hartsfield’s strong advocacy of interstate highway construction programs and his support of the replacement of electric streetcars and trackless trolleys with city buses which he later championed as mayor of the city of Atlanta”.

Yep.  It’s that  William B. Hartsfield, mayor of Atlanta from 1937 – 1941 and 1942 – 1961.  No wonder the electric powered car lines of Atlanta went away.  The fix was already in.

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The Streetcars

Traffic wasn’t always this way.  Years earlier, Atlanta had a streetcar system.  So did Macon, Savannah, Columbus and Athens, among others.  Even in the early days, the inherent advantages of steel wheels operating on steel rails were apparent.  Animal horsepower would switch to electric horsepower.

Near Five Points

As with other cities, the new trolley was used as a tool of real estate development.  Inman Park, Atlanta’s first suburb, was served by an electric powered car line:

Inman Park Trolley Car Barn

Fortunately, the car barn and Inman Park remain to this day:

Inman Park Today

The new car lines were built with private capital, so the car routes followed existing traffic patterns or tried to establish new patterns (such as the Inman Park line).  Trolley cars were a new technology, subject to the same rules that affect all new technology.  Which is to say that car lines were built, often with the hope that they would be purchased by better established companies.  Briefly, from an online site:

In 1871, the Atlanta Street Railroad Co. began operating the first mule cars. Eventually there were six operating street railway companies, which in 1891 merged into the Atlanta Consolidated Street Railway Co. Between 1889 and 1894, electric operation was adopted for all streetcar lines.

What followed was the first of a series of expansions and consolidations.  What happened in Atlanta also describes transit development in major cities across the United States.  In the early days, streetcars were a mania, with numerous operators getting in “on the ground floor” of this new technology.  Not unlike the previous and subsequent manias where a lot of investment money is thrown into a new technology.  Things reach a frenetic stage and then the economic realities close in and the investors sober up.  Some lose their investment, while others luck out and get bought.

Because of Atlanta’s central status in the Southeastern United States, the city developed a substantial transit system.  The Atlanta system carried passengers on 210 miles of track, comprised of 24 city car routes.  Several of these routes, such as the venerable 23 – Oglethorpe line, were very long.  Some operated on segments of private right of way.  The 2 – Ponce de Leon line traveled through the Frederick Law Olmsted designed park land.  Most people rode the cars, even the city’s school students.  Here, a map from 1924:

Atlanta Streetcar Routes - 1924

The streetcars went away in 1949, and probably with just cause, their design dating back to the 1910’s and earlier.  Likewise, because of the massive effort by the United States in World War II, many transportation systems had suffered deferred maintenance.  The war effort drew away all available resources.  At the end of the War, things needed to be repaired and improved.  It often was easier to abandon them and start anew.

Georgia Railway & Power City Car

The Interurbans

This is not a paean to the late great Georgia Railway & Power streetcar, but with the passing of the Atlanta streetcars, two interesting operations were also casualties.  In addition to its city lines, GR&P had two interurban lines.  These lines operated at higher speeds, traveling both from Atlanta to Marietta and from Atlanta to Stone Mountain.  The cars on these lines were more than just a streetcar, but not as big as a Class I railroad passenger train.  They were ideally suited to local intercity travel.

Interurban & Trailer on Houston Street after arriving in Atlanta from Marietta

Typically, these cars would operate on city streets at modest speeds.  Once they reached the edge of town, they would operate at much higher speeds (up to 65 mph) on private rights of way.  The Atlanta interurban lines were a small part of a much larger phenomenon.  The electric powered interurban was very popular in the Midwest and the Northeast, with thousands of miles of track.  In addition to carrying passengers, the interurbans also carried package express (similar to UPS and FedEx) and freight.

The Marietta interurban, formally known as the Atlanta & Northern, would leave Marietta’s city square at the striking of the hour on the courthouse clock.  Less than an hour later, the car would pull up to a station facility in downtown Atlanta, having traveled through Smyrna, and Bolton; the line generally followed Atlanta Road.  Outside of cities and towns, the line ran on private right of way, operating in the city streets of Marietta, Smyrna and Atlanta.  It crossed the Chattahoochee at Bolton, then returned to private right of way on what is now Marietta Boulevard.  It was on that particular stretch of track where the Atlanta & Northern flew at top speed.  Once to Marietta Road, the car returned to staid city street speeds, ending up in downtown Atlanta near Five Points.

The line enjoyed popularity for years.  An Atlanta Business Chronicle article  reports the sentiments of the day.  The Marietta interurban also played a significant role during World War II, ferrying a large number of employees out from Atlanta to the Bell Bomber Plant (now the Lockheed-Martin facility at Dobbins AFB).

But after World War II, the A&N would go away.  The details are clear: “Marietta route sold in 1946 to Atlanta Northern Lines, which converted line to buses in 1947, and resold line to Southeastern Greyhound Lines in 1948.”

There are still some vestiges of the Marietta interurban, most notably the Ashby Street car barn.  For details, please see here.  In other areas, if you know what to look for, you can see where the line had operated.  At the center of this change was an individual named J. C. Steinmetz.  According to this website:

The Greyhound Lines of Georgia was a result of the work of J.C. Steinmetz, whom the officers of the MTC  [Motor Transit Corporation] had sent in 1927 to the Southeast to spearhead the growth of Greyhound in that direction and to provide Greyhound with a gateway for the important (that is, potentially lucrative and therefore profitable) passenger traffic between Florida and the populous Midwest.

Steinmetz proved to be quite capable of handling his job.  In addition to the takeover and dismantling of the Atlanta & Northern, he also established several city bus lines that served areas not covered by the Georgia Railway & Power streetcars, most notably the Garden Hills neighborhood in Atlanta.  These lines were ultimately purchased by Atlanta Transit.

The Ashby Carbarn site notes:

The demise of the system cannot only be attributed to the buses of Steinmetz. Although his purchase was a contributing factor, the writing was on the wall for all to see. The mobility of the gas powered bus, the rise of Greyhound Bus Lines and the automobile manufacturers, along with tire and rubber companies were too strong a lobby for the privately held interurban public systems to overcome. After WW II, the automobile age boomed, war vets were returning, gas rationing was a thing of the past and the pent-up consumer demand for the freedom of the automobile all contributed to the interurban’s final demise.

Steinmetz was also involved in a similar transaction in 1949 which ultimately closed an 18-mile long electric interuban which operated between Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the western suburb of Waukesha.

There was a certain sense of inevitability to the closing of Atlanta’s electric powered car lines.  Popular tastes change, people seek out the new and novel.  At the time of the A&N’s demise, Marietta’s mayor was making loud sounds about getting the car line out of the town’s central square; presumably, this made Marietta look old fashioned.  Nor was this problem the sole property of the interurbans.  The Class I railroad passenger train was facing the same challenge of competing modes of transport.  Like the interurban, the privately operated railroad passenger train in America was also doomed.  In no small part, the highway killed it.

Regardless, I feel that the disappearance of the Marietta Interurban Line and the Stone Mountain line is at the center of Atlanta’s descent into traffic problems.  You have to wonder what would have happened if the line had been retained.  Sixty years later, would this have been the vital transit artery between Cobb County and Atlanta?

The Four Lane

The sale of the Marietta interurban line more or less coincided with the construction of an improved nearby highway, U. S. Route 41 (called the Marietta Four-Lane by locals).  The Four Lane drew passenger traffic away from the electric powered interurban.  The resulting loss of passenger traffic made the electric powered train go away, supplanted by a rubber tired diesel bus which used the new highway.  The Atlanta to Stone Mountain line met a similar fate.

There was, of course, some wailing at the departure of the streetcars, but most of Atlanta was too preoccupied with other matters to really care.  The War was over and people were ready for change.  Also, the streetcars had fallen into decrepitude, so a nice new shiny bus was welcomed.  The bigger matter was that most people were, instead, looking at a nice new shiny automobile.

The Automobile Ascendant

As Interstate and local highway construction developed momentum, Atlanta ended up as the crossroads of concrete in much the same manner as it had become the crossroads of railroads.  It’s all location, location, location, but while the railroads were able to keep a handle on their traffic flow, automobiles would prove to be a much more complicated problem.

In the early days of Interstate construction, it was assumed that only through traffic would use the highways; local traffic supposedly would continue operating on existing surface streets.  As a result, I-85 was two lanes in each direction.  I-75 was two lanes in each direction.  When they merged in the center of Atlanta, the two roads had three lanes in each direction.  Even then, the numbers didn’t work out, but the die was cast.  Atlanta had placed its faith with the ability of the automobile.

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To borrow from Ko-Ko’s song “As someday it may happen that a victim must be found” in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado”:

  • As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
    I’ve got a little list — I’ve got a little list
    Of transit projects that might well be underground,
    And that never would be missed — that never would be missed!

We are in the public hearing phase of the Atlanta transportation tax project list, a list that is to be finalized by October 15th.  Public hearings always have a kabuki-like atmosphere; you know pretty much what will be said by those attending.  There will be the impassioned pleas for a pet project that is close to home.  There will also be impassioned demands that something be changed.  Lots of passion, because only those with some sort of intense interest in the subject are going to show up.

The project list is being drawn up by the Atlanta Regional Roundtable:

  • The Transportation Investment Act creates a regional roundtable in each of the state’s 12 regions to that includes the county commission chair and one mayor from each of the counties. The membership of the Atlanta Regional Roundtable (PDF) also includes the mayor of Atlanta. The Atlanta region consists of 10 counties: Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale.

The Atlanta Regional Roundtable website is located here.  The working draft list of proposed projects is located here.  It’s a long list, but to get a better idea about the projects being proposed, I recommend that you take the Atlanta Regional Roundtable survey, located here.

And NO, you cannot just check “I support all transit projects listed.”  To do so is the coward’s way out, especially in light of the fact that we as a community will be spending $6 Billion on transportation projects over the next ten years.  And, given the fact that once in place, taxes never seem to go away, we’ll be spending money on transportation projects from here on out.

To me, the central issue is the phrase “we as a community“, because as you get into the survey, you realize that you are being asked to support a variety of projects that are nowhere close to your normal paths of travel.  No, go ahead and dig right in.

  • How about spending $30.5 million on: “This project involves the development and installation of a comprehensive Passenger Information System which will provide real time information to passengers using existing information systems and synchronize ADA compliant messaging in all 38 rail transit stations.”
  • Or $70 million on: “This project widens and realigns 3.30 miles of SR 140, from East Cherokee Drive to Mountain Road, from 2 to 4 lanes. This section of SR 140 is one of the top 10% most congested arterials/major roads in the Atlanta Metro area.”

I don’t even know where this Cherokee County project is located and yet I’m being asked to vote for it.  And it is this problem that is at the core of the whole TSPLOST vote.

For the first time since the formation of MARTA in the late 1960’s, the Atlanta region is being asked to think as a region.  And that may prove to be a challenge.  The transportation project list is being drawn up by our political leadership, and this appears to be proving difficult.  Political careers on are on the line.

My problem with the project list is that I have the nagging suspicion that there likely to be wasteful spending in there somewhere.  It’s one thing to be watching a project nearby, another thing to watch a project which is 40 miles away, in a place that I rarely if ever travel.

Consider the Emory Shuttle project.  There had been background discussions about building a shuttle line from the MARTA Lindbergh Station to Emory University.  Perfectly fine, especially if you have recently tried to find a parking space in the Emory area.  Any parking space.

In its first public appearance, Kyle Wingfield reported:

  • For a combination heavy- and light-rail line from the Lindbergh MARTA station to Emory University, $92 million per mile.

Fine enough.  It’s about 4 miles, so 4 x 92M = $376 Million.  The number did make me curious, so I contacted a friend who had retired from a management position in the track department of a major railroad.  How much does it cost for a mile of railroad track?

His reply:  “Attached is an estimate form for track construction costs in 2009, probably pretty close today’s cost considering the economy.  What are you building? ”  Let’s face it, we don’t go down to the corner store and buy a mile of track every day.  Since I know that you’re curious, the 2009 bid for a mile of track came in at $1,159, 352.00 per mile.  Property acquisition, bridge construction, signals, support buildings, locomotives & cars not included.

So, how did we get from $1,159, 352.00 per mile to $92 million per mile?  But wait, there’s more.  Now that MARTA has become involved, the cost has blossomed to $700,000,000.00 (or about $175 million per mile).  If you don’t believe me, it’s project TIA‐M‐028 on the “constrained” list.

The TSPLOST vote is a matter of trust, and for something as big as the projects which are being proposed, that’s a whole lot of trust.

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I started writing about this subject two weeks ago with the intention of wrapping things up in one blog item.  As I slaved away, blazing past 4,000 words, I came to realize just how complicated this topic was proving to be.  Nobody has the time nor the inclination to sit down and read 10,000 words on the Atlanta traffic problem and its possible solutions.  There are blogs out there which are strictly devoted to the topic.  So, I’m breaking up my thoughts on this subject into smaller items, out of respect for you and out of respect for the balance of my life.  The same rules apply though; since I don’t work for anyone but myself, I can pretty much say what’s on my mind and you can figure out things for yourself. 

People have been griping about Atlanta traffic since I got here in 1965.  There seems little possibility of change in the immediate future.  What has changed is the realization that this has become a serious matter.  A lot of people moved to Atlanta because it’s a great city to call home, but if the traffic is hurting the quality of life issues, then it’s not such a great city after all.

For years, much has been made about America’s dependence upon foreign crude oil.  This concern has long been at the center of transportation discussions, but there are indications that this is not the issue that it once was.  Please see here.  What has not changed is the reality that time spent in traffic is time taken away from everything else, not to mention the toll which it takes on our environment and on our lives.

At this writing, there is not much popular support for an additional tax.  And there is a lot of pushback and fear.  Our challenge is to find some sort of middle way, where all of the good people of Atlanta will be served.  It is too important not to.

*****

Georgia is about to vote on a transportation sales tax.  Courtesy of House Bill 277, the State of Georgia has been divided into 12 regions, each of which will vote on transportation projects and the taxes required for those projects.  [Of the 12 regions, only 3 voted to add a transportation tax; Atlanta was not one of them. ro’c] While all of Georgia may be considering solutions to its transportation concerns, Atlanta is the poster child for the problem.

As it was earlier with railroads and with commercial air travel, Atlanta is the crossroads of the Southeastern United States.  Three major Interstate Highways converge in Atlanta.  This combines truck traffic with tourists traveling in RV’s to see The Mouse in Orlando.  Added to the mix is a substantial amount of local commuter traffic.  Through trucks are prohibited from travel within the Atlanta Perimeter highway, so some of the traffic problems simply are moved out to the edge of the center city.  And when the weather turns bad……

Atlanta’s transportation issues, along with the rest of Georgia’s, have been deferred for a number of years.  In particular, the eight years of administration by former governor Sonny Perdue were hallmarked by a seeming absence of interest in the topic.  To be sure, the matter was discussed but little was actually done.  In contrast, the current governor, Nathan Deal, has acted quietly behind the scenes.  The Deal administration acted in a similar fashion when a cheating scandal threatened the credibility of the Atlanta Public Schools.

Of course, this being Atlanta, this blog posting only talks about the Atlanta region’s issues although the discussion is taking place state-wide.  The hard-core policy junkies are now flailing away at the prospect of Metro Atlanta voting itself a 1% sales tax increase to pay for transportation improvements.  They are careful to call it a “penny tax“, presumably in the hope that people won’t be overwhelmed with the prospects of spending $6.0 Billion on local transportation.   For specific project information, please see the Atlanta Roundtable page.

Not that the Atlanta metropolitan area couldn’t use some relief.  Here, an average sample from any weekday at any time from 7:30 AM to 9:30 AM or 3:00 Pm to 7:00 PM, along with more at random times after an accident:

It should be noted that in the early 1970’s, the above location had three lanes of highway in each direction.  Now there are six, with an additional lane of longer exit ramps.  Adding more lanes only gets you so far before more traffic is attracted to the additional new lanes.  They’ve run out of side-room for more lanes, all that’s left now is to stack them up like a chocolate layer cake.  It’s not much of a consolation, but traffic is even worse on the Perimeter, I-285.  And the suburban counties such as Clayton, Cobb and Gwinnett have local traffic problems, too.

It’s pretty hard to deny that Atlanta has a traffic problem; Forbes Magazine says we’re #4. In part, Atlanta has spread out from Five Points because there are few natural barriers to growth.  Denver has the Front Range of the Rockies, Manhattan has the rivers, Chicago has the lake.  Atlanta has no such restrictions and has grown accordingly.  Atlanta is also a racially diverse area, and growth has allowed some people to get away from other people.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but one end result has been that it is difficult to get these groups of people to agree on much of anything.  So, it has been easy to defer discussion about traffic.  Until it can’t be ignored any longer.

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