Archive for October, 2011

Artist's Conception

Popular tastes change.  Sometimes they change because people want to do something differently.  In other cases, change is helped along by unseen hands.  Consider downtown Atlanta.

There was a time when downtown Atlanta was a vibrant place.  Then there was a time when it was decidedly not a vibrant place.  In my recent visits to downtown, all one of them, it seems to be alive again, but with an entirely different cast of characters.  Where once it was the local populace of Atlanta, now it appears to be those who are visiting from other places.  Things change.  A local saying was: “Then grits ain’t groceries and Peachtree don’t go to town.”  For most residents of Atlanta, Peachtree no longer goes to town.  Why should it when every neighborhood in Atlanta has any number of fine restaurants, grocery stores, theaters and just about everything else that a soul needs?  Yes, traffic patterns change, but the change in downtown Atlanta’s personality was helped along by an unintended consequence.

There was a time when the paper bus transfer played a key role in downtown Atlanta’s daily life.

Bus Transfer

The above slip of paper comes to us from the City of Cincinnati, but every town with more than one trolley or bus line had them.  The idea was that you got on the bus to ride across town to a destination, but this required riding on two different buses.  So, when you got on the first bus, you paid your fare and asked for a transfer.  This from the Roanoke bus system:

  • Transferring to Another Bus Route

  1. Free transfer slips are available for passengers who need to take more than one bus route to reach their destination. Ask the operator on your first bus for the transfer slip when you pay your fare.
  2. The transfer slip is good for 30 minutes after the time your first bus reaches the end of its route.  This transfer slip is only valid at our Campbell Court transfer center, or at a connecting end-of-the bus line.
Courtesy: Oran Viriyincy

Bus Transfers

Notice the phrase “The transfer slip is good for 30 minutes after the time your first bus reaches the end of its route.”  So, you get to downtown Atlanta, where your first bus terminates.  You’ve got twenty minutes before your continuing bus arrives.  Or, perhaps, a bit longer.  In many cases, bus drivers could be persuaded to extend the life span of the bus transfer by merely slipping it just a bit further down before tearing it off.  You’ve got plenty of time.  What to do?

For many years, in downtown Atlanta you ducked into little grocery stores, or food shops, or a tailoring shop, or a watch repair shop, or a bank.  Lots of shops.  At that time, downtown Atlanta was alive because it was the center of commercial activity.  In addition to the tall buildings with lawyers and business executives, Atlanta was alive with the vibrancy of an active community of small businesses.

The unintended consequence came when the MARTA heavy rail system was built.  Once the system grew into its present state, buses which used to go all the way into town now were routed into the various rail stations of the system.  Bus transfers are still issued, but where once the point of transfer occurred in downtown Atlanta, it now occurs at a distant MARTA station.  The people that were once in downtown Atlanta because of bus transfers now ride underneath the streets through downtown.  Under the place where stores used to be.

It was probably nothing deliberate on the part of the system’s designers.  And the decay of the old downtown Atlanta was already well under way when MARTA came to town, but I’m old enough to remember a little French restaurant on a side street in what we now call Fairlie-Poplar.  It was Emile’s, and it is long gone.  Paul Hemphill declared his independence from the newspaper there.  Like so many other institutions in downtown Atlanta, Emile’s went away.  It is highly unlikely that Emile’s relied upon the paper bus transfer in the first place.  It wasn’t that kind of restaurant.  But the vibrant downtown Atlanta scene that once was has changed because the bus transfer traffic went away.

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Speaking of political dynamics, DeKalb County is, as usual, in a political uproar.  This time, it’s about transportation funding.  As we approach the October 15th “deadline” for agreement on the proposed transportation projects, a squabble has broken out over rail transit in South DeKalb.  The most recent coverage is here.  The central issue appears to be:

  • Chief Executive Burrell Ellis wants to fully fund the $522 million project by pulling money from a popular road project in north Fulton County. A county commissioner has countered that the county should instead cut back spending on another rail line in central DeKalb.

Actually, cutting back spending “on another rail line in central DeKalb” is a very good idea.  The “another rail line” is the Emory Shuttle line, and it could use some cutting.  I wrote about this earlier, but it’s worth repeating:

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.

What is interesting is the fact that the original plan cited by Wingfield was $92 Million per mile, but if you look across the county line at the Beltline projects, they come in at about $66 Million per mile (the east side line) and $80 Million per mile (the west side line).  And, $92 Million can possibly be justified because the Emory Shuttle line will have several bridge structures, which are costly.

MARTA has two tools in their kit; heavy rail and bus service.  There already is bus service to the Emory area, which wends and twists its way from one heavy rail station, through Emory and then twists its way to another heavy rail station.  And, apparently, it has never occurred to MARTA to create an express bus service from the nearest heavy rail station directly to the Emory area.  This is just further evidence that MARTA has evolved into a bureaucracy that has difficulty doing anything quickly.

By bringing in MARTA, the cost of the project has easily doubled, and we’re just talking about the estimated costs.  Just wait until they start pouring concrete.  The point being that MARTA has all sorts of attendant costs that a simpler design would not.  There are any number of things that will add to the cost of a MARTA heavy rail line to Emory.  All sorts of things.  There will, of course, need to be artwork:


There will be countless studies, compliance officers, sub-contractor documentation, impact studies and much, much more.  This is not to say that a $93 Million per mile project doesn’t have such things, but the proportions get much bigger with a heavy rail line.  And, if you want art, there are lots of free-lancers out there with spray cans that are eager to help.

This is a classic case of mission creep.  Where something starts off at one level and then everybody starts piling on.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  Consider the Princeton University “Dinky”:

Princeton "Dinky"

One train, traveling three miles, from the four track, high-speed NE Corridor:

The "Dinky" at Princeton Junction

Through the woods to Princeton University:

Right to the edge of campus:

Princeton University Station

Since it is the only train on the line, the Princeton Dinky only needs signals at street grade crossings.  It is not a high-speed train, merely a system which takes people from point A to point B, from the high speed trains of the NE Corridor to the ivied corridors of a major university.

Woodrow Wilson and Albert Einstein rode the Princeton Dinky.  And it doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to figure out that an Emory Shuttle doesn’t need to be $700,000,000.00 undertaking.

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