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Archive for January, 2013

Image

This photograph is a classic example of the image created by the Atlanta public relations machine.  Clean, modern, with free-flowing traffic.

As could be expected, it tells only part of the story because for many years, if the photographer had turned around 180°, they would have seen this modern highway dead ending into a traffic light at the intersection with Boulevard Drive.  Now, of course, you can see the Freedom Parkway (called the Ex-Pres Highway by some local wags) extending off towards the Carter Center and beyond, but not in the days of 40 years ago.  And, therein lies the story.

Atlanta has never been big about historic preservation.  I feel that this goes back to the Civil War, when most of downtown Atlanta was burned to the ground.  The City was rebuilt and never wanted to look back, a characteristic which seems to hold to this day.  We’re better about it now, in no small part thanks to the Save the Fox movement, which gained momentum in the early 1970’s.  In retrospect, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s proved to be pivotal for Atlanta in a number of ways.  Consider this, from MARTA’s website:

“In the 1960s regional planners and transit experts focused on proposals for rapid transit systems, highlighted by a Metropolitan Atlanta Transit Study Commission report recommending a 66-mile, five-county rail system with feeder bus operation and park-and-ride facilities.”

That is, the notion of “MARTA” began to develop in the 1960’s.  It was a logical choice since Atlanta was a major crossroads of the South.  The Federal government had a significant presence here.  The city’s airport was growing, too.  So, having a major rapid transit system made sense.

At the same time, the Georgia Highway Department (now the Georgia Department of Transportation) had plans of its own for Atlanta:

The Unbuilt Freeways

The Unbuilt Freeways

In essence, there would be a second North / South freeway (I-485) parallel to the Downtown Connector that would connect I-85 / Georgia 400 at Lindbergh Drive to I-75 south of town.  A second highway would connect the Lakewood Freeway to I-20, east of downtown.  A third highway would connect downtown Atlanta to the Stone Mountain Freeway.

The Georgia Highway Department was accustomed to having its way; it did not know the word “compromise”.  For the Department in that era, it was “My Way – The Highway”.  And so the stage was set for what has been described as the Atlanta Freeway Revolt.  You can read the specifics, here, but the net effect was that the center of Atlanta made significant decisions about its transportation future.  Standing back, you can see the general idea of things, but what the Highway Department had not counted on was the changing demographics of central Atlanta.

In looking back, you can see how this got going.  After years of white flight to the suburbs, Atlanta had begun to stabilize.  Young people had come to Atlanta to start their careers.  The Allman Brothers were playing at Piedmont Park.  There were still hippies on Peachtree and Tenth.  These young professionals had just endured the turbulent 1960’s, filled with social unrest.  Fresh out of college and fresh out of law school, these young people had taken up residence in the in-town neighborhoods.  Many of their neighbors were old-time Atlantans, who liked their neighborhoods just as they were.  And into this came the ham-handed actions of the Highway Department.  It was a recipe for conflict and people were itching for a fight.

Proposed Freeways in Atlanta

Proposed Freeways in Atlanta

What the map does not show is that much of the chosen routes for these freeways were located in the middle of some prime Atlanta real estate.  The Stone Mountain Freeway would pass through Fernbank Forest and Olmsted Park.  I-485 would split the Morningside neighborhood into two segments.  Less attention was focused on the Lakewood Freeway extension, which ran through more industrial neighborhoods.  But the net result was that popular opposition to the highways developed quickly.  Forty years later, it’s become a dim memory for many, and for those who have moved to Atlanta in recent years, an unknown event.  At the time, passions were high; people were chaining themselves to trees at the corner of Ponce de Leon and Moreland Avenue.

I-485 was removed from the DoT’s wish list in 1975, but it would be almost twenty years before a small segment of the road opened as Freedom Parkway.  Thirty years later, the Beltline is beginning to take shape.  Passions have cooled in the intervening years, but in certain quarters in Atlanta, the mere mention of I-485 is guaranteed to get some people sputtering.

After the long fought highway war, people were eager to get on with the day-to-day issues of life instead of battling over highways.  So, they went home and left one minor matter unresolved.  What to do about the long-term increased demand for highway space?  And, on most afternoons, traffic starts to back up on I-85 and Georgia 400 at what would have been the junction for I-485 southbound.  Southbound traffic is congested from there down to I-20 and beyond.

One of the interesting highway conundrums is that adding additional highway lanes ultimately results in more traffic jams.  Ultimately, we can’t add enough highway lanes to solve our transit problem in Atlanta.  This issue was supposed to have been addressed by the proposed MARTA system of the 1960’s, but it is a long leap from “a 66-mile, five-county rail system with feeder bus operation and park-and-ride facilities” to what we have today.

We need a regional transportation plan and nothing seems to be on the horizon.

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151572326Atlanta, Traffic

Just for perspective, let’s look around the region and see what other state’s capital cities are doing about transit.

Obviously, transit options have a lot to do with population size and the presence of highways, but this little survey also points out a couple interesting facts.  There are also a few caveats; the population data is generally sourced from Wikipedia, and it may not be entirely accurate.  I’ve tried to keep it close, but no guarantee is made.

Most of these state capitals only have bus systems, and many of these bus systems have variable routes.  That is, to save money, some bus routes are operated as joint routes, while others operate on variable traffic patterns.  Also, it should be noted that many bus routes may operate at rush hour only, or operate in dedicated service (such as to & from work sites).  So the number of bus routes may seem to be greater than they really are in terms of overall service.  Likewise, the Wikipedia items are not necessarily up to date.  For example, the Wikipedia page for MARTA states “132 bus routes”, while the MARTA site states “91 bus routes”.  I have not tried to include ridership numbers since they were not readily available; I leave this up to the number crunching types.  I’ve tried for accuracy, using these systems’ websites or Wikipedia as a source for information.  Again, no guarantees.

Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta

Atlanta

  • MSA Rank -9
  • City population, regional population – 432,427, 5,268,860
  • Interstate Highway(s) – 3 (I-20, I-75, I-85)
  • Perimeter Highway – 1 (I-285)
  • Transit System, Heavy Rail? – Yes, 4 lines, 48 miles
  • Transit System, Light Rail? – Yes, under construction
  • Transit System, Buses? – Yes, 91 routes (MARTA), 7 (Cobb Community) and 5 (Gwinnett)
  • Regional Bus Service? – Yes, 39 routes (GRTA)
  • Commuter Rail? – No
  • Highway Commuter Lanes? – Yes

And, in alphabetical order by state, other state capitals in our region:

Montgomery, Alabama

450px-Alabama_State_Capitol_front_Apr2009

  • MSA Rank – 136
  • City population, regional population – 208,182, 374,536
  • Interstate Highway(s) – 2 (I-65, I-85)
  • Perimeter Highway – No
  • Transit System, Heavy Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Light Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Buses? – Yes, 14 routes
  • Regional Bus Service? – No
  • Commuter Rail? – No
  • Highway Commuter Lanes? – ??

Little Rock, Arkansas

Little Rock

Little Rock

  • MSA Rank – 344
  • City population, regional population – 195,314, 709,901
  • Interstate Highway(s) – 2 (I-30, I-40)
  • Perimeter Highway – Yes, plus additional Interstates (I-530, I-630)
  • Transit System, Heavy Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Light Rail? – Yes, River Rail (2 lines)
  • Transit System, Buses? – Yes, 21 routes)
  • Regional Bus Service? – Yes, 3 routes
  • Commuter Rail? No
  • Highway Commuter Lanes? – ??

Tallahassee, Florida

Tallahassee

Tallahassee

  • MSA Rank – 138
  • City population, regional population – 182,965, 367,413
  • Interstate Highway(s) – 1 (I-10)
  • Perimeter Highway – No
  • Transit System, Heavy Rail? – No
  •  Transit System, Light Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Buses? – Yes, 12 routes
  • Regional Bus Service? – ??
  • Commuter Rail? – No
  • Highway Commuter Lanes? – No

Frankfort, Kentucky

Frankfort

Frankfort

  • MSA Rank – 106
  • City population, regional population – 25,583, 472,099
  • Interstate Highway(s) – 1 (I-64)
  • Perimeter Highway – No
  • Transit System, Heavy Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Light Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Buses? – Yes (3 routes)
  • Regional Bus Service? – ??
  • Commuter Rail? – No
  • Highway Commuter Lanes? – No

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Baton Rouge

Baton Rouge

  • MSA Rank – 66
  •  City population, regional population – 230,139, 705,973
  • Interstate Highway(s) – 2 (I-10, I-12)
  • Perimeter Highway – No
  • Transit System, Heavy Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Light Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Buses? – Yes, 20 routes
  • Regional Bus Service? – ??
  • Commuter Rail? – No
  • Highway Commuter Lanes? – ??

Jackson, Mississippi

Jackson

Jackson

  • MSA Rank – 95
  • City population, regional population – 175,561, 545,394
  • Interstate Highway(s) – 2 (I-20, I-55)
  • Perimeter Highway – Yes (I-220)
  • Transit System, Heavy Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Light Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Buses? – Yes, 10 routes
  • Regional Bus Service? – No
  • Commuter Rail? – No
  • Highway Commuter Lanes? – No

Raleigh, North Carolina

Raleigh

Raleigh

  • MSA Rank – 47
  •  City population, regional population – 416,468, 1,163,750*, 1,795,750 *
  • Interstate Highway(s) 1 (I-40) (I-70, I-85 nearby in Durham) (I-95 nearby at two locations)
  • Perimeter Highway – 2 (I-440, I-540)
  • Transit System, Heavy Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Light Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Buses? – Yes, 38 routes
  • Regional Bus Service? – Yes (Triangle Transit)
  • Commuter Rail? – No
  • Highway Commuter Lanes? – ??

* – The regional population for Raleigh is not necessarily an accurate number.  This from Wikipedia: “Effective June 6, 2003, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget redefined the Federal Statistical Areas and dismantled what had been for decades the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, MSA and split them into two separate MSAs, even though the region still functions as a single metropolitan area. This resulted in the formation of the Raleigh-Cary, NC MSA and the Durham-Chapel Hill, NC MSA.”

Columbia, South Carolina

Columbia

Columbia

  • MSA Rank – 70
  • City population, regional population – 130,591, 794,491
  • Interstate Highway(s) – 3 (I-20, I-26, I-77)
  • Perimeter Highway – Yes (all three Interstates built around center city, I-126 connection to downtown)
  • Transit System, Heavy Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Light Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Buses? – Yes, 18 routes
  • Regional Bus Service? – No (but in planning stage)
  • Commuter Rail? – No
  • Highway Commuter Lanes? – ??

Nashville, Tennessee

Nashville

Nashville

  • MSA Rank – 37
  •  City population, regional population – 590,807, 1,589,934
  • Interstate Highway(s) – 3 (I-24, I-40, I-65)
  • Perimeter Highway – partial (Tennessee Route 840 along south side of town)
  • Transit System, Heavy Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Light Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Buses? – Yes, 36 routes
  • Regional Bus Service? – Yes, 15 “Express” routes
  • Commuter Rail? – Yes, line to Lebanon, Tennessee, plus express buses listed on MTA site.
  • Highway Commuter Lanes? – Yes

Austin, Texas

Austin

Austin

  • MSA Rank – 34
  • City population, regional population – 820,611, 1,716,289
  • Interstate Highway(s) – 1 (I-35, I-10 nearby)
  • Perimeter Highway – Sort of (Texas Routes 45, 130)
  • Transit System, Heavy Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Light Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Buses? – Yes, 49 local, plus 12 “special”, 8 express and University of Texas service
  • Regional Bus Service? – Yes (I’m guessing here because of the “express” buses)
  • Commuter Rail? – Yes, 1 line 32 miles long using existing freight railroad track. Service is a diesel-powered multiple-unit train
  • Highway Commuter Lanes? – No (??)

Richmond, Virginia

Richmond

Richmond

  • MSA Rank – 44
  • City population, regional population – 205,533, 1,258,251
  • Interstate Highway(s) – 2 (I-64, I-95)
  • Perimeter Highway – Yes (I-295)
  • Transit System, Heavy Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Light Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Buses? Yes, 26 routes
  • Regional Bus Service? Yes, 12 routes
  • Commuter Rail? No, some Amtrak service
  • Highway Commuter Lanes? No (??)

Charleston, West Virginia

Charleston

Charleston

  • MSA Rank – 156
  • City population, regional population – 51,177, 304,214
  • Interstate Highway(s) – 3 (I-64, I-77, I-79)
  • Perimeter Highway – No
  • Transit System, Heavy Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Light Rail? – No
  • Transit System, Buses? – Yes, 21 routes
  • Regional Bus Service? – No
  • Commuter Rail? – No
  • Highway Commuter Lanes? No (??)

Observations

So, what to make of all of this data?  I know that modern methodology calls for me to reach my conclusion first and then find evidence to support my thesis, but preparing this article was not done in that manner.  I simply gathered some data and looked for interesting patterns.  There was not that much in terms of apparent transit solutions for Atlanta, but there were some interesting things to note.

Atlanta is Large

  • Atlanta is far and away the largest MSA of the regional state capitals (5,268,860), although the city itself is only a little over 400,000 people.  Austin and Nashville have higher city populations, and Raleigh is just slightly smaller than the City of Atlanta.  At the same time, Frankfort, with a population of  25,583, is actually fairly large in terms of its MSA (472,099), which includes nearby Lexington.
  • Atlanta is the only state capital in the region with a heavy rail transit system.
  • Light rail is still a novelty in the Southeastern United States’ capitals, with Atlanta having one under construction at this point.  Only Little Rock has an operational system of 2 lines.
  • Atlanta also leads in terms of bus routes (with the earlier caveat about service), with a total of 103 “local” bus routes.  Next is Austin, with 49 routes, 12 express routes and 8 special routes.
  • Atlanta also leads the state capitals in regional bus service with 39 routes operated by GRTA.

Commuter Rail

That said, I discovered that both Nashville and Austin have commuter rail service, with trains operating on freight railroad tracks in regularly scheduled service.  Atlanta periodically talks about this, but Austin and Nashville have actually done something.  The Nashville – Lebanon train is a conventional train in that it is pulled by a separate locomotive.

Music City Star

Music City Star

The Austin train is a diesel-powered self-propelled train that is similar to an electrically powered commuter train without the costs of overhead power wires.

MetroRail

MetroRail

Since both of these commuter rail trains are new, there are certain to have been some teething problems, but at least Nashville and Austin have started on something.

The Interstates

Somewhere along the way, I read an item which stated that Atlanta was unusual because it is a city where three Interstate highways converge.  This is not quite as unusual as the writer would have had you believe.  Columbia, Nashville and Charleston each also have three Interstate highways that converge in the city.

Also interesting is that several cities have Interstate connections but they do not go through the center of town such as in Atlanta and Nashville.  Raleigh, in particular, is interesting because the Interstates are located around the center city, and there are other major Interstates nearby, available for transportation without affecting the actual city itself.

On an anecdotal basis, I have a certain respect for Nashville’s Interstates.  There are a few places where they are showing signs of age, such as I-40 though town to I-65, but, on the whole Nashville is an easy city to drive through in my experience.  There have been times when things are snarled up, such as when a major accident occurs, but in that event, there are quite suitable alternate routes that allow you to drive around the problem.

The Small Capitals

For both Tallahassee and Frankfort, the Interstate is there to serve without getting in the way of local life.  And you have to respect that.  Both towns seem to be on the quiet side if you look at the transit services.  After all, Frankfort has only three bus routes:

Frankfort "Trolley"

Frankfort “Trolley”

That said, both towns seem to be the sort of place where you can bike to work, or easily find a parking space when the legislature is not in session.  And, in the case of Frankfort, there’s a local source of spirits:

Buffalo Trace Distillery

Buffalo Trace Distillery

Until the Old Fourth Distillery opens, Frankfort has an edge.  After a day of wonkiness, a little flavored branch water is helpful.

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One of the oddities of the MARTA heavy rail system is that the Civic Center Station is located three blocks from its namesake, the Atlanta Civic Center.  The Civic Center’s web site puts on a brave face, stating: “Easy accessibility from Hartsfield Jackson International Airport and MARTA“.  Suit yourself, but it’s a long three block walk in that neighborhood, especially after dark.  The reasons for the location of the MARTA station so far away from its named service site are most likely due to engineering issues, especially the costs that would have been incurred for the North / South line to veer over to the Civic Center and then to veer back to its West Peachtree right of way.  But there was also the emerging sense at that time that the Civic Center had become a white elephant.

  • A white elephant is an idiom for a valuable but burdensome possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth.

The Civic Center is not the only white elephant in town, but when the observant noted that the Civic Center was three blocks away from the MARTA line, the response soon was that a People Mover would be built from the MARTA station to the Civic Center.

Of course, decades later, this hasn’t happened, but it is also a minor footnote to the fact that Atlanta does not think in terms of transit.  If you don’t believe me, consider that when the new baseball stadium was built for the Olympics, it was built even further from the MARTA heavy rail lines than its predecessor Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which was seven blocks away from the Georgia State MARTA station.  At least Ponce de Leon Park (home of the Crackers) had a trolley siding where cars could be staged so that when the game ended, people could leave in a timely fashion.  And, for a while, MARTA discontinued shuttle bus service between their stations and the ball yard.  Even when service was offered, they tried to force people to walk through a moribund Underground.

Or, consider that one of the proposed locations for the new multi-billion dollar football dome is six blocks away from the MARTA station that directly serves the current Georgia Dome.  I’m sure that the “solution” to the new dome location transit problem will be to suggest building a people mover, but such a transit system requires a lot of traffic to justify its costs, which is why the Civic Center people mover never got built.  And why Atlanta views transit solution in terms of automobiles, which got us into our current predicament.

On the other hand, you are, in all likelihood, quite familiar with people movers.  There are at least two, right here in River City:

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Yep, it’s the one inside the airport.  There’s another one that runs from the airport to the car rental lots.  Those things get lots of attention, to the point that the concourse people mover is on its second set of rolling stock (the first being Westinghouse, the new ones are Bombardier built):

Image

They both work reliably and do what they’re supposed to do without much fanfare.  These people movers are essentially horizontal elevators.  Much of their design dates back to three different systems begun in the early 1960’s.  The Westinghouse-based system is what operates at the airport.  Here, an early shot of the test system, called SkyBus:

Image

The test system was located in the Pittsburgh area, but when it was proposed that a revenue system be built, popular opposition was significant.  The good people of Pittsburgh wanted to keep their electric powered trolleys, a system which remains to this day in improved form.

People movers have been fodder for politicians.  Consider the Morgantown, West Virginia Personal Rapid Transit system, which links three campuses of West Virginia University.  West Virginia is also the home state of the late Senator Robert C. Byrd, who never met a Federal program that he didn’t like, as long as it was built in West Virginia.  So, too, consider the Detroit People Mover, built beginning in 1975.  This lightly used system (7,000 riders per day) travels in one direction only, either clockwise or counterclockwise.

At the same time, there are people mover systems that are quite effective.  One notable example is the 68-mile long Vancouver, British Columbia SkyTrain:

Image

I’ve had a chance to see this system up close and personal, and it is a useful system that serves a town with a transit orientation.  Daily ridership in 2011 was 392,200.  The cars do not have onboard operators:

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So, any people moving system needs to be considered in the context of how much it will be used.  And, the technology continues to evolve.  Consider this proposed solar powered Personal Rapid Transit System for Fayetteville, Georgia, here.  To wit:

Fayetteville, GA. Dec 21, 2012: JPods, Inc of Atlanta, GA and UK-based Equility Capital Ltd have signed a Letter of Intent to build and fund the world’s first solar powered Personal Rapid Transit (PRT or podcar) network in Fayetteville, GA. The $100 million project is part of a larger $3 billion, three year effort to build a network that solves congestion in Atlanta. The project will commence as soon as all rights of way, planning, engineering contracts and other agreements are in place.

In other words, it’s going to be a while.  Of course, while we’re at it, consider the Georgia Maglev project.  Hope springs eternal.

No discussion about personal rapid transit would be complete without mentioning the Georgia Tech Transette, which “operated” between the Student Center and a parking lot.  Here, some bureaucratese:

“….Transette system located at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia. The Transette system is a unique, fully-automated, engineering prototype transportation test system installed on the campus of the Institute. It is a 0.25-mile belt-driven system currently in a loop configuration, employing passive vehicles controlled and propelled by a drive belt system that permits vehicles to move at twice the speed of the belt.”

The final report on this was about as gracious as it could be under the circumstances.  Certainly the Transette was the subject of frequent ridicule by the student newspaper the Technique.

One of the cars escaped the scrapper’s torch and now sits in stately repose at the Southeastern Railway Museum.

transette1

The Museum does not mention the presence of the Transette on their property, and you can kind of see why.  Makes you want to give up your automobile, right?

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new_marta_rail_map

A heavy rail system is an electric railway with the capacity to handle a heavy volume of traffic.  The term is often used to distinguish it from light rail systems, which usually handle a smaller volume of passengers.  [Wikipedia]

Although the recent vote on a regional transportation tax failed to garner support, Atlanta is still considering its options for improved transportation.  Most notably, this involves the reduction of automobile traffic, and central to such a possible reduction is the 48-mile long heavy rail system currently operated by MARTA.  The rail system was designed to provide regional transit, but for a variety of reasons has been limited to serving only portions of Fulton and DeKalb Counties.  It is helpful to examine this heavy rail system in the context of all heavy rail systems in the United States.

*****

At this writing, there are 99 rail transit systems in the United States in 52 cities.  Of these 99 systems, I consider 15 to be heavy rail systems, based upon this Wikipedia source page.  In these 15 cases, the system meets the criteria of traffic volume, and all are part of a larger system of rail transit lines, buses and other forms of transportation.  Here, some comparisons:

Traffic Volume

nysubway-map

New York City Subways

  • New York City subway (2,499,514,500)
  • Washington, DC Metro (290,203,500)
  • Chicago L (221,587,400)
  • Boston MBTA (160,512,000)
  • San Francisco BART (114,325,400)
  • Philadelphia SEPTA (99,706,500)
  • New York PATH ( 76,480,400)
  • Atlanta MARTA (74,236,400)
  • Los Angeles Metro Rail ( 46,964,500)
  • Miami Metrorail (18,295,500)
  • Baltimore Metro (14,939,700)
  • San Juan, PR Tren Urbano (10,770,100)
  • Philadelphia PATCO (10,506,400)
  • Cleveland RTA (5,687,300)
  • Staten Island (4,583,500)

In terms of traffic volume, the Big Apple is worthy of its name, but the traffic numbers quickly fall off, with Washington Metro handling about 11% of what New York handles.  At one point, I was examining passenger traffic in relation to population density, but I don’t think that it is a useful measure for comparison between systems.  That is, New York is densely populated, so much so that automobile ownership is an option for many New Yorkers.  On the other hand, Atlanta virtually requires automobile ownership because of lower population density.  Yet, both cities need rapid transit.

System Route Length

Washington Metro

Washington Metro

  • New York City subway (232 miles)
  • Washington, DC Metro (106 miles)
  • San Francisco BART (104 miles)
  • Chicago L (103 miles)
  • Atlanta MARTA (48 miles)
  • Boston MBTA (38 miles)
  • Philadelphia SEPTA (37 miles)
  • Miami Metrorail (24 miles)
  • Cleveland RTA (19 miles)
  • Los Angeles Metro Rail (17 miles)
  • Baltimore Metro (16 miles)
  • Philadelphia PATCO (14 miles)
  • Staten Island (14 miles)
  • New York PATH (14 miles)
  • San Juan, PR Tren Urbano (11 miles)

Again, New York comes out on top in terms of system size, a reflection of the traffic density of that system.  You move that many people, you need the trackage.  Again, the Washington system is smaller, but this time it is 46% smaller than New York.  Washington is one of three systems that are of comparable length.  Atlanta’s heavy rail system is the longest of the next group of three systems, followed by another group starting with Miami.

 Order of Construction

sirt09

  • Staten Island (1860)
  • Chicago L (1892)
  • Boston MBTA (1897)
  • New York City subway (1904)
  • Philadelphia SEPTA (1907)
  • New York PATH (1908)
  • Philadelphia PATCO (1936)
  • Cleveland RTA (1955)
  • San Francisco BART (1972)
  • Washington, DC Metro (1976)
  • Atlanta MARTA (1979)
  • Baltimore Metro (1983)
  • Miami Metrorail (1984)
  • Los Angeles Metro Rail (1993)
  • San Juan, PR Tren Urbano (2004)

Who says nothing ever happens on Staten Island?  This system, along with several others, started life as a steam locomotive powered railroad, with electrification coming around the early 1900’s.  The early systems, from Staten Island to the predecessor company to PATH, were, to my knowledge, all initially funded with private capital.

Construction Capital

In the case of the Staten Island system, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad controlled it for many years.  In the case of PATH, it originally operated as the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad, with joint operations by the Pennsylvania Railroad.  In other cases such Philadelphia’s SEPTA, these were originally privately funded commuter operations of both the Reading and the Pennsylvania railroads combined with a branch of the Philadelphia & Western Railroad.  These privately operated transit operations would eventually became municipally public governmental owned systems.

The observant will have noticed that there is a long gap of time between the opening of NY’s PATH and  Philadelphia’s PATCO.  PATCO would be the first to be funded by a governmental entity; please see here.  In part, this time gap is due to the substantial presence of street car and interurban systems throughout the United States, but especially in the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific coast regions.  Notable among these electric traction companies were the Pacific Electric (1000 miles), the Chicago interurbans (North Shore, South Shore, and the CA&E) and others.  These systems were also typically funded with private capital, and many of the streetcar systems of that era were owned by the local power company.

pe147

Pacific Electric

Many of these systems, both streetcar and interurban would suffer in the Great Depression.  And, as the country suffered, so did private capital.  One notable case involved Samuel Insull, but it was more than that.  Just as people currently hate their cable company, people in that era hated the wealthy and hated the traction companies.  Always eager to please, the United States Congress passed the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935.  This act was:

a law that was passed by the United States Congress to facilitate regulation of electric utilities, by either limiting their operations to a single state, and thus subjecting them to effective state regulation, or forcing divestitures so that each became a single integrated system serving a limited geographic area. Another purpose of PUHCA was to keep utility holding companies engaged in regulated businesses from engaging in unregulated businesses.

What the financial depression had not killed was killed by the Act.  Where once the streetcars and interurbans had been supported by local electric utilities, now these systems were closing at a rapid rate.  The automobile finished the job and by the end of World War II, public transit systems were either gone or moribund.  The PATCO line was the sole exception, and it was constructed by a governmental entity.

After another long gap of time, Cleveland is another turning point, where a system originally built with private capital slowly morphed into a publicly funded institution.  The City of Shaker Heights bought the Shaker Heights Rapid Transit from the estate of developers.  This system was their lifeline to the commercial center of Cleveland.  Government was getting into the transit business.  When Cleveland’s heavy rail system was begun in the 1950’s, it was done by means of a loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, an independent agency of the United States government.

Cleveland Rapid Transit

Cleveland Rapid Transit

Cleveland would be the first city with a rapid transit connection to their airport.  And Cleveland is often used as an example of the success of rapid transit in a middle-sized city.  Cleveland was a turning point; from there on, construction of transit systems became policy of the Federal government, via UMTA.

What followed were five systems which can be described as modern “heavy rail”.

San Francisco BART

San Francisco BART

These systems are:

  • San Francisco BART (1972)
  • Washington, DC Metro (1976)
  • Atlanta MARTA (1979)
  • Baltimore Metro (1983)
  • Miami Metrorail (1984)

About 10 years later (1993), the Los Angeles system opened.  It should be noted that while previous systems were heavy rail lines served by buses or streetcars, the Los Angeles system is a combination of heavy rail (2 lines) and light rail, both of which are coordinated with bus service.  In 2004, the San Juan, Puerto Rico Tren Urbano line opened.

System Trends

The heavy rail systems have had their day.  It seems unlikely that any new heavy rail systems will be constructed in the United States.  After the burst of construction that began with BART in 1972 and ended 12 years later with Metrorail, transit construction has shifted its focus to light rail.  The notion of a heavy rail system being central to a rapid transit system has been supplanted by light rail systems.  And, after MARTA, the size of the subsequent heavy rail systems has tapered down.  MARTA is 48 miles in length; Baltimore’s Metro is 16 miles in length.  The systems in Baltimore and Miami are shorter in length in part because of the costs of construction and operation.  The notion of heavy rail systems has been supplanted by light rail.

Consider this page on light rail systems in the United States.  MARTA opened up for service in 1979 with the East line between Georgia State and Avondale.  Since that time, twenty-five light rail systems have opened in the United States.  To be sure, some of these systems are very short, less than five miles in length, but they still serve as transit systems.  In several cases, such as Dallas, these light rail systems are very long, up to 75 miles worth of track.  Nearby Charlotte’s line is about 10 miles long.

In part, the light rail approach has become popular because it is “good enough”.  The costs of construction are considerably lower, typically ranging between $15 to $100 million per mile, depending upon tunneling costs.  Please see the “Costs” section, here.  Heavy rail construction ranges between $200 million to $400 million.  During the recent transportation tax brouhaha, it was estimated that constructing a line connecting Emory with the Lindbergh MARTA station would cost $170 million per mile.  Please see my thoughts on the matter, here.  And, this is just talking about the costs of constructing heavy rail lines.  Once in place, heavy rail costs more to operate and costs more to maintain.

320px-Marta_Rail_Breda_

The Wrong Choice?

In looking at the Atlanta heavy rail lines in context, I’m left wondering if we have built too much, with an emphasis on the wrong approach.  Of course, it’s too late to just walk away from the project, but I’m left wondering if the heavy rail system in Atlanta is more than we need.

Yes, I know that they are building a light rail line, but that line will not serve the average commuter.  Atlanta’s light rail venture is too little and does not serve an existing transit market.  Please see my comments, here.  Presumably, there will be further development of light rail transit in Atlanta and Georgia.

In the larger sense, there is the dawning reality that the Atlanta heavy rail system is not efficient.  Heavy rail systems, are by their nature, able to handle heavy traffic loads.  Yet, the Georgia heavy rail lines are running increasingly infrequent trains because of the disparity between the costs of operation in relation to what the fare gate collects.  Even the conservatives are noticing this problem; please see Kyle Wingfield’s words on the matter:

Few transit riders of choice have it easier than me: I can go from my front door to the Lindbergh rail platform in 10 minutes, and my office is across the street from the Dunwoody station. The whole trip should take about 25 minutes, roughly the average amount of time it takes me to drive.

But I stopped taking MARTA because even a one-minute delay on my part could mean waiting 15 minutes or more for the next train — increasing my commute by more than half. No thanks, especially when the cost compared to driving is a wash at best.

In context, MARTA is slowly circling the drain.  They cut bus service to save costs, which leads to fewer riders on the core heavy rail system.  This drop in ridership leads to further cutting train service.  This on a system which has the capacity to operate a train every five minutes, perhaps even more.  At the moment, trains run every 15 minutes, but with the next cost cutting cycle, these headways will drop to 20 minutes, and ridership will dwindle again.

There will come a time when MARTA cannot sustain itself, and at that time, the State of Georgia is the likely candidate for operating the heavy rail system in Atlanta.  Perhaps at that time, the notion of using the heavy rail lines of Atlanta will become palatable to those living outside the Perimeter Highway.  This was the intent of the designers of the Atlanta heavy rail lines all along.  Please see the proposed system drawing below and note that it extends out into the Atlanta region:

Marta_plan

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