Would rail to Alpharetta help solve sprawl? Or just be a band-aid on a bigger problem?

I'm struggling with a transit-advocate's dilemma'

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Transit supporters are holding out hope that lawmakers pass a proposal that would allow MARTA to expand rail service to North Fulton — or at least in Atlanta and parts of DeKalb County. Darin Givens, an urbanism advocate and Downtown resident who penned the ATL Urbanist blog, wonders if the North Fulton city is even prepared to serve transit users. 

It’s an exciting time for transit in Atlanta. After decades of resistance from conservatives, there are now leaders on both ends of the political spectrum touting the benefits of MARTA and supporting its expansion. This year, we very nearly missed the opportunity to put a new sales tax on the ballot in Fulton and DeKalb counties that would’ve funded a massive $8 billion expansion of rail, east into DeKalb and north into the farthest reaches of Fulton. That bill was sponsored by Brandon Beach, a Republican state senator from Alpharetta.

I’m excited about the support, and I want to see service expanded through a new tax. But I’m struggling with a transit-advocate's dilemma, if the cities’ leaders ever come around to supporting rail transit: I have reservations about the plan for rail in North Fulton. People living there pay into the MARTA system the same as I do as an Atlanta intowner. Their area deserves good transit access. But does it deserve expensive heavy rail?

Five new stations are being studied, extending from the Red Line’s current end at North Springs. The last of the five would end up on Windward Parkway. a road that I know well from visits to family in that area. Windward and its surroundings — loaded with office parks, subdivisions and retail strips — provide a perfect example of the feedback loop of car-centric sprawl.

When we build places for automobile mobility alone, offices and housing and retail get separated at great distances from each other, being set back from the road and sidewalks behind parking lots. Once that pattern starts, unless there is a specific urban planning effort to provide alternatives, it is nearly forced to continue because of the necessity of cars to get around for even the simplest of trips.

If the new rail lines and stations magically appeared tomorrow, who would benefit? As things stand, a worker living in DeKalb who takes a train to Windward would get off at the station and be up a creek. He or she would be unable to walk to most destinations because of how entrenched the environment is in car-oriented design. Even expanded bus lines would only help so much, since destinations lie behind landscaping and parking lots.

MARTA put together a Scoping Summary Report on expansion plans that included comments from residents. One concerned Roswell resident said public transportation ”must include some kind of joint initiative with the City/businesses to improve the pedestrian access to bus and or train stations.

“We need sidewalks, bus stops and bike lanes or people will continue to shun public transportation,” the resident said. “It doesn't make sense to ride a bus or train if you take your life in your hands getting there.”

This concern about improved pedestrian access is an important issue for a growing region. According to the Atlanta Regional Commission, metro Atlanta's population will increase by 2.5 million people by 2040. There’s an opportunity here for us to grow in a better way.

Instead of expanding outward and continuing our seat on the throne as the King of Sprawl, Atlanta could take advantage of new rail stations for infill in a walkable format. But if the growth of both residential populations and jobs is happening in a continuation of past sprawl patterns, and the rail expansion sustains that pattern by making it a bit more palatable, that doesn’t seem like a net positive.

Will the purpose of this extension of heavy rail be to serve as a commuter line? If so, I have to question that goal. Subsidies to operate commuter rail have been found to be significantly higher than those for bus or subway riders, when you look at ridership and cost of construction/operation. Transportation guru Yonah Freemark told Governing Magazine in 2013 that "too many of today’s commuter rail lines are wasted infrastructure. Can you imagine a highway where the lanes are only open during rush hour?"

We should be demanding the highest level of efficiency from our passenger rail investments and not settling for the kind of park-and-ride formats that could end up simply helping to sustain sprawl.

On the subject of efficiency, consider this: the MARTA rail system currently has 47.6 miles of track and 38 stations. That averages out to a station for every 1.24 miles of track. But the Red Line extension will stretch across 12 miles while adding only 5 new stations. That's a ratio of a station for every 2.4 miles of track for the expansion, or a station every 2 miles if you include the existing North Point. Either way, that's a lot more track-per-station for the new line than for the rest of the service area.

I live Downtown near the Atlatna Streetcar, a $100 million rail line that currently carries mostly-empty cars on a route lined with too many parking facilities and empty buildings. I’m a half mile from the Garnett MARTA station which cost $12 million to build in 1981, and is now surrounded by the desolate urban blight of parking lots and unused parcels. The predicament of expensive rail infrastructure that isn’t reaching its full potential is well known in my neighborhood. It’s something that we should fix, not extend.

Getting cars off the road and giving people transportation options is good. Introducing car-centric suburban areas to the possibilities of mass transit is good. But that would have all been a win for the region 20 years ago. It’s a different world now and simply supplying rail stations isn’t enough. We need walkable, bikeable places.

Too often, public transit is designed as a band-aid to help heal the wounds of bad development. Years after we’ve already built ourselves into a car-centric mess of inefficiency, we try to retrofit transit solutions into the urban environment to provide options. That’s a backwards method. Our cities and transportation lines should be built in a way that allows them to complement each other. With the massive expense and slow build time of heavy rail, we can’t afford to keep chasing nodes of residential and job growth after the fact.

This argument is not about opposing rail service to North Fulton. It's about what conditions should exist to support heavy rail. Metro Atlanta has to recognize when it's creating transportation band-aids instead of truly effective options and the places that sustainably support them.

If Fulton and DeKalb’s residents and visitors are going to pay big money to build rail northward, we need assurances that this investment will pay off for people from throughout the region who need to get to jobs in Alpharetta, Roswell and more. We need to know that we’re building more than a convenient commuter option for the northern ‘burbs. Given the $1 billion already being spent on the Ga. 400/I-285 interchange to improve traffic flow, there’s only so much we can subsidize unwalkable suburbia before we should say “stop” and work toward a better development goal. It’s not enough to just build rail somewhere. We have to consider the areas around it and how transit users will get to their ultimate destination after leaving the station.

Once the funding for rail expansion is found, it will be at least 10 years before the first trains head north to Alpharetta. That’s enough time to start planning those better places. If the General Assembly decides to approve this proposal next year that includes North Fulton and it appears on a ballot, it will be hard for me to vote “yes” if I’m not sure that heavy rail can be used as part of a cure for sprawl, not an enabler.

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