By Ron Sifen
Cobb County has initiated a new study to build a light rail line down Cobb Parkway from north Cobb to Atlanta. Here are a few key points regarding this proposal.
*The primary purpose for this project is to promote the redevelopment of Cobb Parkway.
*It will not provide a time-effective alternative for suburban commuters.
*Therefore it will not alleviate traffic congestion on I-75.
*It may make traffic flow on Cobb Parkway worse, and may adversely impact turn movements on cross streets, potentially making traffic flow worse on cross streets.
*If the redevelopment plan is not successful, future operating costs for Cobb taxpayers could be massive.
*Do Cobb taxpayers agree with spending several billion dollars on a transportation project that will promote redevelopment, but not improve traffic flow?
I think suburban transit should focus on providing a time-effective alternative for suburban commuters, and seamless, efficient connections to a regional integrated transit system. Transit must enable Cobb commuters to get to work in Atlanta or Perimeter Center time-effectively.
There are other transit alternatives that would be more cost-effective than light rail.
Transit utilizing future toll lanes on I-75
Georgia is planning to add two reversible toll lanes on I-75 (and similar projects on other interstates). As these toll lanes are added throughout the Atlanta region, buses (regular buses, express buses, and BRT) will be able to utilize these faster moving lanes, and provide a time-effective trip for many suburban commuters. Since these toll lanes are being added regardless of transit, the additional infrastructure costs for transit could be minimal.
Some existing express bus routes are already very successful. Express buses traveling in the faster toll lanes, would enable more time-competitive travel times during rush hour to places like Perimeter Center.
Southeast Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott has suggested that we should initiate commuter rail, using tracks that are already in place from Cartersville to Kennesaw to Marietta to Smyrna to Cumberland to Atlanta. Since we would not have to acquire properties and build the rail line, his proposal could be done for a tiny fraction of the cost of the Cobb Parkway light rail idea.
Light rail typically can provide effective connections within a limited corridor. However, in order to provide good service within the corridor, it has lots of stops, and therefore it cannot provide acceptable trip times for longer commutes.
Commuter rail, with a few key stops along a longer route, can provide a more time-effective commute for suburban commuters traveling longer distances.
This commuter rail concept has a significant obstacle, in that these are freight rail tracks, and heavily utilized already. However, a similar route might be available along other tracks that are currently inactive. Otherwise, it would be necessary to negotiate some sort of sharing of the rails that would comply with federal safety requirements.
Commuter rail using existing tracks might be an extremely effective and affordable transit proposal for Cobb.
If we pursue similar opportunities in other corridors throughout the region, we could develop an effective and affordable commuter rail network.
In my opinion, there is one crucial missing piece where new rail would have to be built. Transit would be needed in the I-285 corridor from the airport, up the west side of I-285 to I-20 and then to Cumberland, then over to Sandy Springs, Perimeter Center, Doraville, and then also connecting to Northlake, Stone Mountain Freeway, and down to I-20 on the east side.
Certainly, we could get commuter rail up and operating along existing tracks first. But I-285 is a huge part of our regional transportation problem. We can’t really fix our regional transportation problems without including I-285 in the fix.
Other low-cost options
Van pools offer the unique advantage of enabling suburbanites to go from home to work, door-to-door, with no change of vehicles. Strong marketing and incentives for employer participation could result in strong ridership.
Van pools utilizing the future toll lanes could provide a very desirable, time-effective alternative for many suburban commuters, at a tiny fraction of the cost of building and operating light rail. As currently proposed, buses, van pools, and carpools with three or more riders would not pay a toll.
High Road concept
There is one other transit alternative that should be considered in comparison to the current light rail proposal.
The “High Road” advocates propose a unique monorail technology that appears to be far less expensive to build than light rail, and drastically less expensive to operate than almost any other form of transit. Operating and maintenance costs are proving to be a huge problem for transit systems across the country. This unique monorail technology may be a solution.
This would not presume affiliating with any private group at this time. Since we are currently doing an alternatives analysis study anyway, analysis of this technology should be included.
We don’t need to transform Atlanta into Portland. We need realistic, affordable transportation and transit improvements that make what we have work better.
BRT, express buses, and regional van pools may be unglamorous, but they would cost a tiny fraction of what light rail would cost. Each would be able to utilize HOT lanes which are going to be built anyway, and therefore provide faster commutes.
Commuter rail, utilizing existing tracks, would also provide a superior and more cost-effective solution for suburban commuters.
All of these are financially realistic, and they may actually be more effective in connecting our low-density suburban communities with our widely dispersed employment centers. All of these offer a more realistic path to a truly integrated regional transit network.