MARTA Looking North

MARTA is moving forward with the Alternatives Analysis phase of the GA 400 Corridor Transit Initiative, which is investigating options for high-capacity transit between Perimeter Center and northern Fulton County. Graphics on the preliminary alignment and mode comparison are below.


The GA 400 Corridor Transit Initiative Study Area


GA 400 Corridor Transit Initiative Mode Comparison

MARTA released a public opinion survey to elicit feedback on the project. Click here to participate.

Coin of the Realm

North Carolina and Florida have announced an “interoperability” agreement for the electronic collection of highway tolls in those states, and Georgia may not be far behind.

According to the release, the “fundamental elements of the agreement will allow travelers from these states to use each other’s electronic toll collection system without the need to enroll in any new program or buy a new transponder.” Georgia is interested in this agreement as well, with SRTA announcing that it “will join this effort for its Peach Pass customers following Florida and North Carolina’s implementation.”  Examples of multi-state toll interoperability agreements exist elsewhere in the country, such as the EZ-Pass system in the Northeast and Midatlantic.

The integration of state-specific tolling systems is forthcoming, both for legal and practical reasons.  MAP-21, the federal transportation bill signed into law this past summer, requires all Federal-aid highway toll facilities to implement technologies or business  practices that provide for the interoperability of electronic toll collection by October 1, 2016.  An interoperability agreement also has practical benefits, allowing drivers from other states to use Georgia’s managed lanes and reducing enforcement issues with out of state drivers.

The toll transponder may soon be the coin of the realm for highway driving.

Toll Roads and Junk Bonds

The L.A. Times reports on the financial troubles of two toll road outside of Los Angeles, the San Joaquin Hills and Foothill-Eastern corridors.  The failure of these roads to achieve their traffic and revenue forecasts have the toll road authority scrambling to cover its financial obligations.

In 2011, ridership on the San Joaquin Hills, which has never performed as predicted, was only 43% of original forecasts, and its revenue was 61% of projections.

. . ..

Motorists on the Foothill-Eastern last year numbered 33% less than projected, and revenue was 75% of forecasts.

To address this shortfall in revenue the toll road authority has restructured $2.1 billion in debt and pushed back the retirement date of the project’s bonds.  Wall Street ratings agencies have not looked favorably on these changes, downgrading “the San Joaquin Hills toll road’s bonds to junk status and the notes for the Foothill-Eastern corridor to the lowest investment grade.”

Every toll road project is unique, with its own revenue projections and financing structure.  But as states like Georgia increasingly focus on toll roads and their revenue as the centerpiece of their transportation strategy, the financial risk of the projects must be minimized by approaching the toll revenue projections with a healthy skepticism.


Divergent Tracks for High Speed Rail

Both locally and nationally, high speed rail is once again in the press.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has been touting the potential of high speed rail between Atlanta and Savannah to create a “trail of prosperity” from the Capitol to the coast.  In testimony before the House Transportation Committee, US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood reaffirmed that high speed rail remains part of the President’s transportation agenda.  Georgia DOT continues to move forward on its rail planning efforts, and high speed rail service would provide a significant boost to the Multi Modal Passenger Terminal planned for Downtown Atlanta.  But two big questions must be answered to ensure that the Feds, Georgia DOT, and local politicians are all talking about the same thing.

First, what alignment would be used for an Atlanta to Savannah line?

GDOT’s “High Speed Rail Planning Services Final Report” examines the feasibility of three intercity rail lines originating including one running from Atlanta through Macon, Savannah, and on to Jacksonville.  That study uses the alignment shown here.

The Federal Railroad Administration, however, contemplates a slightly different alignment in its 2009 “High Speed Rail Strategic Plan” and its National High Speed Rail Corridors map.  FRA’s corridor connects Atlanta to Jacksonville through Jesup, GA.  A separate line, running down the East Coast, would go south from Columbia, SC through Savannah, Jesup, and on to Jacksonville.  Under this plan, a trip from Atlanta to Savannah might require backtracking or a transfer in Jesup.

This slight difference in alignment may seem trivial.  But discrepancies between federal and state plans can become big problems down the line, potentially requiring planning documents to be redone or  disqualifying the project from federal funding.

Second, how fast must a train go to be considered “high speed” rail?

Mayor Reed envisions a train averaging  200 miles an hour and capable of reaching the coast in 75 minutes.  But Georgia DOT’s feasibility studies show that this goal may be overly ambitious.  GDOT’s High Speed Rail Report describes the three options under consideration: a “Shared Use” scenario using diesel-electric trains on existing freight corridors; a “Dedicated Use” scenario using electrified steel-wheel trains on a dedicated corridor; and a “Hybrid Scenario” using the diesel-electric train on partially upgraded tracks.

Only the Dedicated Use Scenario, with its maximum speed of 180-220 mph, can travel as fast as the Mayor envisions and none of the scenarios would average 200 mph over the whole trip.

And whereas the Mayor envisions a 75 minute trip, Georgia DOT estimates a trip ranging from three to five hours.  (The Mayor and Georgia DOT apparently disagree on the distance between Atlanta and Savannah;  75 minutes at 200 mph would make the trip 250 miles but Georgia DOT calculates the trip to be at least 100 miles longer depending on the alignment.)

None of these figures are set in stone.  They are preliminary estimates of what different types of rail service might look like based on current information and current technology.  But given the public’s general distrust of government (and regarding transportation matters in particular) it is imperative to set accurate expectations for the project.

The Feds, Georgia DOT, and the Mayor all agree that a high speed rail connection between Atlanta and Savannah has the potential to transform transportation across the state and throughout the Southeast.  Georgia DOT’s study concludes that such a line is both technologically and financially feasible:

This study illustrates that although the initial investment in high-speed rail is significant, the mobility and economic opportunities offered by this new more [sic] are significant. Based on the analysis findings, this study determines that high-speed rail is feasible in the Atlanta-Macon-Jacksonville Corridor. It is further recommended that a Tier 1 NEPA Document and Service Development Plan be pursued for high-speed rail service within the corridor. This analysis should continue to address a range of technology alternatives including the Hybrid High Performance implementation approach.

But moving this project from aspiration to realization will require us to first agree on what exactly we want to build.

An Apartment by the Tracks

The New York Times writes that, across the South and West, the rebound in the residential construction sector is being led by apartments rather than single family homes.

Multifamily construction nationwide is two-thirds of the way back to its prerecession peak, while single-family home construction is still only about a third of the way back to its peak, said David Crowe, the chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders.

The Charlotte Observer takes this trend one step further, pointing out that the city’s new apartment construction is choosing to locate near the city’s light rail line.

[O]f the more than 4,000 new apartment units announced in Charlotte this year, 60 percent are within a 15-minute walk of the light-rail line, according to CoStar, a real estate analytics firm.

The driver behind this trend is clear – transit adjacent apartments demand a premium in the market compared to other locations.

Apartments near mass transit in Charlotte rent for an average $982 a month, compared with an overall city average of $638 a month, CoStar research shows.

Further recognition of the post-Recession development trends that are increasingly taking shape.

Great to Visit But Would You Want to Walk There?

That distinguished journal of urban planning research, Travel+Leisure Magazine, has released their “Favorite American Cities” rankings for 2012. The rankings compare 35 major American cities across a wide variety of tourism-related categories, everything from best cocktail lounges and most intelligent people to best flea markets and classical music.  Of interest here, one of the rankings is for “Public Transportation and Pedestrian-Friendliness.”

The readers of Travel+Leisure clearly don’t think much of Atlanta’s transportation alternatives. When it comes to public transportation and pedestrian-friendliness, Atlanta was ranked the 27th best city by its visitors and 32nd by its residents. Savannah fared significantly better, as the 3rd best city by its visitors and the 4th best city by its residents.

Derived from an online poll on the magazine’s website, these decidedly-unscientific rankings are far from an empirical comparison of the transit and bike/ped infrastructure in these cities.  However, they do give some insight into the opinions of Travel+Leisure‘s readers which, given the importance of tourism to metro Atlanta’s economy, are worth noting.

Also interesting is the fact that visitors rated Atlanta’s alternative transportation infrastructure better than its residents did.  One possible explanation for this difference is the fact that many of the heavily touristed areas (the stadiums, aquarium, Downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead) are relatively better served by transit and pedestrian infrastructure than other areas of the city.  But the bottom line is that Atlanta’s visitors and residents agree that the city lags well behinds most other major American cities when it comes to public transportation and pedestrian-friendliness.

Incidentally, Savannah ranked #1 in the country for “Overall Quality of Life and Visitor Experience.” Take that, Charleston.