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Atlanta's Transit Bickering Has Got to Stop Right Now

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In conjunction with the recent flurry of coverage regarding MARTA's proposed transit initiatives, the AJC has solicited the diverging opinions of two stakeholders: Tameka Wimberly, MARTA's senior regional planner and project manager of the Clifton transit project, and Michael Purpura, a Milton resident and retired chiropractor. Focused on differing projects — the Clifton Road Corridor and the North Fulton heavy rail extension — the two editorials offer insight and opinions on the expansion of MARTA. Before we delve into their thoughts, why have there been so many damn articles about MARTA and transit of late anyway? The coverage is hopefully indicative of a new era of growth for Atlanta transit. Maybe we will look back on 2014 and 2015 as pivotal years when things started moving in the right direction and Atlanta started sharing in the increased interest in public transit usage nationally.

The Clifton Road Corridor

The irons have been in the fire for MARTA's Clifton Road Corridor for longer than you might think. According to Wimberly's AJC op-ed, the South DeKalb-Lindbergh Major Investment Study indicated the need for such a corridor way back in 2000. So why are we still talking about this almost 15 years later, even as traffic gets more and more unbearable? Wimberly hits the nail on the head: "[The] project will be successful only if it has widespread community support."

At a recent meeting, the AJC characterized those in attendance as "cautiously receptive" to the prospect of running light rail down the Clifton Road corridor. With the Centers for Disease Control, Emory University and the accompanying Emory University Hospital, the corridor handled 109,000 people per day back in 2010. If commuters think traffic is bad now, they're in for a real shock if the projected 60 percent growth by 2040 becomes a reality before commute alternatives are in place. Opinion might need to get a step or two above "cautiously receptive" to get some progress happening. As it is, MARTA's plan doesn't offer any completed solution until the mid- to late-2020s.

North Fulton Heavy Rail

The second AJC opinion piece by Milton resident Michael Purpura is a response to the op-ed last week by Mark Toro, managing partner of the firm that developed Avalon. Toro expressed support extending the MARTA Red Line north along the Georgia 400 corridor.

Like Toro, Purpura is a recovered New Yorker who now spends a large amount of time in North Fulton. Unlike Toro, Purpura is vehemently opposed to any sort of new rail line extending along 400, as it might "result in… urban sprawl." (And coming from Long Island, Purpura knows a thing or two about that.) While some might already consider Atlanta a poster child for urban sprawl, when compared to many areas in Long Island, it might be better to characterize Atlanta's condition as suburban sprawl. Nonetheless, when Purpura writes "there is something to be said for not fighting the crowds" by living in the suburbs, one has to question whether he has ever ventured near North Point Mall or used GA-400 outside the hours of midnight and 4 a.m.

Purpura believes extending MARTA could cause a situation like the one in Long Island (population 7.7 million). He laments the growth of towns in the last 20 years along the Long Island Railroad, which serves an average of nearly 300,000 passengers daily along more almost 600 miles of track through 124 stations.

There are already crowds in North Fulton. By providing non-car transit options, the congestion that Purpura seems to magically avoid may be held at bay. Ultimately, the densification that he bemoans is handled largely by zoning at the municipal level. Milton will ultimately shape how Milton grows. And, with or without MARTA, Milton will grow.

What does it all mean?

These differing opinions highlight that transit does not offer a one-size-fits all solution, and before serious investment is undertaken in the next few years, we need to get our shit together. Fortunately, some seem to be recognizing that inaction — the option our region has chosen for decades — is not a course of action. Extending the train line north will not turn Atlanta into New York. It will give commuters more options, so that folks like Purpura can choose to sit in their cars, in traffic, as they still do on the Long Island Expressway.

If nothing is done, we will be shooting ourselves in the foot. Already, we've lost our edge in recruiting young talent to the city. The in-fighting has to stop, and the region needs to be thought of as a whole rather than as piecemeal entities. It doesn't mean building only train lines. It doesn't mean buying all new buses. It doesn't mean streetcars are the answer. It means that fear-mongering with hyperbolic examples are counterproductive. It means that those who oppose transit need to engage in a productive discussion about how we might better serve the needs of a city that is going to grow regardless of the transportation decisions that are made. It means we need to get our collective asses in gear.

· MARTA expansion [AJC]
· Five signs America is falling in love with public transit [CNN]