$8 billion MARTA expansion plan raises long-term questions

Mark Arum The Gridlock Guy

To MARTA or not to MARTA?

That is the question we here in the metro Atlanta area will have to answer in the coming years. According to a study released last week by the Metro Atlanta Chamber and Georgia Transportation Alliance, increased MARTA rail service could be an economic boon to the area.

The study states that a proposed $8 billion plan to expand MARTA could “inject $5.2 billion into the region’s economy over the next two and a half decades.” The story was first reported by my colleague Andria Simmons in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week.

There are three parts to the current proposal. “Heavy” rail lines north to Alpharetta and east to Turner Hill in DeKalb County, and a “light” rail line connecting the Lindbergh and Avondale stations through Decatur.

If the data is accurate, a handful of questions remain to be answered:

If we build it, will people use it?

Will people go for a tax increase to fund it?

Is it really needed?

Will people use it?

Maybe is the best answer I can come up with. The current MARTA system is underused and underutilized. Can people be swayed to use mass transit that haven’t previously used it? Tough call. The best bet might be to get new residents to the area on board with MARTA.

Will people go for a tax increase to fund it?

This might be the biggest hurdle. Senate Bill 330 asks for residents of DeKalb and Fulton counties to pay an extra half-percent sales tax to fund the expansion. Right now, I can’t see voters willingly increase their day-to-day tax bill. I might be wrong, but either way it will be a close call.

Is it really needed?

I would argue that it is needed now, but will it be needed in the future? Maybe not. I know this sounds far-fetched but I believe we are on the cusp of a transportation revolution. Much like the advent of the automobile and the plane was a death knell to passenger rail transportation, I think we will soon see a technological change in automobiles that might prevent a majority of our traffic woes and therefore decapitate the current, most pressing need for mass transit.

In 10 years (or sooner) I feel it will be very likely that all of our cars will be self-driving. The technology is here already and the benefits of self-driving cars are enormous. Not least of which will be the ability to pretty much do away with horrible traffic.

Computerized cars will be able to talk to each other and therefore figure out in nanoseconds how to keep traffic moving smoothly. When that day arrives, I will be out of a job, and mass transit will be a less appealing option. We will all be in our own, self-contained, little trains if you will.

If I were a gambling man, I would bet that the new MARTA proposal doesn’t get passed and at the end of the day, it might not be needed.