Transportation is set for a leading role in what could be a dramatic 2015 legislative session. And we already have a bit of a plot twist.
As legislators’ biennial conference in Athens wound down last month, the transportation industry held its own conclave off-campus. The audience heard from Gov. Nathan Deal, who spoke in muted terms — unsurprising, because Deal continues to devote most of his political capital to education and criminal justice reform.
Then it heard from Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who hearkened to the days of “great visionaries” who made “tough decisions regardless of what the consequences might be.” Then he said, “We cannot avoid the issue of transit. … I believe very strongly that we have an infrastructure that exists with MARTA that can be capitalized on.”
For me, Cagle’s words renewed a question: When and how might a conservative-leaning state, with a capital metropolis that’s roughly 50-50 in partisan terms, reconsider its skepticism toward transit?
I’ve written about some thoughts along those lines before. Transit should be a question of using resources efficiently rather than ideology, pro or con. And if we can expand bus transit more cost-effectively — say, by putting express buses on managed toll lanes that guarantee they’ll move quickly even at rush hour — we shouldn’t push rail instead.
Here’s another thought to chew on. We have heard a lot in 2014 about transit-oriented development. This covers everything from MARTA seeking to develop land around existing stations to the notion a downtown streetcar will stimulate growth where trolleys and buses didn’t.
Some conservatives view this approach as a kind of social engineering. Some objections (public subsidies for private developers, distorting the real estate market) are more reasonable than others.
But what if we simply flipped transit-oriented development on its head? Call it development-oriented transit.
In short, look to add transit in places where people are already flocking, especially where the road infrastructure and room for improving it are limited.
Traffic congestion is bad, and resources are scarce — and still will be, even if the Legislature comes up with $1 billion or more in new annual funding. We should all want new infrastructure to solve the problems we face today.
Where might development-oriented transit work? Try 14th Street in Midtown. On one end is the fast-growing Westside Provisions district and surrounding area. The road then runs east past the northern edge of Georgia Tech, high-end hotels and office buildings, eventually dead-ending at Piedmont Park.
A streetcar or rapid bus line in a dedicated lane on 14th, tying into MARTA stations a few blocks north (Arts Center) or south (Midtown), would help people get to and through that corridor. It would also funnel more people into the existing MARTA system, enhancing the agency’s ability to re-invest in itself.
A focus like that — on moving people, rather than enticing people to move — could change the way a lot of skeptics think about transit.