Crisis points to need for more transit

By Justin Boron

The spring of a trap has been quietly set over years as metro Atlantans, baited by lower-than average fuel prices, developed their dependence on cars. This week, the self-imposed trap has snapped shut, at least temporarily, on drivers with a gas supply panic that sent fuel prices skyrocketing to unaffordable highs.

While the inflated prices will likely be short-lived, the chaos following rumors of a gas shortage Wednesday underscored the problems that experts say could become more permanent if transit habits are not changed dramatically.

But in a road-entangled metro region, which ranks fifth nationally in its money spent on middle-eastern gas, is there turning back? Can people escape their cars?

Mass transit experts say the answer is yes.

With residential development trending back into the cities' core, there is still a chance that residents in Atlanta will be able to survive without their car, said Catherine Ross, the chairwoman of Georgia Tech's Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development.

"We've got a chance to get it right," she said.

As it stands, a household in metro Atlanta drives 27,932 miles a year and sends $289 to the middle east a year, according to a new report by the Washington-based Environmental Working Group. Only Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, metro Charlotte, N.C., Jacksonville, Fla., and Nashville, Tenn. outrank metro Atlanta.

Cities with lower rankings in the report tended to have more alternative modes of transportation available.

To change people's travel habits, they must first have the opportunity, Ross said.

Several alternative forms of transit have been implemented or are in the developmental stages in the area.

The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, for example, runs commuter bus service in Henry and Clayton counties. The agency heralded its bus ridership numbers recently saying it ran 80,000 along Tara Boulevard in Clayton County since it started last June and more than 50,000 up Interstate 75 in Henry County since it started in November.

Also C-TRAN in its third year in Clayton County has become an effective feeder into the MARTA system. And the commuter rail is still on the horizon.

With several different transportation systems in one region, a challenge that arises is getting them to work together.

While they don't have to be run by a singular agency, Ross said connectivity in the area's road and public transit is crucial.

Clayton-Henry transit lacking

In the case of public bus transit, connectivity is lacking between Henry and Clayton County.

Clayton County residents can take the county's bus C-TRAN bus system north to MARTA, and both in both counties, bus service moves commuters to Atlanta. But there isn't a practical way citizens can cross counties without using a car since Henry County has no public bus system beyond van service provided by appointment.

Bob White, the director of the Henry County Development Authority, said part of the reason the county may not have the same need as Clayton County is the demographic makeup.

Residents in Henry County, he said, have the economic background to own reliable cars and primarily travel out of county to Atlanta for work.

Henry County Commissioner B.J. Mathis said bus service would be an area that Henry County would have to look at.

But people's affinity for their cars, she said is difficult to overcome.

"People love their cars, somehow or another you're going to have to change that mindset," she said.

Commuter rail project slowing with debate

In Henry and Clayton counties, commuter rail has been a contentious issue. Politicians have been forced to decide if the Southern Crescent's transportation needs are worth the local tax dollars that are required to develop rail and bus systems.

The debate has stalled progress on the rail.

With one dissenting vote, The Clayton County Board of Commissioners decided to commit local funds to operating and maintenance costs for the planned rail.

However, the vote fueled new opposition to the rail and strengthened dissent that had already emerged in Henry County.

Commissioner Wolï ¿ ½ Ralph and several other legislative officials disagreed with local funds being allocating to what they consider a regional transportation mode.

Following the emergence of a clear opposition, state transportation officials postponed its decision on whether to continue forward with the $106 million investment.

The Environmental Working Group study indicates that at some level, rail will have to play a role in solving the region's transportation.

"Major shifts in transportation priorities are essential to achieving energy independence and maintaining national security," said Richard Wiles, Senior Vice President at EWG. "A serious commitment to rail and transit has been a missing element in the U.S. strategy to reduce our dependence on Middle East oil."