The Gwinnett County Transit Boondoggle, Part 2

The last article we published on the Gwinnett County transit boondoggle referendum ( ) focused primarily on the economic aspect of the proposed extension of heavy rail (MARTA) into the County. The history of public heavy rail transit sheds an illuminating spotlight on the utilization of urban rail service and further demonstrates the foolishness of spending over a billion dollars of taxpayer money to bring an outdated, under-utilized form of transportation to the county.

New York City’s subway is perhaps the best example of an urban, heavy rail public transit system. Opened in October, 1904, the subway dramatically transformed the city. But it wasn’t the first form of public transit to bring transformation. In response to New York City’s burgeoning population during the early and mid-1800s, private companies launched omnibus (horse-drawn buses) and rail systems (also horse drawn) that enabled people to travel beyond the over-crowded lower section of Manhattan. By 1860 New York city streets were clogged by the vehicles of 14 horse-drawn railway companies and 29 omnibus lines. Travel was uncomfortable, unreliable and undependable, but it made mid-town Manhattan accessible and led to the development of private residences, apartment houses and commercial buildings on land that was previously vacant.

The street-clogging traffic created by the omnibus and rail systems proved untenable and by the 1880s, elevated rail lines had largely replaced them. Again, the new transit systems made forays into largely vacant areas of the city, and again, residential and commercial development followed.

The opening of the subway system, with its 5-cent fare, dependable schedule and comfortable seats expanded access to the upper reaches of Manhattan and ultimately to the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. And as before, where public transit went, development followed. The salient point is that in New York City, as well as in a number of other metropolitan areas, transit drove development.

When the New York subway system opened, it was operated by private for-profit companies. However, fares were dictated by the city which mandated that they remain at 5 cents. Operating expenses continued to increase with each passing year and by 1940, the private transit companies were no longer financially viable; operation was taken over by the city.

Since then, fares and expenses have continued to increase while ridership has decreased. Between 2017 and 2018, ridership dropped almost 3%. That doesn’t sound like much until you look at the raw numbers which show a decrease of 47,306,205 fares. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, ridership has been down by as much as 92%, and New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is facing a crippling budget deficit.

New York’s MTA is also responsible for bus and a variety of other services within the city and surrounding counties, so the subway system is not the sole cause of the deficit. However, with ridership down in a region where the subway is typically the most convenient form of transportation, the situation in New York points out the folly of extending heavy rail, the most expensive form of public transit.

An equally compelling reason to label the proposed MARTA extension a folly is the history of transit in Atlanta, where heavy rail was an afterthought, a response to development, rather than a driver of it. Whereas transit brought residential and commercial development in cities like New York City (new construction was concentrated in areas adjacent to newly opened rail lines) in metro Atlanta, roads and highways brought development. The population of Gwinnett County surged, not because of the availability of public transportation, but because roads and highways made travel convenient for a car-oriented population.

As the population increased, so did road congestion, but travel by private vehicle remains the most convenient, if not the sole means of commuting.  MARTA opened in 1979, but primarily served areas that had already been established. Consequently, development in Gwinnett County became a function of land availability and highway access. But even if Gwinnett County residents are willing to drive to the nearest MARTA location, stations are sparse, (only 38) and not conveniently located for a large number of popular destinations. Extending MARTA into a corner of Gwinnett County won’t change that, so the system will remain vastly underutilized, and Gwinnett County taxpayers will have to share the financial burden.

And ridership will continue its decline. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, ridership on public transit was down, even in the country’s most transit-dependent cities. The virus has accelerated that trend, not because social distancing is virtually impossible on subways and buses, but because countless companies have embraced remote working for their employees. In so doing, the viability of a decentralized workforce has been convincingly demonstrated.

According to an article published by the International Workplace Group ,the trend towards  working remotely was gaining momentum before the pandemic and will continue, even after COVID-19 is just a memory. According to the article, “A 2018 survey by Deloitte showed that flexibility (in terms of working hours and location) was the third most important factor to young workers. Half of Millennials and 44% of Generation Z described it as ‘very important’ when choosing whether or not to work for an organisation.”

History shows that public transit is most highly utilized when development follows. In essence, when it creates the demand for its service. Yet with a future filled with an ever-increasing focus on working remotely, ride-hailing services and autonomous vehicles, demand for fixed route public transit will continue to decrease. With a continuing downward trend the number of daily commuters, the proposal to spend over a billion dollars on a heavy rail extension- one that won’t be completed for at least 10 years- makes even less sense than it did in the past.