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By Willoughby Mariano May 15, 2012

Anti- transportation tax group: Light rail doubles commute time

Metro Atlanta needs to fix its traffic problems, but it doesn’t need rail, a group opposed to a plan to raise taxes to overhaul the region’s transportation system said.

The Transportation Leadership Coalition operates the website, which lists reasons to vote against the 1-cent sales tax July 31.  

One of the top ones is that it won’t help you in a traffic jam. Even research by the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, which helps create regional transportation policy, found that light rail could make your commute far worse,  the website said.  

"GRTA concluded that light rail in Cobb County would more than double commute time and would therefore be unsuccessful in alleviating traffic congestion," it read.

More than double commute time? Then why would anyone in his right mind want light rail?

We took a close look at the claim.

The referendum is known as the Transportation Special Local Option Sales Tax. It would raise taxes by 1 cent in the metro area over the next 10 years to build or upgrade roads, highways and mass transit.  

Even if the referendum passes, it won’t fund rail for Cobb County. Local leaders who developed a slate of projects that the tax would fund struck it from the list.

It will pay for other rail projects, such as one in the Clifton Road corridor near Emory University and streetcars in and around downtown Atlanta. Transportation tax foes repeatedly use this fact as a reason to oppose it.

To find out more about the GRTA claim, we called volunteers for the Transportation Leadership Coalition. They told us they got their information during meetings for the Northwest Connectivity Study, a years-long effort in the early 2000s. The GRTA’s aim was to find out what kind of mass transit system would help locals best cope with their commutes.

The study recommended bus service that would use HOV lanes to take them closer to the city’s core instead of light rail or other types of transit, according to news accounts and GRTA study documents.  

(The bus service never launched. It morphed into a project to build special "reversible lanes" that switch their direction of travel depending on the time of day. Drivers will pay a toll to use them to get around traffic jams.)

The study estimated commute times for some of these mass transit options.

The HOV lane bus service would take 36 minutes to travel from the Busbee Park and Ride lot in the Kennesaw area to Midtown, according to study documents. Light rail would take an estimated 53 minutes, or 17 minutes more.

But it did not compare mass transit trip times to car commutes, GRTA spokesman William Mecke told PolitiFact Georgia. It didn’t look into how these mass transit projects would affect traffic congestion, either.

"Therefore, GRTA drew no conclusions as to how much these transit options would impact commute times or alleviate traffic congestion," Mecke told us in an email. Project documents outlining the scope of the study back up this statement.

Mecke cautioned that the study’s estimates are old.

"That was eight years and another economy ago," Mecke said.

Transportation Leadership Coalition volunteer Ron Sifen recalls the Northwest Corridor effort differently. Sifen, who said he supports mass transit, said he was a supporter of light rail until he saw a GRTA presentation in the early 2000s.

The presentation compared trip times for car commuters with those of light-rail riders. Sifen said car trips were so much shorter, and light rail was so much more expensive than other options, he decided light rail was a bad idea.

We wanted to give Sifen and others from the anti-transportation tax group another chance, so we checked our newspaper archives and other resources for any suggestion that light rail would double Northwest Corridor commute times. We found nothing.

We also looked at the GRTA’s yearly Transportation MAP Report, which shows commute times for certain freeway segments. We hoped we could do a back-of-the-envelope calculation for the length of a car commute and compare it with the light-rail time.

We couldn’t. It doesn’t show how long it takes a car commuter to drive from the Busbee Park and Ride to Midtown.

It’s possible that car commutes could be shorter than prospective light-rail commutes. Trains make regularly scheduled stops.

But even if data collected as part of the Northwest Connectivity study, or any other transportation studies in the early part of the past decade, did confirm that this were true, that data would be very old.  

To sum up:

The Transportation Leadership Coalition said that the GRTA "concluded that light rail in Cobb County would more than double commute time and would therefore be unsuccessful in alleviating traffic congestion."

The GRTA denied it made this conclusion, and we found no evidence it did, either.

The Transportation Leadership Coalition earns a False.

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Our Sources

Transportation Leadership Coalition,, "The Facts About T-SPLOST," accessed April 30, 2012

Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, Northwest Connectivity Study, "2003 NWCS Three Alternatives," accessed May 10, 2012,

Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, Northwest Connectivity Study, NWCS Briefing Book, accessed May 10, 2012

Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, 2010 Transportation MAP Report, accessed May 11, 2012

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Agencies seek ideas on HOV, bus systems," Nov. 11, 2004

Email and telephone interviews, William Mecke, spokesman, Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, May 9 and 10, 2012

Email interviews, Ron Sifen, volunteer, Transportation Leadership Coalition, May 1, 2012, through May 12, 2012

Email interviews, Claire Bartlett, volunteer, Transportation Leadership Coalition, May 1 and 2, 2012

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