Not too late to catch the train

REPUBLICANS in New Orleans for their convention may head out of the Superdome in search of the streetcar named Desire - only to find it's become a bus. But in Atlanta, the Democrats had another public transit opportunity, the MARTA rapid rail system. Not only did MARTA speed delegates, journalists, and other hangers-on from the airport to downtown, but the system also accommodated record numbers of Atlantans who left their cars at home to avoid convention traffic.

It was enough to spark some thinking on whether rail systems can be a meaningful part of the transportation system in an American Sunbelt city. MARTA, after all, is less than 10 years old, and Atlanta is very much a city of the automobile age, and with a relatively weaker downtown than many prosperous cities.

But with its 32 miles of track and 29 stations, MARTA has been drawing more than 200,000 riders a day. The increase in ridership after the new airport station was opened has been even greater than expected. Fares pay for a third of MARTA's operating expenses; 60 percent of the operating budget comes from a sales tax, whose revenues also fund capital projects. Only a few cents on the operating dollar come from federal funds.

One of the most interesting things about MARTA is that development is beginning to cluster around its stations. Some developers are beginning to find it more convenient to build closer in, near public transit, than farther out, where they would have to build a parking lot, and perhaps an access road, too.

The golden age of the subway may seem to be in the past, but actually nearly a dozen cities have opened urban rail systems since the mid-'70s. A few dozen other cities are planning such systems - despite paucity of federal funds, and gasoline prices that have remained lower than might have been expected a few years back. Moreover, skepticism prevails in many quarters over whether rail systems, particularly heavy rail systems with their tremendous capital costs and requirements for right of way, are really the best alternative to private autos.

But clearly something must be done to keep the automobile from taking over the planet, for reasons of energy and the environment. Rail systems may yet be able to make their mark on a relatively new city like Atlanta.

To look around an auto-age city is to be struck by how much land is chewed up to accommodate cars - highways, parking lots, clover-leaf on-ramps, frontage roads. Environmentalists who worry about how much of planet Earth is consumed by human activity would do well to plump for denser communities as a way to slow the ooze of suburbia into the countryside. And where everyone travels encapsulated in an automobile, one loses the human contact of a walking-distance community - the street life, the people-watching - that helps make metropolitan living enjoyable.

The question can't be, Will rapid rail systems ever work in our spread-out, auto-spaced postwar cities? Rather the question should be, Can rail help keep cities from sprawling out any farther?

Experience in Atlanta suggests that perhaps they can.

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