The wrong road to regional transportation solutions

Benita Dodd's picture

An annual survey of the nation’s roads by the Reason Foundation reveals a lot about congestion in Georgia. The state is ranked 10th in the nation for spending on maintenance but 39th for capital spending. It was No. 1 for the condition of its interstates, but at 31 in the nation for the percent of urban congestion.

Put simply, Georgia’s roads are in great condition because they’re well maintained. But they’re congested because the state lags in adding capacity. And the state’s most congested urban region seems set to miss the best opportunity yet.

A committee is finalizing a list of transportation projects for the 10-county metro Atlanta region based on an anticipated $6.14 billion pot of money if voters approve a 10-year penny sales tax for transportation in next year’s referendum. That list includes 12 transit projects that will gobble up nearly 56 percent of the pot, a recipe that does not promise congestion relief.

Data from the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics underline why spending 56 percent of the funds on transit is a wasted opportunity: In Georgia, just 2.4 percent of workers travel by public transportation (excluding taxicab); nearly 90 percent drive alone or carpool. In metro Atlanta, according to a 2010 survey by the Department of Transportation, 94 percent of workers drive alone, carpool or telecommute. Three percent travel by rail and 2 percent by bus.

The project list ignores this reality. One transit project alone consumes 14 percent of the transportation sales tax proceeds: the biggest project on the list, nebulously described as a “fixed guideway transit” between Cumberland Mall in Cobb County and the MARTA Arts Center station. The committee allocated $856.5 million toward this project, which is expected to cost $1,234,9000 and would be the first phase of a project that would eventually extend to Acworth in Cobb.

Voters deserve more answers. The project fact sheet vaguely states that “specific details will be determined in an Alternatives Analysis Study” still under way by Cobb County – but that study is unlikely to be completed before voters go to the polls. The fact sheet adds that “Numerous studies over the past decade support the feasibility of this project for the northwest corridor,” and, “Economic and traffic benefits would be great for Cobb County and the region as a whole.”

A “recent update” of a 10-year-old light rail study paid for by the Cumberland and Town Center Community Improvement Districts (CIDs) anticipates 92,600 boardings by 2025. Interestingly, the project delivery assessment shows a high probability that the first phase would not even be completed by 2026 – an unfortunate situation for a 10-year tax. Cobb County Transit (CCT) buses run every 15 minutes on weekdays between the Marietta Transfer Station (via Cumberland Mall) and MARTA’s Arts Center Station, with average daily boardings of 3,827. But CCT says it has no breakdown of the specific boarding numbers between Cumberland and the Arts Center Station.

Lofty ridership projections and nebulous “great” benefits read more like a public relations campaign than a justification for a $1.2 billion project that gobbles 14 percent of the pie. Ridership depends on more than projections. It depends on defining the mode: Light rail or heavy rail? Light rail is slower than heavy rail, and because it may not operate in dedicated right of way, it will add to congestion by pre-empting traffic signals and stop vehicular traffic at every road it crosses.

It depends on the trip schedule: Will the service run all day as CCT buses do now, or merely at peak hours? It also depends on the fare, the trip time and the number of trains.

It depends on the route and the stations. The alternatives include I-75; I-75 to U.S. 41 State Route 3; and 17th Street to Northside Drive to Marietta Boulevard/Atlanta Road to I-285. No matter what route is selected, the uproar over property condemnations, noise, neighborhood and environmental impacts is certain to affect cost and delivery.

What voters need to know, too, is the ongoing commitment to funding operations. What percent of the cost of service will be recovered from the farebox? The $1.2 billion total cost of the first phase includes a 30 percent cushion for cost overruns, and voters can almost certainly expect it to be higher than that. How is the next phase funded?

Voters are not looking at “just” a penny tax. It’s an average 14 percent increase in the sales tax rate, and the region’s voters and taxpayers deserve honesty and transparency. Transit is a necessary mix in the plan, but commuters deserve a focus on flexible, cost-effective transit projects that more effectively meet their transportation needs, not planners’ desires. If this is the final list, hope that regional leaders have a Plan B.

[Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.]