Technology can improve transit but not replace new network investment

By Saba Long

Driverless cars, repairing broken sidewalks, promoting transit for workplaces, public art and transportation.

That’s just a taste of the diversity of ideas discussed during the breakout sessions at the transportation nerd fest known as TransportationCamp. Even better, this year’s event, held a couple of weeks ago, also including a Govathon transportation-centric hackathon. Naturally, MARTA was the focal point for transit discussions.

Over the past several months, we have all watched the disruption of the taxicab industry, not only in metro Atlanta, but also across the country. A couple of smart phone apps, Uber and Lyft, have revolutionized the transportation industry, and in the case of Uber, have brought the black towncar experience within reach of the common middle-class individual.

Municipalities and state legislatures mostly seem to be in a sluggish, reactionary state to technology advances.

Transit agencies and others in the transportation industry ought take heed to how swiftly the marketplace can fulfill a consumer need.

The mode we choose to get from point A to point B is increasingly dependent on user experience – a point painstakingly made by Georgia Sen. Brandon Beach by his three-and-a-half-hour, transit-dependent trip from Kennesaw in Cobb County to Gwinnett County.

For the second year in a row, TransportationCamp showed there is a clear interest and capacity from the public to have access to data points collected by transportation agencies, improve data collection, decipher the data and deliver an outcome that will improve the user experience.

A few Georgia Tech students are working with Cobb County to develop a mobile app to help visitors navigate the forthcoming new Braves Stadium and development. Soon they will present a product to senior level Cobb leaders with the intent for a further pitch to the Braves. The user experience, powered by data, should be relatively smooth for patrons of the new stadium and surrounding development.

Yes, data is the bright light throughout the trip life cycle. However, regardless of how easy technology developers make it to determine how to get from one area of the region to the next, the reality is that we are still left with gaping holes in our regional connectivity.

The desire for transportation and infrastructure investment was evident amongst the conference attendees; nearly all were Gen X and Y.

While we may struggle with how to fund these necessary investments, we truly cannot continue to kick the transportation can down the road. A shift in political will is long overdue. And we have to stop penalizing elected officials when they show a modicum of leadership on these kinds of issues. In fact, we should rebuke remarks that are purely red meat with no substantive input.

Look no further than a recent debate between House Speaker David Ralston and his opponent, Sam Snider. Part of Snider’s rhetoric towards Ralston included this tidbit: “It is my understanding that he [Ralston] has a MARTA card, and that what’s good for Atlanta is good for Georgia.”

Mr. Snider, I encourage you to take a MARTA trip starting at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Pay attention to the number of diverse riders boarding at that station. Note how many you see wearing TSA, airline or other airport-related uniforms. As the train moves further north, get off at Peachtree Center, Midtown or Buckhead stations and take note of the thousands of employees that have access to transit. Talk to the transportation management associations that serve Perimeter, Cumberland and the Clifton Corridor. Ask the Georgia Department of Transportation to show you a traffic model assuming there are zero transit options in the metro area.

Red meat politics has no place in infrastructure and future-building conversations.

I suspect we will soon reaching a tipping point in which the public, both dependent and choice transit users, will campaign their elected officials and ask for improved transportation access. They may even ask people running for public office to show proof that they have a transit card.

In the interest of full disclosure: Saba Long is a freelance communications professional who currently is working for MARTA and other organizations.

About Saba Long

Saba Long is a communications and political professional who lives in downtown Atlanta. She serves as the senior council aide and communications liaison for Post 2 At-Large Atlanta City Councilman Aaron Watson. Most recently, Saba was the press secretary for MAVEN and Untie Atlanta -- the Metro Chamber’s education and advocacy campaigns in supportive of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Referendum. She has consulted with H.E.G. an analytics and evaluation firm where she lent strategic marketing and social media expertise to numerous political campaigns, including that of Fulton County Chairman John Eaves and the 2010 Clayton County transportation referendum. In 2009, Saba served as the deputy campaign manager for the campaign of City Council President Ceasar Mitchell. Previously, Saba was a Junior Account Executive at iFusion Marketing, where she lent fractional marketing strategy to various ATDC technology startups operating out of the Georgia Tech incubator, ATDC. For the past two years, Saba has presented on online marketing and politics to the incoming fellows of the Atlanta chapter of the New Leaders Council.
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17 comments
Just the Facts
Just the Facts

Those following this race closely recognize the intentions of Sam Snider during the recent forum. Mr. Ralston emphatically stated that he did not support the TSPLOST legislation. This statement is simply not true. Sam Snider made this comment during the rebuttal to "remind" Ralston that he did in fact support the legislation. Sam Snider's comment was a direct quote from Ralston's soliloquy on the House floor encouraging the House to pass the bill. Snider's message to the people of the Seventh District is a simple return to local representation. MOST local citizens in this area do not have a Marta card and are more concerned with the high unemployment rate and the condition of local roads.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@Just the Facts Good comments and good points. 

In the remote and extremely-rural and mountainous part of the state that Georgia House Speaker David Ralston represents, the plight of MARTA and Atlanta's urban transportation network is not even a distant concern of Sam Snider and the constituents that he seeks to represent in the Georgia House of Representatives.

In a very-rural and very-conservative part of the state that struggles mightily with high poverty and unemployment, a political figure of statewide importance like Georgia House Speaker David Ralston has to be very-careful to not come-off as appearing to be too Atlanta-centric where Atlanta (both urban and suburban, but especially the city) is not necessarily all that popular with the local electorate. 

Burroughston Broch
Burroughston Broch

@The Last Democrat in Georgia Get your facts in order before throwing insults. Ralston's district encompasses parts of Dawson, Fannin, and Gilmer counties. The unemployment rate in each of those counties in February 2014 was lower than in Fulton County; in fact, Dawson County's rate was 2% less than Fulton's. The poverty rate in these three counties is only slightly higher than Fulton County's 16.8%. So you are completely offbase to demean the Speaker's constituents.

The Speaker should not be City of Atlanta-centric because the City of Atlanta is less than 4.5% of Georgia's population.

writes_of_weigh
writes_of_weigh

@The Last Democrat in Georgia  A fine example of your argument was the unbelievable castigation heaped upon Speaker Ralston after he and his family were invited to Europe to experience what first-world civilized travel feels like via true.... High Speed Rail. After that brow-beating, I'm doubtful that he would "entertain" the notion of expanded/funded passenger rail of ANY type, despite the recent GADoT dog and pony show covering that very modality. One must'nt forget, we are but a few months shy of an "election." Now....where's my red, white and blue bunting???

writes_of_weigh
writes_of_weigh

Just curious........Do you consider Southern Company's Georgia Power unit one of those "profit-hungry" business/real estate interests? If so, how did transit in Atlanta so devolve from when GAPOWR ran the streetcar lines, then "bailed", when it became unprofitable? What kind of "good" corporate citizen are they anyway? And besides.....why didn't they just raise the streetcar fares to maintain "profitability", as they are currently so doing with public backing of their(or is it "our") nuclear plant construction? And where was/is the Georgia "Public ""Service"" Commission" in the midst of all these "regulated" transactions. Just tipping martinis at the Commerce Club I suppose.....but I digress......

atlman
atlman

@The Last Democrat in Georgia @atlman @Burroughston Broch  

Replace the MARTA albatross that will never expand where it needs to go or get state support because of racial/partisan politics and replace it with TADs and CIDs that can be used to redevelop Fort Gillem, Fort McPherson, the old Ford site, the Turner Field area and Underground Atlanta (though it is likely that the latter two will be "sold" to Georgia State) plus billions of dollars? And still not lose service anywhere that MARTA currently runs? Where do I sign? 

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@atlman @The Last Democrat in Georgia@Burroughston Broch Again, more great points, atlman.

The state was never serious about taking over Hartsfield. 

I mean if they could have gotten Hartsfield without paying for it, sure they probably might have taken it.  But in the unlikely event that the state would have gotten it, the state likely would have done the same thing to Hartsfield that it has done to the Georgia Department of Transportation where they have run that critically-important agency into the ground and buried it with crippling debt.

And you make an excellent point that the 1% countywide sales tax that currently funds MARTA in Fulton and DeKalb counties would likely go away if MARTA was taken over by the state and sold-off to private real estate investors.

But that 1% countywide sales tax would likely be replaced with Value Capture taxes (sales and PROPERTY taxes) from targeted Tax Allocation Districts and self-taxing Community Improvement Districts confined to the commercial and industrial areas that line high-capacity transit corridors throughout the greater five-county urban core of metro Atlanta.

With TADs and CIDs officially replacing the 1% countywide sales tax that currently funds MARTA, the 1% sales tax that funds MARTA would still unofficially be in effect as would still be collected from many of the same retail establishments and property tax revenues would also be collected from commercial and industrial property. 

It's just that semantically the current 1% sales tax would no longer officially be in effect in Fulton and DeKalb counties and the TADs and CID's would not need the approval of voters to be implemented through referendum in the counties that they will be collected because they officially will not be countywide taxes.

Heck, if you go out and draw TAD and self-taxing CID boundaries around all of the commercial and industrial development in large urban counties like Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Gwinnett, Cobb, etc, you will probably collect more tax revenue from TADs and CIDs than you would from countywide 1% sales taxes because revenues can be collected from BOTH sales and property taxes in a TAD/CID Value Capture tax setup...

...That's unlike with a 1% countywide sales tax setup where transit-operating revenues can only be collected from a sales taxes that need the approval of voters in a countywide referendum.

atlman
atlman

@The Last Democrat in Georgia @atlman @Burroughston Broch  

Hey, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

1. Atlanta (and Fulton and DeKalb) would get BILLIONS to do their own transportation and infrastructure projects. These folks tried to remove Hartsfield from Atlanta in the late 90s and early 2000s, but backed off when they found out that they would have to pay BILLIONS for the land and assets. If the folks who want to take away MARTA are willing to pay market value for it, then great. Why?

2. The MARTA tax would go away. That's the thing. If Atlanta/Fulton/DeKalb no longer manage MARTA, there will no longer be a legal justification for forcing them to fund it. They can all vote themselves out of the system. Which would mean that the private interests and the state would have to pay to maintain the system. Atlanta/Fulton/DeKalb could use the revenue that used to go to MARTA to pay for their own projects, or they could simply cut that regressive sales tax.

So let them go ahead. It is a win-win for the city. 

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@atlman @The Last Democrat in Georgia@Burroughston Broch Excellent comments, atlman.

Though, MARTA supporters should be aware that even with Keith Parker's early success in getting MARTA back on a good financial and operational track, Northside political, business and real estate interests have not necessarily backed completely off from their efforts to conduct a state takeover and immediate sell-off of MARTA to private real estate investors.

Those increasingly powerful Northside political, business and real estate interests in North Fulton, North DeKalb, Gwinnett and Cobb counties are basically just standing down for the time being and letting Parker fatten MARTA up for an eventual state takeover and sell-off of the whole agency to private real estate investors.

The time for increasingly-powerful and profit-hungry Northside business and real estate interests to sit on the sidelines is over, particularly with rail transit access continuing to play a role of ever-increasing importance in real estate transactions.

Just MARTA's existing real estate assets alone (the land at and around its transit stations) are possibly worth multiple billions of dollars undeveloped.

Develop the land at and around most transit stations into large-scale high-density mixed-use transit-oriented development and MARTA's real estate assets will become worth tens-of-billions of dollars because of the very-prime location of those assets and because of the relatively very-close location of those very-prime real estate assets to the world's busiest airport at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.  

Those very-powerful profit-hungry business and real estate interests on the Northside are not just going to continue to sit on the sidelines and let tens-of-billions of dollars potential profits languish.  They're going to want to turn those tens-of-billions of dollars in potential real estate profits into actual cash profits.

atlman
atlman

@The Last Democrat in Georgia @Burroughston Broch  

"Curiously, you don't seem to have a problem when the fact is stated that parts of Metro Atlanta (particularly the City of Atlanta) struggle with high levels of poverty and unemployment, but you do have a problem when the fact is stated that the rural North Georgia Mountains region historically has struggled and continues to struggle with high levels of poverty and unemployment."

It is not curious at all. If you have followed Burroughston Broch's trolling comments on this site, and he also makes similar ones on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Creative Loafing, he despises the majority-minority areas in Atlanta and DeKalb and the leaders that they elect, while continually promoting the majority-majority areas and their leaders. So any and every reference to poverty, crime, corruption etc. in the majority-minority areas get played up, and things like the decreasing unemployment rate and booming economic development in those areas get ignored. I have posted link after link on the amazing construction of condos and high end apartments, the gentrification of affluent residents, and the location/relocation of high tech and other high paying jobs to midtown and downtown Atlanta (including not a few relocating from Cobb and Gwinnett Counties ... Coca-Cola moving thousands of such workers there and NCR on the verge of doing the same) and the dropping crime rate and he ignores them, just as he ignores the increasing crime and slowing population and economic growth rates in Cobb and Gwinnett. So any reference to poverty or corruption in a non-majority-minority area, this guy is going to take offense.

Burroughston Broch is part of the "Atlanta is the next Detroit" crowd and will not countenance anything else. Despite the fact that Atlanta's leadership is far more moderate and pro-business and much less corrupt than the leadership of most urban areas. Both Reed and Franklin significantly increased the size of the police department and opened new precincts, adopted new technology and stepped up patrols, and did so during a recession. Crime is now at its lowest level in decades, lower than when Broch's people ran the city, as a result but do not expect him to acknowledge that. The guy who made the intemperate, racist comment when the Braves moved to Cobb is actually a consultant from the private sector, the sort that would never get hired in Detroit or Washington D.C. Reed was the first and to date the big city mayor to take on the powerful public sector unions with pension reform BEFORE it spiraled out of control, without needing pressure from the state or the banks to act first, and as a result the city was running annual budget surpluses into the tens of millions even during the great recession. Reed worked with Perdue and Deal to keep the APS scandal from getting even worse and turning into a huge racial mess, including getting the law passed that allowed the removal of several of the worst members from the Atlanta school board, the same law that was later used to save the accreditation of DeKalb Schools. Reed deftly handled the corruption crisis at the Beltline by forcing a leadership change and placing more of the Beltline's management under private control. He was the main one responsible for Keith Parker taking over MARTA, who put the agency in the black and saved it from GOP attempts to hack it into pieces and sell it of. MARTA is now doing so well that the GOP has gone from trying to dismantle it to giving it the go-ahead to expand into Clayton County, something unthinkable as recently as 2 years ago. Because of Reed, the next manager of Hartsfield is going to focus on the far more lucrative freight traffic (to compete with Memphis, which is #1) instead of continuing to focus on being #1 in personal travel, which really doesn't do much economically. 

But mention any of that to this guy, and he will do the same thing as he does when mentioning poverty in areas other than Atlanta: feign offense and ignore statistics. Again, it is the same act that he has on the AJC and Creative Loafing message boards.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@Burroughston Broch @The Last Democrat in Georgia I didn't "choose" any words. I stated the fact that the area inside of Speaker Ralston's legislative district and much of the North Georgia Mountains region is not a geographic region that tends towards affluence, but one that tends towards economic struggle much of the time.

The North Georgia Mountains region has traditionally struggled mightily with poverty and high unemployment (hence the construction of the GA 515 APD Highway as one of the ways to attempt to combat that severe rural poverty of the Southern Appalachians) and continues to struggle mightily with poverty and a lack of employment opportunities, particularly in the aftermath of one of the worst economic downturns in recent American history.

The unemployment rate numbers for Speaker Ralston's district that you cited don't present an accurate picture of the unemployment situation in that area because those official numbers don't count the long-term unemployed (the people who have dropped out of workforce because they could not find work).  That is evidenced by the substantial difference in the amount of people participating in the workforce between July '07 when the construction industry was still going somewhat relatively strong with vacation homes being built in the North Georgia Mountains and now when the vacation home construction industry is much weaker after an extended period of virtually no activity in that particular industry and significantly diminished economic activity in much of the North Georgia Mountains region. 

I also don't have to draw a contrast between the sparsely-populated overwhelmingly rural and mountainous area of Speaker Ralston's legislative district in extreme North Georgia and the very heavily-populated, overdeveloped and often-overcrowded urban and suburban districts of Metro Atlanta. 

The obvious contrasts between the two vastly-different areas speak for themselves and are important to understanding why Metro Atlanta's urban transportation issues may be of the least concern to Speaker Ralston's rural-dominated constituency.

For whatever reason, you seem to be personally offended with the statement of the fact that the area inside of Speaker Ralston's legislative district and in the North Georgia Mountains region struggles with poverty and high unemployment.

Curiously, you don't seem to have a problem when the fact is stated that parts of Metro Atlanta (particularly the City of Atlanta) struggle with high levels of poverty and unemployment, but you do have a problem when the fact is stated that the rural North Georgia Mountains region historically has struggled and continues to struggle with high levels of poverty and unemployment. 

The statement that the rural mountainous area inside of Speaker Ralston's struggles with high rates of poverty and high employment is not an "insult" and is very-much correct as the last I looked, above-average poverty rates of over 20% and REAL unemployment rates of nearly 17% do not exactly fit the definition of low levels of poverty and unemployment.

The statistics I quoted were from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Federal Reserve.

Burroughston Broch
Burroughston Broch

@The Last Democrat in Georgia @Burroughston Broch "No one is throwing insults and no one is demeaning Speaker Ralston's constituents."

You chose these words:"struggles mightily with poverty and high unemployment", which are certainly not terms of endearment, and then attempted to draw a contrast to Atlanta. Your chosen words were both insults and incorrect. The statistics I quoted are from the US Census Bureau.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@Burroughston Broch @The Last Democrat in Georgia {{{"The Speaker should not be City of Atlanta-centric because the City of Atlanta is less than 4.5% of Georgia's population."}}}

The City of Atlanta, even with all of its many, many faults and even with being less than 4.5% of the state's population, is still the most-important municipality in the state of Georgia and will continue to be the most-important municipality in the state of Georgia because of its tremendous assets (the world's busiest airport, the lucrative Downtown convention & tourism business, the powerful business-minded community of movers-and-shakers in Buckhead, etc).

As a self-described country lawyer from the rural North Georgia Mountains, Speaker Ralston most-likely can never be accused of being "City of Atlanta-centric", even if he may possess a MARTA card, which comes in extremely-handy if one has to move between Downtown and Midtown and/or Buckhead during peak traffic hours.

Speaker Ralston's problem is not just that he must be careful not to appear as being "City of Atlanta-centric", but also that he must be careful not to cross across as being too "Metro Atlanta-centric" in a part of the state in rural mountainous extreme North Georgia where the locals are not always enamored with Atlanta period (city, metro, urban, suburban, exurban or otherwise) because of their continuing rural economic struggles.

For a man of Georgia House Speaker David Ralston's stature in statewide politics, it's easy to come across to his sometimes Atlanta-averse rural constituents as being too "Atlanta-centric" if only because Metro Atlanta-related issues and politics take up so much time and energy in the Georgia General Assembly and in statewide politics in general.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@Burroughston Broch @The Last Democrat in Georgia No one is throwing insults and no one is demeaning Speaker Ralston's constituents.

The official unemployment rates may be lower in each of the counties that make up Speaker Ralston's legislative district (Georgia State House District 7), but the unemployment rates are likely the result of a shrinkage in the size of the workforce in each of those counties.

Just in Fannin County alone (where the unemployment rate was calculated as 7.6% in February 2014), the size of the county's workforce shrunk from a high of 11,152 people in July 2007 down to a size of 10,072 people in February 2014.

Those 1,080 additional people that were part of the Fannin County workforce as of July 2007 didn't just disappear into thin air, they likely left the workforce because they could not find jobs.  When those 1,080 people are figured into the workforce numbers, the REAL unemployment rate that accounts for people who have dropped out of the workforce because they could not find work is much-closer to 17% than it is 7%.

The unemployment rate and poverty rate stats and figures for Dawson County can hardly be considered in full as Speaker Ralston's legislative district only encompasses the extreme northwest portion of Dawson County, but encompasses the entirety of Fannin and Gilmer counties.

Dawson County, most of which is not within Speaker Ralston's legislative district, also has much more wealth than Fannin and Gilmer counties because of the higher level of wealth and affluence in the Big Canoe development (half of which is in Speaker Ralston's district) and the higher level of wealth and affluence found in the upscale neighborhoods along the Lake Lanier shoreline (which outside of the boundaries of Speaker Ralston's legislative district).

Outside of a couple of enclaves of affluence in the Big Canoe development and along the Lake Lanier shoreline in the southeast corner of the county, Dawson County is not necessarily a very-wealthy county.

Also, with poverty rates of 20.1% in Fannin County and 20.4% in Gilmer County, poverty rates that are above the Georgia statewide poverty rate of 17.4% as opposed to the Fulton County poverty rate of 16.8% which is below the GA statewide poverty rate of 17.4%, the poverty rates in Fannin and Gilmer counties are not just "only slightly higher than" Fulton County's poverty rate of 16.8%.

Fulton County's poverty rate of 16.8%, while still very-high, is below the GA statewide poverty rate of 17.4%.  Fannin and Gilmer counties' poverty rates are about 3 points above the GA statewide poverty rate of 17.4% and about 3.3% and 3.6%, respectively, above Fulton County's poverty rate of 16.8%.

When it comes to poverty, three percentages points is not a slight difference.  Three percentage points is a substantive difference when it comes to measuring poverty, particularly when the lower poverty rate is below the statewide rate and the higher poverty rates are noticeably above the statewide rate.

Also, Fulton County's per-capita income of $37,238/yearly is the highest per-capita income in the entire state of Georgia and is nearly twice the amount of Fannin County's per-capita income of $19,865/yearly which is 63rd-highest in the state of Georgia.

Fulton County also is home to more millionaires and more high-paying jobs than any other county in the entire state of Georgia and probably any other county in the entire Southeastern U.S. outside of South Florida.

To even imply that two overwhelmingly-rural and lower income-earning mountain counties in the extreme north end of the state are even in the same league economically as Fulton County, the wealthiest county in the state, is completely disingenuous on your part.

Heck, the only four-lane highway that runs through both Fannin and Gilmer counties (the GA 515 Zell Miller Mountain Parkway/Appalachian Development Highway) was built through that area of mountainous North Georgia with the express intent of being a way to attempt to combat the high level of poverty in that area which is part of Southern Appalachia by attempting to make the area less-isolated from the prosperous Atlanta metro region.

Stating the fact that the area within Speaker Ralston's legislative district struggles mightily with high poverty and unemployment is NOT demeaning, it is REALITY.

Stating the fact that the area within Speaker Ralston's legislative district struggles mightily with high poverty and unemployment and illustrating the differences in the priorities of those who live in rural mountainous North Georgia and those who live in metro Atlanta is also important because it provides insight into why metro Atlanta's urban transportation issues may be of the absolute least concern to Speaker Ralston's constituency.

People who may be struggling for basic survival in the rural North Georgia Mountains are probably not going to be overly-concerned with metro Atlanta's traffic issues that have been caused by too much economic success when compared to isolated rural parts of the state. 

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@writes_of_weigh @The Last Democrat in Georgia That's a good example, though almost all of the uproar over Speaker Ralston's trip to Europe was not about him and his family partaking in travel on High Speed Rail.

Most of the uproar about Speaker Ralston's family's European train experience was about the $17,000 cost of the trip being paid by a German train lobbyist in the wake of so many ethics scandals and missteps under the Gold Dome at the time.

It's important to note that Speaker Ralston's all-expense-paid family trip to Europe was only about a year after former House Speaker Glenn Richardson (the man that Ralston replaced as speaker) was pushed out of politics after attempting suicide after his wife divorced him because he was having affairs with female lobbyists and escorts.