Conservative leader makes case for streetcars and rail transit in metro Atlanta

If the Atlanta region wants the regional transportation sales tax to pass in 2012, it will need the votes of at least some conservatives.

Plus the region will need to convince those same conservatives that investing in public transit is in their own best interests.

That was the message that William Lind, director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation based in Arlington, Va., delivered to the Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable breakfast meeting on June 3.

But Lind also advised metro Atlanta leaders the referendum would have the best chance to pass if it were held during the general election in November rather than as it’s currently scheduled — the July 31 primary election.

“Try to get that changed,” Lind said. “The urban base is not going to turn out for the primary. If you possibly can change the date, do it.”

It is expected that the most contested July primaries will be in the suburbs in Republican district. Those constituencies tend to be anti-tax and anti-transit.

But Lind said the opportunity exist to sway some conservatives to vote for the transportation sales tax.

So Lind provided those attending the Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable, mostly a liberal and urban audience, a primer on how to sell transit to conservatives.

“You can’t get conservative votes with liberal arguments,” Lind said. For example, they should not utter the word — environment. Instead, they should talk about conservation and stewardship. “Vocabulary is important.”

Lind is a big proponent of rail transit rather than traditional city buses. “Very few conservatives will ride buses,” Lind said. “Rail can provide a quality of service to compete with cars.”

On June 1, the Georgia Department of Transportation’s planning director, Todd Long, released the “unconstrained list” of transportation projects that will be considered to be included in the referendum.

The “unconstrained list” of projects that have a price tag of $22.9 billion. But the 10-year sales tax is expected to only generate about $8 billion over a 10-year period.

The Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable — a group of 21 local leaders — will cut down the list of projects by nearly two-thirds.

In a pleasant surprise, the unconstrained list includes $14 billion in proposed transit projects; $8.6 billion in road projects; $205 million in bicycle and pedestrian projects; and $28 million in aviation projects.

And most of the public transportation projects in the unconstrained list are for rail transit — from MARTA’s heavy rail, commuter rail, light rail and streetcars.

Lind said it would be a wise investment to take conservative leaders to cities that have new light rail systems so they can better appreciate how that transportation mode is most beneficial to metropolitan regions.

Lind also passed out a sheet with the headline: “Three Common Misconceptions about Transit and Passenger Rail.”

The first misconception: the current automobile dominance is a free market outcome. Wrong, Lind said. The dominance of automobiles is a result of nearly a century of government subsidies in highways while taxing privately-owned electric railways and railroad-owned passenger trains.

Second misconception: trains and transit are subsidized while highways pay for themselves. Instead, highway user fees, including the gas tax, only pay for 52 percent of all highway costs. By comparison, Amtrak covers 67 percent of its operating expenses from ticket sales and other revenues.

Also, on average, rail transit covers about 53 percent of its costs from the farebox, but fares only cover 28 percent of the costs of urban bus systems.

The third misconception: where public transit is necessary, buses are always better than trains. Actually, buses primarily serve the transit dependent; but rail transit will serve choice riders — people who could drive but choose to use transit. Plus, rail has other advantages.

“If you give people buses, they’ll drive,” Lind said. “And buses are no always cheaper. Rail has higher upfront investment costs but lower operating costs.”

For example, Lind said the average operating cost per passenger mile for rail is 50 cents versus 90 cents for bus.

The argument for rail also is bolstered when it comes to development.

“Rail transit, unlike bus transit, drives tremendous economic growth,” Lind said. “A lot of that can be recaptured by creating public-private partnerships.”

Lind is a big fan of bringing back the streetcar to our cities. But with one big condition.

“The key to bringing back the streetcar is keeping it cheap,” Lind said, adding that a town in Wisconsin was able to build a 2.5 mile long streetcar line at $6 million while a 2.5 mile streetcar line in Tucson cost $180 million. Atlanta is building a streetcar system at about that same length for $72 million.

Lind said conservatives also will embrace the national security argument for transit.

“One third of our defense budget can be traced back to our dependence on foreign oil,” Lind said. But that dependence can be reduced by bringing back rail transit. “Let’s rebuild the network we had back in the 1950s. All we want to do is get back to what we had.”

Later Lind said: “The decline in most of our cities started with the decline of streetcars.” Cities went from being lively places with crowded sidewalks, stores and thriving neighborhoods to “government-mandated suburban sprawl.”

The Atlanta region, Lind said, also should invest in commuter rail, which uses the existing rail infrastructure. When people say metro Atlanta does not have enough density to support transit, Lind said: “in the suburbs around Atlanta, you are getting more and more density.”

A big message the Atlanta region needs to send to voters is “how transit benefits people who do not ride it.” Investing in transit will make it easier for people who choose to drive by reducing congestion on roads and highways.

“Nobody likes being stuck in traffic,” Lind said. “You can not solve congestion problems by adding more lanes.”

As members of the Atlanta transportation roundtable try to reduce the $22 million wish list to one totaling $8 billion, they should heed Lind’s advice.

Investing in transit, particularly rail, is a wise way to go.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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