The vision for a regional transit system getting lost in the ‘project list’ process

The promise: a 10-year penny sales tax will help metro Atlanta create a regional transportation system that will encourage sensible and sustainable growth of our region.

The reality: a hodge-podge of transportation projects that are being pushed by individual counties and cities in the region with no overarching vision of how we want our region to grow.

The contrast between the two was highlighted this week with two back-to-back events.

The first was Christopher Leinberger, a developer and urbanist who is affiliated with the Brookings Institution. Leinberger described the choice facing metro Atlanta and other U.S. cities — develop a sprawling “drivable suburban” model or develop and close-knit “walkable urban” model.

Leinberger reminded a group of like-minded Atlanta leaders that “you do not build transportation systems to move people; you build transportation systems to create economic development — the means is by moving people.”

Since the 1950s, most American cities developed in a “drivable suburban” model. But now the market — with the growing desire of the younger generation to live in more environmentally sustainable communities — is beginning to “demand walkable urban places.”

And it is transit combined with alternative modes of transportation, such as walking and cycling, that help communities become walkable, urban places. Metro Atlanta has tried to create such places through its Livable Centers Initiative, but the missing link in most communities is transit — preferably rail.

The day after Leinberger presentation, the executive committee of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable met to discuss slashing $22.9 billion of projects in an “unconstrained” list to $6.1 billion of projects in a “constrained” list.

The discussion was brought several alarming facts to light.

The transit projects on the list have become unexplainably expensive.

For example, it has been estimated that a commuter rail line connecting Atlanta and Griffin would cost about $150 million, according to Gordon Kenna, CEO of Georgians for Passenger Rail.

But the latest estimates from the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority state that the Atlanta-Griffin commuter rail line would have capital costs of $479.6 million with $402.6 million of operating costs.

What’s the disconnect? GRTA padded the possible costs with 30 percent contingencies and 20 years of operating costs, but it did not include existing federal funds allocated to the project or any possible revenue the line would generate from fares, advertising, tax allocation districts in cities along the route, or future federal dollars.

Another example. The Clifton Corridor rail line was estimated to cost less than $1.1 billion two weeks ago, but then on Thursday that estimate was revised to nearly $1.5 billion.

The difference? New cost estimates to build heavy rail in the community with tunnels much of the way (as well as 30 percent contingencies, 20 year operating costs and no credit for possible federal funding or revenue from fares).

But more disturbing is that MARTA has not yet determined whether the line should be light rail (a much less expensive option than heavy rail because it can use existing streets) or heavy rail.

To get federal funding on any new transit project, a full corridor analysis is required to determine what is the best transportation option. By pre-determining heavy rail, it excludes Atlanta’s option of getting federal funds. And it makes the project so expensive that it was dropped from the latest list.

Recently, Atlanta leaders invited transit experts from around the country who shared advice on how to keep project costs as low as possible so as to be able to build out as robust a system as possible. That advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

And as though that’s not bad enough, there’s another serious flaw in the transportation bill as written. First of all, it is not a 10 year sales tax. Instead, economists are estimating that it would generate $7.2 billion in current dollars (including 15 percent that will go directly to local governments).

“Once the funding is reached, the tax ends,” said Bucky Johnson, chairman of the Roundtable’s executive committee. So since a project list will be attached to the total dollar amount and other projects can’t be added, then there’s no incentive to deliver projects at the lowest possible price.

Why wouldn’t we keep the tax for 10 years with the hope that it would raise more than is currently estimated. That way we would be able to invest more in our woefully underfunded transit systems?

Perhaps the smartest way to spend our dollars initially would be to restore more frequent and extensive service of all our transit systems — MARTA, Cobb County Transit, Gwinnett Transit, Clayton’s MARTA bus service and GRTA’s X-Press buses.

That would include running MARTA trains every four to five minutes at peak times and restoring the service cutbacks that have hit our bus routes especially hard.

But then we hit another flaw in the bill. None of the revenues raised can go towards paying for MARTA’s existing operations — which makes absolutely no sense. If we really want a regional transit system and if MARTA is the backbone of that system, increased frequency of MARTA’s rail service would be a benefit for the entire region.

Sadly, what is getting lost in this agonizing, convoluted, ass-backwards approach is the initial promise — to create a regional transportation system that will encourage the development of sustainable communities.

Where is the grand vision that could inspire voters throughout our region?

The transportation sales tax could help fund new rail and bus services along the northwest corridor towards Cobb, the northeast corridor towards Gwinnett, the commuter rail line to Griffin and eventually Macon, the BeltLine, the Clifton Corridor, the MARTA east line to Candler Road.

If we couldn’t afford rail on all those routes in this 10-year period, we could provide bus services on portions of them with the promise that rail would be developed as funding became available.

Now that’s a vision — a vision that has become blurred in this quagmire of putting a project list together.

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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