By Guest Columnist BRIAN GIST, a senior attorney and transportation specialist for the Southern Environmental Law Center
Atlanta’s transportation system is already bursting at the seams. And the bad news is that if something doesn’t change soon, those seams are going to break. The numbers speak for themselves:
• Increase in metro Atlanta’s population between 2000 and 2009: 1 million. (For more information, go to ARC’s website – regional snapshots search past issues and find the pdf: ARC’s 2009 Population and Housing Report: A Primer).
• Projected increase between now and 2040: 3 million. (For more info, got to ARC’s website regional snapshots – and find the pdf: ARC’s County and Small-Area Forecasts: What the Future Holds in the Atlanta Region).
• New MARTA stations added since 2001: 0. (For more information, read key points in MARTA’s history).
• Estimated reduction in Atlanta’s transportation plan from the previous plan: $4.5 billion (-40 percent). (For more information, link to this ARC website page and look for the TIP Update for Feb. 4, 2011).
Contemplating millions of new people with fewer transportation dollars makes it abundantly clear that Atlanta needs to use its transportation funds more effectively than it has in the past.
And the next 18 months present two important opportunities to chart this new course.
This summer the Atlanta Regional Commission will approve a new transportation plan for the region, Plan 2040.
And during the summer of 2012, voters will be presented with an opportunity to approve a list of transportation projects to be funded through a special sales tax. To maximize our limited transportation dollars, these decisions must adhere to three principles.
First, maximize the infrastructure we have.
Atlanta’s first priority should be making our existing system more effective. Atlanta already has a multi-billion dollar transportation network of highways and transit.
Although often overlooked in favor of big ticket new projects, optimizing the performance of our existing assets is the quickest and most affordable way to improve mobility of goods, services, and—most importantly—people.
For transit, this means increasing the frequency of our buses and trains. Operating MARTA at the current reduced levels is like driving a racecar in first gear. Maximizing transit infrastructure also means investing in sidewalks and bike paths to provide access to the stations and encouraging transit oriented development in the adjacent areas.
For roads and bridges, we must plan for incremental, annual investments in maintenance to prevent big ticket replacement projects in the future. No one would add a second story to their house before fixing its crumbling foundation.
Optimizing our road network also means targeted investments to fix bottlenecks that limit the performance of our roads. Small, targeted investments in projects like better on-ramps, turn lanes, and coordinated traffic signals will maximize the performance of our roads at a far lower cost that simply adding more lanes.
Second, invest in corridors and activity hubs.
Efficiency is key when dealing with any finite resource, whether it is energy, water, government funds or transportation infrastructure.
Atlanta cannot accommodate three million more people over the next 30 years unless we become more efficient. For transportation, efficiency means investing in transportation corridors and activity hubs.
An efficient transportation system will identify and invest both in the hubs where Atlantans live, work, and play, and in the transportation corridors that connect them. Improving access to the corridors and hubs will allow people to move efficiently between home, work, school, the grocery store, the park, church, daycare, restaurants, and so forth.
Prioritizing investment in activity hubs will also incentivize development in these areas by providing a tangible asset—better access for consumers.
Third, stop transportation reacting and start transportation planning.
Atlanta’s congested traffic reflects the fact that our population grew faster than our infrastructure. And every “congestion alleviation” project undertaken is an attempt help the transportation system respond to development that has already occurred. The approach of responding to congestion has proven a failure and will only get worse as the gap between people and dollars increases.
Instead of allowing development to drive where we spend our transportation dollars, we need to flip the paradigm and start using transportation projects to guide development. We need to stop transportation reacting and start transportation planning.
Transportation planning means building a road and transit network in areas where we want to grow, like activity hubs and corridors. It means dangling transportation funds as a carrot to encourage governments to implement smart growth plans and multi-modal transportation strategies.
Linking our transportation investments with our growth strategies has massive economic benefits. Gov. Perdue’s IT3 study estimated that coordinating transportation investments with land use plans in this manner could save the Atlanta region $39 billion in congestion costs over 30 years.
The failed strategy of building transportation projects that respond to development leaves this economic benefit on the table, a multi-billion dollar example of the tail wagging the dog. Transportation funds are the most powerful tool available to encourage a smart growth future for Atlanta, and we must use them accordingly.
Plan 2040 and the regional sales tax
Plan 2040 and the regional sales tax will set the course not just for transportation in Atlanta, but for our health, our quality of life, and our environment for the coming decades. Our strategy in the past—endlessly expanding highways in a vain attempt to catch up with unplanned growth—has failed us.
But Plan 2040 and the regional sales tax offer us the opportunity to take a more strategic approach to transportation in Atlanta, and ultimately build a more prosperous and livable Atlanta.