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.

18 replies
  1. Avatar
    Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    I say why not just cut-the-crap and just go ahead and spend the entire $7.2 billion of the tax on roads, since that’s probably what’s gonna happen and because that’s what the powers-that-be really want anyway, besides, in addition to the abhorrent and disbelieving total and complete lack of investment in transit, it’s not like the Atlanta Region and North Georgia has really been setting the world ablaze in road investment. Heck, even with the entire $7.2 billion of the tax allocated towards roads, the tax would likely still be voted down by the same anti-transit car-crazy suburban voters in ultraconservative counties like Cobb, Fayette and Cherokee who would benefit the most from a road-heavy or road-only list because of the increasingly angry anti-tax, anti-government additude.

    Just as Cobb, Cherokee and the I-75/575 Northwest Metro corridor is crucial to winning statewide elections (Don’t believe me? Then just ask Roy Barnes, Karen Handel and GOVERNOR Nathan Deal just how important it is to have the support of voters in that key voting corridor), the 75/575 corridor will also be an area that will be crucial to getting this tax passed and right now the the additude in that within that critical voting block is very, very, VERY ANTI-tax and ANTI-expansion of government (and they ain’t exactly “dancing in the streets” for transit, either, up that way as the most common “requests” by commuters in that part of the region is for Interstates 75 and 575 to be widened). Putting together a project list dominated by roads is the only hope that there is to get this tax passed, especially on the date that it is currently proposed to be voted on which is on the date of a GOP primary in July 2012 in which ONLY the candidates who appear to be the most anti-tax and anti-government will survive the extreme scrutiny and severe wrath of an angry Tea Party-led constituency of voters.

    As it stands now, this proposed tax, even if 100% roads, is D.O.A. (Dead On Arrival) at the polls, ESPECIALLY if the July 2012 date stands, but also if moved to November 2012 as the same conservative voters who turned out in droves in November 2008 to vote against candidate Obama will be turning out in record numbers to vote to deny the left-leaning President Obama a second term.

    With the economic and political discord and the already pre-existing aversion to taxes and government expansion of any kind in the region, this is absolutely NOT the time and place to be proposing a tax increase of any kind, especially to a populace clamoring for tax DECREASES even with the pressing transportation needs.

    If you wanna fund improvements to transportation, especially transit, on a widescale at this juncture your best chance is to stop trying to get all or even most of this one-cent sales tax to go towards transit (because it ain’t happening) and instead try to convince the state to take the one-percent of the gasoline tax that goes to the general fund and divert it to transit.

    I know that this is a transit advocacy forum, but a great political approach would be to make a crafty political play by advocating or letting almost all of the one-cent tax go to funding road improvements and then (quietly) diverting the general fund part of the gasoline sales tax to transit (the part of the gas tax that is NOT required to go to roads by the Georgia Constitution).Report

  2. Avatar
    Question Man says:

    Should metro Atlanta accede to the fact that mass transit of reasonable scale and scope is not going to happen? Wouldn’t we then be able to build and plan accordingly, and not keep praying for and counting on something that won’t happen? While there will be some cutesy, tourist-oriented projects like the Streetcar and Beltline transit on the NE segment, why not just accept where we are and what we have? Since we’ve accepted poor schools, little planning, short-sighted and self-interested politicians, and crumbling infrastructure, why should we do anything different with mass transit?Report

  3. Avatar
    Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    @Question Man

    Mass transit of a very reasonable scale can happen, we just need the right leadership and a willingness to finance it through unconventional methods other than through tax increases.

    Many people in this region, even ardent and hardcore transit advocates, seem to think that the only way to finance the construction and operation of increased transit options is through tax increases and that is not necessarily true. Many in this region also believe that transit fares have to be priced dirt cheap to tempt people to ride which is definitely NOT the case in most transit-heavy and transit-dependent cities, especially those cities often faced with crippling gridlock during peak-hour traffic.

    Local rail and bus fares are as high as $5 one-way in Washington DC and commuter rail and bus fares are as high as $20 or more in NYC. People in areas with long-established transit options know that transit isn’t cheap, but it’s much better than sitting in gridlock out on the highway for hours on end daily.Report

  4. Avatar
    Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    @Question Man

    Can’t really say that mass transit is going nowhere in Metro Atlanta as the almost total lack of investment in different modes of transportation across the board from road to rail to bus since the end of the Olympic era has created gargantuan needs for improvements within the road network in addition to transit. Even with the exceptional need for transit in the Atlanta Region, we still can’t stop investing in our limited-access highway and, especially, our surface road network, which is especially sorely lacking, especially when compared to regional, national and continental competitors like TEXAS, FLORIDA and even snowbelt places like Illinois and Ontario.

    Not only have we not invested in mass transit, but we haven’t been lighting-it-up in the road department either since about the early 1990’s. Now that we’ve fallen so far behind in infrastructure investment we’ve gotten desperate to make up ground with misguided investments in Lexus Lanes, investments sure to make traffic problems even worse on a major highway like I-85 in DeKalb and Gwinnett Counties.Report

  5. Avatar
    Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    Despite the current problems in getting the leaders of this state and region to invest in transit, transit is far from done in the Atlanta Region. With the discontinuous nature of the surface road network and the immense existing network of freight rails running throughout the area, when this region and state finally do move around to embracing transit as a main cog in a multimodal transportation system, it will be in a very big way, a way that is bigger and most comprehensive than most other places on the planet, it’s just that we haven’t just yet found the vision and creativity needed to do it, but just one look at the region’s almost completely gridlocked freeways during peak-hours and inclement weather signals that it’s coming.Report

  6. Avatar
    Burroughston Broch says:

    Before transit gets serious consideration, the incestuous relationship between the highway contractors, judges, politicians and bureaucrats must be undone. The only thing that comes close to it is the relationship that CSX and NSC have with judges, politicians and bureaucrats. If NSC and CSX could be persuaded that local transit were in their financial interest, then transit could be implemented quicker.Report

  7. Avatar
    Burroughston Broch says:

    Before transit gets serious consideration, the incestuous relationship between the highway contractors, judges, politicians and bureaucrats must be undone. The only thing that comes close to it is the relationship that CSX and NSC have with judges, politicians and bureaucrats. If NSC and CSX could be persuaded that local transit were in their financial interest, then transit could be implemented quicker.Report

  8. Avatar
    Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    @Burroughston Broch

    CSX and NSC aren’t anywhere near as much apart of the problem as much the relationships between roadbuilders and politicians under the Gold Dome and even then one would think that Metro Atlanta would have ALOT more in terms of better roadway infrastructure to show for those cozy relationships between roadbuilders and legislators than the obvious inadequate road network that we currently get to enjoy so much, especially during morning and evening rush hours, special events, bad weather and the cleanup of those rather splendid serious high-speed traffic collisions. So very splendid, indeed.

    In major metro areas with commuter rail networks (like NYC, Boston, Chicago, DC, etc) it is very much commonplace for freight rail companies and commuter rail agencies to operate in and share the same rail right-of-ways. The problem isn’t with the rail companies as much as it is with our highly esteemed state legislators who have historically and are still as of right now getting much larger campaign contributions and bigger perks from roadbuilding companies than they are from railway builders and transit interests. When the boys under the Gold Dome start getting as much or more from train, rail and bus builders then, and only then, will they start coming around to and singing the praises of mass transit on a large scale.Report

  9. Avatar
    UrbanTraveler says:

    Bravo for pointing out specifics and politics involved in the proposed 1-cent transportation tax.

    Any regional plan that is not just “pork” has to be viewed in terms of projects that fit into an overall goal, not just a pasted-together wish list of individual constituencies. If we are to truly connect the metro area to itself and to Georgia at large, there has to be a process that sets the priorities and identifies the critical pieces.

    Metro Atlanta, and therefore Georgia by extension, used to be a leader in attracting the “creative class”, those mainly aged 25-35, to relocate here and become part of a dynamic and growing economy. But that growth has stopped.

    As a recent series in the AJC entitled “Atlanta Forward” points out, Atlanta lags behind other metropolitan areas in the 2000’s, not only in attracting this dynamic group of people, but in overall employment as well. Could one of the reasons be the lack of interest and investment in public transportation, i.e. MARTA, commuter rail, urban streetcars, etc? The under-40 crowd don’t want to be bound by traffic and cars to have a life, and they are mobile enough to vote with their feet.

    Cities like Dallas and Charlotte, once backwaters in public transit, are moving forward to build the modern urban infrastructure the 21st century demands. Dallas has now outstripped Atlanta in miles of track of urban rail, and sprawling Denver will soon soon overtake us, having started 20 years after Atlanta! San Francisco and Washington, D.C., which began their rail systems in the 70’s simultaneously to Atlanta, are still growing their systems, while MARTA has stopped serious planning and has stopped growing.

    What’s needed is unity of purpose and planning, and shared funding at the state level. How do we achieve that?Report

  10. Avatar
    The Last Democrat in Georgia says:


    “Dallas has now outstripped Atlanta in miles of track of urban rail, and sprawling Denver will soon soon overtake us, having started 20 years after Atlanta!”

    That’s what happens when a region stops ALL investment in infrastructure for close to 20 years. During the Olympic-era, MARTA was ranked as high as the #6 spot amongst North American mass transit/public transportation systems, now MARTA is ranked #91 and in danger of falling out of the top 100 (the rankings only go to #100).Report


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.