Transportation Investment Act — are we spending money on yesterday’s problems?
By Guest Columnist MIKE DOBBINS, professor of planning at Georgia Tech’s College of Architecture and a former commissioner of planning and community development for the City of Atlanta.
Citizens in the metro area face a vote next year to tax themselves a penny on every dollar spent to build transportation projects aimed at improving the ability for citizens to get where they need to go more effectively than is now the case.
To make progress toward that goal, the state Transportation Investment Act calls for the vote to be tied to a list of projects developed by a “Roundtable” of regional leaders, led by an executive committee. The executive committee completed its task of selecting projects for the Atlanta region on Aug. 15, and the Roundtable must complete its final selection by Oct. 15.
The legislation that set this course in motion was the third try in three years to do something – anything – for transportation in the region and state. It took a heroic effort on the part of a lot of powerful and moneyed individuals and groups to get the legislation enacted.
The result satisfied political criteria. From a technical standpoint, however, more work is necessary to assure the electorate that the result will add up to a system that makes things better for them, wherever they are in the region.
Transportation is a system that should be designed to get the most people from where they are to where they mostly need to go (“origins” and “destinations”) as seamlessly as possible, now and in the future.
The settlement patterns that were emerging before the economic crash and are expected to resume favor greater concentrations in existing centers, large and small (see map). The transportation system necessary to accommodate this new housing and job growth is different than that serving the patterns that dominated settlement from the ‘50s through the ‘90s. Such a system depends on robust connections between the centers and good travel options in the centers that support their concentration of activities.
It is possible, some would say likely, that such a system could actually reduce travel demand by shortening the distances between home, work, and necessary goods and services. A study completed by the Metro Atlanta Chamber a few years back, for example, established that a reduction in miles traveled per person per day from the current 35 to 31would significantly reduce regional congestion and improve air quality.
Regional, municipal and business investment policies, reinforced by the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) program, are shifting to encourage this trend. The daytime population in centers, whether working or shopping, generally is composed of a fairly representative slice of the regional population, in income, age, gender, and racial make-up.
If centers can begin to offer residential choices for this range of people in meeting their space, proximity, and cost needs, then shorter travel distances associated with these centrifying trends will reduce the demand for longer commutes.
It is important to stress that travel choices within centers, like walkability, local transit, and biking in addition to the car and parking lot, further diminish both local and regional congestion – and improve air quality. Imagine continued jobs and housing growth in centers, whether in the Downtown/Midtown core or in the town centers that dot the region, with less growth in the cars and parking lots currently necessary to serve them.
A systems approach to identifying and prioritizing projects that will give the most bang for the buck would demand consideration of the impact of these likely trends. The criteria established by the Roundtable, though, are mainly in place to judge existing projects, many of which have been around for years.
Further, the Roundtable and its staff should consider the likely travel impacts of future fuel costs and air quality controls, both of which are likely to further shift job and housing markets to reduce travel miles.
Finally, the emerging project selection process seems to be a step or two behind what our competition cities are doing to build workable transportation systems for their futures.
Below is a summary analysis of the problems, suggestions for resolving them, steps necessary to give the referendum a better chance of passage, and a context map highlighting centers.
The Regional System
The region deserves an integrated transportation system that works both now and for the future, not just a bunch of projects.
Five tasks the roundtable members should keep in mind as they determine the final project list include:
- Focus on connecting the greatest concentrations of jobs and housing – where the most trips are generated and attracted, the epicenters of congestion build-up, felt near and far;
- Recognize the likely resumption of settlement patterns evident before the economic crash – tending to gravitate and concentrate around existing centers as offering an alternative to the spread-out patterns of the last four decades;
- Understand the problem as one of capacity, not roads versus transit – the system can’t efficiently move the people demanding to use it, causing several choke points; and of choice – you have none (the only road that can get you from here to there, doesn’t) at critical times of day;
- Acknowledge that the apparent option of widening existing major roads, or building new ones in settled areas, is mostly unacceptable – costs of right-of-way and construction are way beyond resources available and way too destructive of existing settled neighborhoods and communities;
- Finally, accept the fact that in order to build capacity and offer choice, you have to put more people through the corridors we already have – methods could include HOV, carpool, toll lanes, buses, bus rapid transit, rail, whatever it takes to increase capacity and offer choices on how to make the trip.
The Roundtable Criteria
The existing four criteria and what’s wrong with them from a systems perspective are:
- Congestion relief – OK, but this approach looks backward and doesn’t take into account future settlement patterns and capacity demands, thus risking simply moving existing choke points from one place to another;
- Deliverability – important, but the requirements of the Transportation Investment Act to set dollar limits in overall resources available, made up of costs of projects that are not even yet designed, may restrict overall systems improvements, prove unworkable, and be ultimately self-defeating;
- Economic development – without focusing on where most jobs and most higher density housing is now and is likely to occur in the future, the all-important link between transportation as a means and economic activity as an end will be lost – random and diluted;
- Regional equity – already tilted away from where most people are concentrated during the day time, the organizational form making the decisions tends to contradict where the needs, thus the potential rewards, are greatest.
So, What to Do?
However unintentionally, the legislation risks setting up the region for failure.
If the referendum passes, the region will be locked into building a bunch of projects, many of which won’t address the problems of the emerging settlement patterns. Further, it restricts transit from reaching its potential as part of the solution.
If the referendum fails, prospects for any transportation funding are grim, indeed. It’s not too late, though, to add criteria that will consider where needs will be instead of just where they have been:
- Systems analysis of anticipated settlement patterns’ travel demand – to evaluate project priorities;
- Travel costs and prospects – how will rising fuel costs affect future settlement patterns, thus travel demand patterns and the choice of alternative modes of travel;
- Air quality analysis of existing project list – we don’t want to choke;
- Evaluate results from the perspective of our rival metros’ transportation strategies – to decide what kind of economic prospects we might have, how to get there, and what kinds of places we want to live in.
Finally, gain support for making crucial modifications to the Transportation Investment Act:
- Change the referendum date – change with the 2012 general election;
- Leave the 10-year time cap, but remove the overall dollar cap so that economic progress can be rewarded with an expanded pot of funds;
- Eliminate tax exemptions – for a few high-powered industries in order to increase the available pot;
- Get MARTA or a successor agency the funding flexibility it needs – to restore and enhance bus and train service and infrastructure, like bus shelters, cellphone accessible bus arrival information, pull-offs, and sidewalks, so that people might be inclined to vote for more and better – otherwise, why would transit riders even think of supporting the TIA?
- Create an integrated regional transit agency – so that transit policy and operations are coordinated and more efficient;
- Apply a one person – one vote philosophy to the roundtable process – so that the now and future needs of the region are reflected in the decision-making processes.