April marks the full implementation of two transportation special-purpose local option sales taxes (T-SPLOSTs) overwhelmingly passed by Atlanta voters in November 2016. A 0.4-cent, five-year Atlanta T-SPLOST to raise $300 million has joined the half-cent, 40-year T-SPLOST begun in March to raise $2.6 billion for MARTA projects.
The massive support is no surprise, given lofty campaign promises to “Unlock ATL.” Just last month a survey by HNTB construction engineering company found 84 percent of metro Atlanta residents “have desired to live near public transportation at some point.”
There are some credit-worthy projects on the T-SPLOST expenditure lists, among them $40 million for city traffic signal coordination and $65 million for improved MARTA bus service and frequency. Unfortunately, the vast majority will not be spent on relieving traffic congestion or improving mobility.
The project lists are heavy on “social engineering” – planners shoehorning travelers into Atlanta’s vision for neighborhoods and streets – and light on transportation-focused policies that enable residents to move from Point A to Point B as quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.
The lists also focus on expanding expensive, already-outdated technologies – MARTA’s heavy rail and light rail and the city’s Streetcar line. Worse, these priorities anticipate federal matching dollars from grants for projects that are not the Trump administration’s priorities.
For spending $3.2 billion on potential high-capacity (rail) improvements, MARTA anticipates a $3 billion federal match. It will spend just $65 million over the 40 years on bus service, even though buses offer far more flexibility and bang for the transit buck.
MARTA CEO Keith Parker has led the transit authority to admirable heights. But with the “new sheriff” in Washington, MARTA and Atlanta would do well to be flexible. That means rethinking use of the $66 million for the Atlanta Beltline; the $75-plus million for “Complete Streets;” the $70 million for sidewalks and streetscapes, the $23 million for neighborhood greenways and multi-use trails – even the $3 million for the bike-share program.
The Beltline purchase is intended to expand the Streetcar line, whose existing route was projected to cost $69 million but will end up north of $100 million. Ridership is dismal. “Complete Streets” is about “road diets,” shrinking streets by reducing lane capacity, adding bicycle lanes and using “traffic calming” devices that slow traffic. Emergency responders have to maneuver slowly or damage their vehicles.
As for Atlanta’s bike-share program: Currently, to “pay as you go” costs $8 an hour. Users require a charge card. With 36 percent of residents in metro Atlanta unbanked or underbanked, these are hurdles for low-income, transit-dependent Atlantans.
Atlanta could become a connected city trailblazer by embracing rising technologies and innovations:
- Repurpose the $1.2 billion for four miles of light rail in the Clifton Corridor to implement autonomous vehicles/shuttles as an on-demand option on a dedicated lane. It would be cheaper, come sooner and take the city light years ahead of any competition.
- Incorporate autonomous and connected vehicles, entrepreneurial ride-share and on-demand options for door-to-door or first/last-mile service.
- Embrace the “virtual transit network” opportunity in toll lanes that will be a reality long before MARTA’s 40-year half-penny tax completes rail lines that are obsolete before they’re begun.
Obviously, as much as residents like the option of transit, little is as efficient as the car for auto-centric metro Atlanta: Just 31 percent of HNTB respondents agreed that public transportation is the best way to reduce traffic congestion; 92 percent would use rail transit for travel to the airport “if it were more efficient than by car.” Relieving congestion, requires refocusing transportation policy on a flexible approach that can be updated to meet residents’ needs.
Benita M. Dodd is Vice President, Georgia Public Policy Foundation.