Politico Magazine’s #WhatWorks Series: Future of Transportation

May 30, 2014 10:15 am

by Charlie · 18 comments

What Works Denver GraphicI was invited by Politico Magazine to share thoughts on the challenges of Atlanta’s transportation issues yesterday with Mayor Michael Hancock of Denver and former Mayor Dee Dee Corradini of Salt Lake City.  Both of the other cities have recently undertaken major transit initiatives.  We, of course, had T-SPLOST that failed miserably in the Atlanta area.

That doesn’t mean transportation infrastructure upgrades are off the table.  Downtown’s streetcar is powering up today.  The Beltline is moving forward.  Managed lanes are being added to I-75, 575, and 85.  The hell that is the 285 to 400 interchange will be redesigned.  That said, traffic is a numbers game, and as I discuss below, it’s one we’re losing on both the growth front and the funding front. As I also say, I’m still optimistic that realistic and cost effective solutions are within our reach.

Raleigh May 30, 2014 at 1:12 pm

The statement about Atlanta people commuting from everywhere to everywhere is very true just change Atlanta to the 13 metro county region. The only time I travel into Atlanta for any reason the last many years was to go to and from the airport or the High Museum. I haven’t worked downtown in 30 years. When I do go into Atlanta I usually take MARTA from the nearest station to my home if at all possible. That I believe is the case for a great many people who live in bedroom communities. When I or anyone purchases a MARTA ticket it is being subsidized by other tax dollars. IF and that is a big if public transportation was cost and time effective it would not be as big a selling job to the outer areas. If your going to try to sell something as a regional solution you will need to make a strong case to why something like the Beltline (Which I do like the idea) and the Street Car line will help us up in Cherokee and other outer counties.

The Last Democrat in Georgia May 30, 2014 at 1:12 pm

Charlie, thanks for staying active and fully engaged on the issue of transportation, an issue that understandably very few people in government (particularly state government) want to touch these days.

Like you and many others, I too am also optimistic that realistic and cost effective solutions to our massive transportation challenges are within our reach.

But unlike most others around these parts these days, I know that most of the realistic and cost effective solutions are available in the cash-rich PRIVATE sector with PRIVATE money, not in the cash-depleted public sector with disappearing public money where we currently are most prone to concentrate our search.

Until we stop looking in the wrong places (regional and countywide T-SPLOSTs and sales tax referendums) start looking in the right places (in the private sector), we most likely will never have the money that we need to much more fully and comprehensively tackle our Herculean transportation challenges.

Anyways, keep up the good work and keep fighting the good fight, Charlie because its a fight that’s worth fighting.

MattMD May 31, 2014 at 1:17 am

The Atlanta metro had all this growth from the 1970’s onward and people in 2012 were asked to raise a sales tax to 9% in Atlanta proper, 8% in DeKalb. Something is wrong with this picture and it’s the Balkanized nature of the region and the geldings we elect to the legislature. Seriously, the state should own this problem, not do some chicken-squeeze action like allowing another SPLOST.

With a greater participation in MARTA, it is hard for me to understand why the metro region would not have a line running from Smyrna to Dunwoody which would relieve a huge choke point. There are not many ways to get across the river up here. I know it’s not all hub and spoke anymore.

Dave Bearse May 31, 2014 at 5:24 pm

A line between Smyrna and Dunwoody benefits no one other than Cobb commuters. Besides, Cumberland traffic clearly isn’t that bad when the County’s priority is to spend hundreds of millions to subsidize a new stadium for multi-billion dollar Liberty Capital that will increase area traffic by 20,000 vehicles per day.

The Last Democrat in Georgia May 31, 2014 at 6:51 pm

Dave Bearse, May 31, 2014 at 5:24 pm-

“A line between Smyrna and Dunwoody benefits no one other than Cobb commuters.”

…This is an excellent point….Which is why any future east-west high-capacity passenger rail transit line that runs along the Top End of the I-285 Perimeter should operate at least from between Acworth in Cobb County to the Buford/Lake Lanier area of Gwinnett County (with there being a very-strong potential for future expansion to Cartersville on the west end of the line and to Gainesville on the east end of the line).

Implementing and operating an east-west cross-regional high-capacity passenger rail transit line between Acworth and Buford/Lake Lanier (and maybe even between Cartersville and Gainesville) by way of the I-285 Top End Perimeter connects commuters with many of the various regional employment and activity centers between Cobb County and the I-75 NW anchored Northwest Corridor and Gwinnett County and the I-85 NE anchored Northeast Corridor where much of the Atlanta region’s commuting activity occurs.

(…Some of the various present and future regional employment/activity centers that would be connected with an Acworth-Buford via I-285 Top End Perimeter east-west cross-regional high-capacity passenger rail transit line would be the Kennesaw/Town Center, Cumberland/Galleria, Perimeter Center, Doraville, Norcross, Gwinnett Place, Mall of Georgia and Lake Lanier areas.)

“Besides, Cumberland traffic clearly isn’t that bad when the County’s priority is to spend hundreds of millions to subsidize a new stadium for multi-billion dollar Liberty Capital that will increase area traffic by 20,000 vehicles per day.”

…There’s a theory that many have that the Cobb County business and real estate community (which desperately wants a direct high-capacity transit connection with Central Atlanta and the world-leading Atlanta Airport and a high-capacity transit connection across the Top End of I-285) intentionally wants to make traffic much worse within the I-285/I-75 NW Cobb Cloverleaf-Cumberland/Galleria area in the short-term so that they can get the state to fund the construction of a couple of regional high-capacity transit lines.

Cobb County business and real estate interests want the high-capacity transit connections into Atlanta and across the Top End of I-285 so that they can boost the value of commercial real estate in the Cumberland/Galleria and Town Center/Kennesaw areas to be comparable to or even greater than the value of commercial real estate in the Midtown, Buckhead and Perimeter Center areas which because of their direct rail transit connections to the world-leading Atlanta Airport all each have commercial real estate values that are currently substantially higher than Cumberland which currently has no direct rail transit connection to the ATL Airport.

Cobb County business interests have repeatedly stated a strong desire to boost the Cumberland/Galleria area to be comparable with or greater than Buckhead, Perimeter and Midtown (hence, the acquisition of the Atlanta Symphony, the Atlanta Ballet and now the Atlanta Braves). Cobb County business interests know that the only sure way to do that is for the Cumberland/Galleria area to gain the same type of high-capacity passenger rail transit service (and direct rail transit connection to the world-leading ATL Airport) that the Buckhead, Perimeter and Midtown commercial districts currently have.

….Which is why Cobb County officials seemed totally unconcerned about the increased traffic that will result in an already heavily-congested area when the new Braves’ stadium and the accompanying high-density development open up….Because they know that the worsened traffic congestion will likely go a long ways towards helping them get the valuable rail transit connections to Atlanta and the Top End Perimeter that they so desperately want…or so the theory goes…

notsplost June 4, 2014 at 6:44 am

Makes sense, but note the strong resemblance to the “disaster capitalism” meme first noted by Naomi Klein.

Create a disaster, then stand back and profit from it …

The Last Democrat in Georgia June 4, 2014 at 10:23 pm

Cobb County officials know that they cannot just come straight out and say that they want MARTA or heavy rail transit in the traditionally transit-averse county. So instead they’ll just create traffic conditions that are so bad that traditionally transit-averse Cobb County residents and OTPers will be desperately begging for relief in the form of rail transit, particularly on days when Braves’ games take place on weeknights.

MattMD June 1, 2014 at 12:14 am

My point would only stand if Cobb was throwing into a regional system, I do not think this county deserves that track if they refuse to participate.

I really don’t see why it is a bad idea that we have rapid transport connecting two Edge cities like Cumberland and Perimeter.

The Last Democrat in Georgia June 1, 2014 at 1:07 am

MattMD, June 1, 2014 at 12:14 am-

“My point would only stand if Cobb was throwing into a regional system, I do not think this county deserves that track if they refuse to participate.”

…Expanding transit to the places that it obviously urgently needs to go should not require the participation of entire counties by way of highly-flawed and highly-contentious countywide sales tax referendums. We should by now be way beyond the point where we are able to make necessary transit expansions without being overdependent and/or nearly solely-dependent on increasingly very-limited revenues from voter referendum-approved countywide sales taxes.

If we can’t figure out how to make the transit that we’ve already got be financially self-sustaining then we definitely don’t need to be attempting to build even more transit infrastructure that we cannot fully and/or adequately fund.

“I really don’t see why it is a bad idea that we have rapid transport connecting two Edge cities like Cumberland and Perimeter.”

…Having rapid transport connecting two Edge cities like Cumberland and Perimeter is not at all a bad idea….As long Cumberland and Perimeter are not the only two major points on such a line and as long as such a line is built to be financially self-sustaining.

Dave Bearse May 31, 2014 at 4:26 pm

The streetcar is an amusement ride. The Beltline is an economic development construct. Neither one has anything to do with regionalism.

The leaves us with a few highway projects that revolve around subsidizing tollpayers and that will do nothing to alter the status quo.

Employment that results in commuting from everywhere to everywhere is the result of locally controlled small government.

There’s no consensus vision, and no money to implement it if there were—you’re much more an optimist than I.

The Last Democrat in Georgia May 31, 2014 at 7:49 pm

Dave Bearse, May 31, 2014 at 4:26 pm-

“The streetcar is an amusement ride. The Beltline is an economic development construct. Neither one has anything to do with regionalism.”

…I completely agree that neither the Atlanta streetcar, nor the Atlanta Beltline have anything to do with regionalism, which is why both projects should not have appeared on a list for funding from a proposed regional sales tax in an often-disparate region where tax increases are not necessarily all that popular to begin with.

If funded properly, both the streetcar and the Beltline are capable of funding the cost of their own construction and continuing operations with revenues from private real estate investment and Value Capture taxes (Value Capture taxes = self-taxing Community Improvement Districts or CIDs, Tax Allocation Districts or TADs, Tax Incremental Financing or TIF, etc).

“The leaves us with a few highway projects that revolve around subsidizing tollpayers and that will do nothing to alter the status quo.”

…Those tolled managed lane projects might not alter the status quo, but they will make the status quo slightly more bearable for those who can and are willing to pay. Though it should be noted that the toll lane projects are not just a local thing but are a national thing as the Feds are implementing toll lanes and converting untolled HOV lanes to tolled managed lanes in large major metro areas all across the country to set the stage for a much-larger expansion of tolling to ALL superhighway lanes in the not-too-distant future. The current tolled managed lanes and HOT lanes will be the ‘premium’ lanes when tolling is expanded to include all expressway lanes in the not-too-distant future (‘premium’ lanes meaning the highest-priced toll lanes on tolled expressways where all lanes are tolled).

“Employment that results in commuting from everywhere to everywhere is the result of locally controlled small government.”

I don’t know if commuting from everywhere to everywhere is as much the result of locally-controlled small government as much as it is the result of Metro Atlanta doing most of its growth and development as a large major metro region in the post-World War II era when automobile-oriented development was by far the dominant form of development. I say that because there are large major metro regions in the Northern/Northeastern U.S. where there are even more locally-controlled small governments than Metro Atlanta as areas like Chicago and the Northeast have an extra layer of local government in township government.

Township government is a sub-unit of county governance and makes regional cooperation even more contentious than Georgia’s county government-dominated political scene. The only difference between Metro Atlanta and her Northeastern large major metro regional peers is the much-stronger involvement of those metro regions’ respective state governments in regional transportation planning.

(…Imagine how much more contentious the 2012 T-SPLOST debacle would have been if instead of just a 10-county Metro Atlanta region, we were talking about a 10-county, 100-township Metro Atlanta region.)

In a large major metro region like Metro Atlanta where anywhere from between 5 to 40 counties may be involved in ‘regional’ planning, state government absolutely needs to take the lead role in funding regional transportation needs. And since state government does not want to raise much-needed transportation funding by raising existing sales taxes, then state government needs to raise much-needed transportation funding from user fees and private investment….And if any funding gaps exist after collecting funding from inflation-indexed user fees and private investment, the state needs to use narrowly-targeted Value Capture taxes to close any funding gaps that may remain.

The state needs to stay away from regional T-SPLOST referendums where everyone feels that they are being ripped-off and/or screwed by powers-that-be that are shirking their transportation funding responsibilities.

“There’s no consensus vision, and no money to implement it if there were—you’re much more an optimist than I.”

…I agree that there is no consensus vision, but the money to implement a consensus vision does exist. It’s just that the money exists in places that Americans are just not used to looking in at present….The money to implement a larger, more wide-ranging consensus vision for transportation exists in inflation-indexed distance-based user fees (per-mile fares and per-mile cash-back tolls that rise with inflation) and private investment.

Until we learn to start looking in the right places for transportation funding (the right places being funding from inflation-indexed distance-based user fees and private real estate investment), we will remain dead-broke when it comes to funding even the most basic of transportation needs.

Stefan June 1, 2014 at 12:26 pm

El Dig,

It falls to me, as your weekend anchor, to remind you of the terms of your probation. Commenting here doesn’t work so well in endless diatribe form. Please correct.

The Last Democrat in Georgia June 1, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Will do, Stefan.

Dave Bearse June 1, 2014 at 11:41 pm

Limit the number of points, and keep it bite size—I should talk—I’ve a propensity to ramble now and then.

I don’t think you’re going to see inflation indexed user fees until the metro area is in serious decline relative to other metro areas. The outer suburbs and exurbs are too politically powerful to give up their road subsidies. See what happens when East Cobb moms are informed they’ll have to pay a peak period premium to carry kids to school, or the person residing in Grayson and working at Cumberland is told they’ll be paying a $0.10 / mile user fee.

As per usual, the lower middle class and working poor will get screwed the worst, since they have fewer housing options and their employment hours and locations are generally much more rigid. The East Cobbs moms can carpool or (heaven forbid) their kids take the bus, and the Grayson commuter will be more likely to be able to telecommute and/or shift the commute from peak period.

It’s starting now, with everyone having to subsidize toll lanes for the well-to-do tollpayers.

The Last Democrat in Georgia June 2, 2014 at 1:10 am

Thanks for the advice and the positive feedback, Mr. Bearse.

At this point, it appears that the outer suburbs and exurbs may not have a choice as to whether or not they give up their road subsidies because if Congress refuses to approve a new transportation bill road funding could run severely short as soon as August 1st of this year. There’s also an effort being led in Congress by Georgia’s own Tom Graves, amongst others, to drop the Federal Motor Fuels Tax from the current inadequate $0.184/gallon down to $0.037/gallon and leave the collection of transportation funding almost entirely up to each individual state. There’s also the matter of Georgia’s own rapidly-diminishing state road funding budget which currently is being eaten almost completely alive by debt payments.

With there currently being very-little transportation funding remaining from traditional sources (federal and state motor fuel tax collections, etc), the days of funding road and transit improvements primarily with the aforementioned inflation-indexed distance-based user fees and private investment could likely be much-closer than most of us think.

MattMD June 1, 2014 at 12:34 am

Ok, well, I did listen to this while charting and most of it just sounded like mayoral booster-ism instead of a real discussion on transportation. Thank you, Charlie, for being sane. The Denver mayor was bordering on being obnoxious.

Building a bunch of light rail stations is not going to help commutes from a regional standpoint. As stated before by another poster it would likely work great for intown economic development. TOD and bike lanes are good for intown, which I would support, but let’s not act like it is going to help most commutes in the region.

I will say that MARTA does work to get people to the airport effectively and to Midtown, Downtown and Buckhead.

Also, the region was not shut down by “snow flurries” it was essentially a snow/ice storm, that moderator was ignorant on that issue. There were at least 2-3in of snow/ice in front of my house and the nearby arterial in Smyrna. The only vehicles which could get up the road were 4wds trucks. We also had idiots heading north in the left lane which caused more than a few jams.

I’m sorry, Denver really isn’t even on our level.

Dave Bearse June 4, 2014 at 1:56 am

The moderator may have been ignorant, but perception is reality.

Denver is an example of a city going somewhere. We’re resting on laurels.

Not intending to be harsh….You’re right they’re not on our level. But they’re where we were in the early 1980’s. Denver population and employment are growing at a 2+% per year clips. Denver is building a rail transit system that will have three times the route miles of Atlanta’s to serve a metro area with (currently) 60% of metro Atlanta’s population. We stopped building transit in the early 1990’s. Our MMPT, talked about since 1990, is a bus station on paper. Their Union Station concept wasn’t conceived until this century, and is on its way to reality.

The Last Democrat in Georgia June 4, 2014 at 4:22 pm

“We’re resting on laurels.”

…”We’re resting on laurels” is putting it very-nicely as in recent years we in the Atlanta area and the state of Georgia seem to have been running around with our heads cut off with very-little vision, very-little foresight and at times seemingly not a clue when it comes to transportation planning.

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