Panel Discusses Ways to Solve (and Fund) Transportation and Connectivity Issues

Metro Atlanta must find a way to solve its connectivity issues soon, or the region will become less attractive, both to businesses and residents. That was the consensus from a panel discussion this morning sponsored by the Council for Quality Growth. Panelists included Senator Brandon Beach, co-chair of the Joint Study Committee on Transportation, MARTA General Manager Keith Parker, Georgia DOT District 11 Board Member and former State Representative Jeff Lewis and Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Gooch. The panel was moderated by Michael L. Sullivan, Chairman of the Georgia Transportation Alliance.

L--R, Michael L. Sullivan, Sen. Steve Gooch, Jeff Lewis, Keith Parker and Sen. Brandon Beach participate in the Metro Region Connectivity Panel.  Photo: Jon Richards
L–R, Michael L. Sullivan, Sen. Steve Gooch, Jeff Lewis, Keith Parker and Sen. Brandon Beach participate in the Metro Region Connectivity Panel. Photo: Jon Richards

According to Senator Beach, who also is Chairman of the North Fulton Community Improvement District, there are 900 high tech companies located along the Georgia 400 corridor north of I-285. While the region has been successful in attracting companies to relocate here, without transportation improvements, and especially an investment in transit, the effort in North Fulton will change from attracting new businesses to retaining the ones already there.

Beach pointed out a recent survey of Google employees that showed 50% of its millennial workers do not own cars, preferring to take transit to work. The availability of this younger, high-tech workforce is part of what attracts companies to relocate to the area. Without transportation options, these younger workers may locate elsewhere, effectively taking their jobs with them. Beach pointed out that the presence of MARTA in Dunwoody was what prompted State Farm to expand in the Perimeter Center area.

Lewis agreed with Beach, saying there needs to be a change in transportation models from what was used in the 20th century. Claiming that “Millennials will drive with their smartphones,” he said technology must make up a good part of the solution to solving transportation issues.

A solution to fund transportation improvements, not only for increased transit, but to maintain road and bridge infrastructure, is the goal of the Transportation Infrastructure Funding Committee. While an increase in the gasoline tax is being touted as on the table, panelists appeared to be casting a wider net to find the additional approximately $1 billion annually that is needed to maintain and improve the Peach State’s transportation infrastructure. Senator Gooch indicated the study committee was looking at something “big and bold” to fund transportation statewide. In addition to an increase in the gas tax, there might also be some sort of general sales tax, and some way of dealing with the increasing number of electric vehicles on the road that do not pay the gas tax.

Lewis agreed, saying the committee needed to be aggressive in combining sources of transportation funding, including tolls, user fees and federal funding. That federal funding, which currently amounts to about $1.2 billion per year, could come to a halt in May when an extension of the current federal highway bill runs out. The DOT is reluctant to proceed on any projects that are dependent on that federal funding stream, since no one knows what the new Congress will do about a new one. Lewis thought that a transportation funding solution that is less dependent on federal money would ultimately prove to be a better choice.

For his part, MARTA General Manager Keith Parker pointed to last week’s vote to expand the system’s footprint to Clayton County, the largest expansion since the mid 70x. One of Parker’s goals since taking the helm of the agency has been to improve the agency’s image. Parker said that he was trying to improve the perception of the agency by increasing ridership and improving MARTA’s financial picture, in essence taking away arguments about why people shouldn’t invest in it. By adopting a motto of “Routine Excellence,” he hopes people will come to realize that MARTA means jobs.

Most of those in the audience, which largely consisted of people involved with the area’s Community Improvement Districts, people with interests in transportation, and elected officials, were receptive to the arguments made by the panel. One of those in attendance agreed that the 2015 legislative session would be the best time politically to come up with a long term revenue stream to fund the state’s transportation needs. The study committee will issue its report at the end of the month. Then, it’s up to the legislature.

65 comments

    • bgsmallz says:

      Or they could do something relatively simple…lay track. Stop paying lobbyists to convince people about Marta, stop paying for studies, stop trying to convince Gwinnett and Cobb and start building track. Just do it. Hire some workers and build for crying out loud. Tell the legislature to try and not fund it.

      It took 6 years to get the railroad from St. Louis to San Francisco and we can’t get Marta from Perimeter to Alpharetta without 10 years of studies? Yeesh.

      Here’s something ‘big and bold’.. I’ve got a crayon and map…draw straight lines from Doraville to Smyrna from Dunwoody to Alpharetta from the Airport to Jonesboro from Lindbergh to Decatur and get a little creative and draw a curved line from the Dome to Midtown going through the Westside, Tech, and Atlantic Station. Then pay people to start laying track.

      http://numbersbox.blogspot.com/2014/11/public-transit-all-about-density.html
      Here is some fun with numbers, too.

      • ryanhawk says:

        Laying track is hard if you don’t have a way to pay for it.

        I don’t know why other people oppose rail, but I oppose it for two simple reasons: 1) I believe it is heavily subsidized and therefore not “sustainable” and 2) It seems to be very bad at reducing congestion in places like Atlanta. Bus service on the other hand is relatively cheap and goes directly to and from home/work, while roads are lighly subsidized in comparison to public transit. I’ll take more roads and buses that come with tolls and higher gas taxes over rail.

        I’m happy to be convinced with data on the relative level of subsidies and the impact on congestion. But I’ve studied this fairly extensively and don’t believe the facts are on the side of building more rail.

        • gt7348b says:

          You know, if you actually look at numbers, rail is actually the least subsidized on termsof operational metrics such as cost per trip. The most expensive is paragransit followed by commuter bus (you know, the ones that are supposed to use the managed lanes). Go here for all your data sources : ntdprogram.gov. (I’ll edit for a live link when I’m not on my phone).

          • ryanhawk says:

            I don’t think so. The metric that makes most sense to me is subsidy per passenger mile. By that measure light rail is most heavily subsidized and it’s not even close. Net out the gas taxes that are diverted and you’ll get a subsidy of about a penny per passenger mile for cars. It’s closer to a dollar for transit. As always show me the math with cites if you think my beliefs are based on bad data.

            • gt7348b says:

              It’s really rich to ask for a link and data when you don’t provide your own links. As I said, I will update and did provide a source you could go to which shows passenger cost per mile.

              • ryanhawk says:

                You keep saying you’ll do that and yet…. no data and no cite. There is a reason for that, namely that any fair assessment of subsidy per passenger mile will show that transit subsidies greatly exceed auto subsidies.

              • ryanhawk says:

                You keep saying you’ll do that and yet…. no data and no cite. There is a reason for that, namely that any fair assessment of subsidy per passenger mile will show that transit subsidies greatly exceed auto subsidies.

                A great paper, though dated, that offers a very “balanced” view of subsidies (including social costs which Charlie might declare to be “flanders facts) is here:

                http://americandreamcoalition.org/transit/Delucchi.pdf

                I’m not against transit. I’m against waste. Get transit right (which usually means a lot more buses and a lot less rail) and I’ll be all for it.

                • gt7348b says:

                  Sometimes I have things to do. Please see page 188:

                  http://documents.atlantaregional.com/rtc/rtc_2012_committee_packets.pdf

                  MARTA rail is about $0.40 / passenger mile. Atlanta regional bus is just under $0.50 / passenger mile. There are all types of performance metrics you can use and different modes have different purposes and strengths. It already is a fact that most of the transit vehicles operating in the Atlanta region are buses. However, about half of the trips and passenger miles are actually carried on the rail system (see pages 186 and 187).

  1. gcp says:

    While the best funding choice is to eliminate the federal gas tax and let states handle funding we must also look closely at how money is spent.

    The last estimate I saw for 285/400 was one billion (someone correct me if I am wrong) Do we really need to spend that kind of money on one intersection? I say no.

      • gcp says:

        I can’t see spending a billion to more quickly funnel traffic from one congested road (400) to another (285). What’s the point?

        • Charlie says:

          As we’ll clearly be (re) stating a lot lately, we’ll start slowly with the big picture for you and work our way down until this becomes yet another circular Harry discussion:

          1) Georgia gets $1.14 for every dollar currently sent to Washington in gas taxes. Eliminating DC cuts our spending, not increases it.

          2) Georgia which is 50th in per capita transportation spending is also among the states with the heaviest reliance on federal funds to build and maintain our roads.

          Add 1 + 2 together, and most normal people can conclude that the pipedream of eliminating the Federal DOT/Highway trust fund gives Georgia fewer dollars to spend, not more.

          But hold on to your silver bullet that can never be fired. Like the FairTax is to tax reform, we will add this to the cottage industry of “solutions” that do nothing but make sure that things which could be implemented to improve the situation can’t be done because of mythical concepts that have no path to be signed into law in DC.

          • Harry says:

            That’s not the whole story and you know it. But as you say, let’s avoid the circular. One thought though: Never buy into a failed situation. Change Can Happen.

            • Charlie says:

              Change will never happen when people continue with “It’s just that simple” solutions that are neither simple, nor solutions.

              But hold on tight to your dreams Harry. The rest of us are going to try and solve a problem.

                • taylor says:

                  When was the last Georgia tax increase anyway? I really don’t recall the significant increase. (I know user fees have increased.) Since I’ve lived in Georgia, sales taxes have been eliminated on food, more sales tax exemptions have been adopted, and more retirement income has been exempted. I don’t enjoy paying taxes, but I’ve seen more decreases than increases in the past 20 years.

                  • Harry says:

                    One word: property taxes. Fulton 17% increase and Gwinnett 15% increase this year.

                    At the state level, whatever the source of funds the number of state employees has quadrupled since 1978. The population has increased by about 80%. That means the number of state employees has more than doubled per capita.

                    • taylor says:

                      You didn’t point to one state tax increase. I’m not saying there have been none; I just don’t recall.

                      I don’t know about the number of state employees so many years ago, but there’s been a 10,000 drop since the recession (15%), despite the population increase. It’s possible that a long-term increase was funded by federal and fee revenue, since those have increased significantly over that time. But I don’t think those are related to your high taxes: user fees and fed borrowing (probably as much as Fed taxes, which have decreased in the last 15 years).

            • blakeage80 says:

              I think he mentioned this a couple of times in a couple of different threads yesterday. If I recall, in those conversations, there are sources cited by either by him or someone else.

              For every dollar collected by the feds through the gas tax, Georgia receives $1.14 from the Hwy Trust Fund.

              • ryanhawk says:

                Better check those sources Blakeage. The point I’m getting at is that funds we send to Washington are spent for things far beyond Interstate Highway system. The cost of things we get back are also inflated by federal goldplating and work rules that far exceed what is necesary. I don’t believe I get a 1.14 of federal spending on roads for the 1 dollar of federal gas tax that I pay.

              • Harry says:

                Lies, damn lies and statistics. As I have pointed out, every state gets more back more highway money than they pay in. The Federal Highway Trust Fund is a funny money Ponzi scheme. This cannot stand.

                • Charlie says:

                  Back to the circular argument.

                  Harry, you’re wasting all of our time demanding inaction at the state level, then when pointing out why we have to act here (because we should be expecting less, not more federal money to a state that is severely dependent on federal funds) you call the facts “damn lies and statistics” and then talk about the fed being a Ponzi scheme (which, at the beginning of the debate, was what we said to emphasize the severity of the problem.

                  So Harry, it’s like this. You’ve had your say. You’re taxed enough already. We get that, and it is duly noted.

                  You’re not welcome to weigh in anymore. You wish to demean facts, and then revert to this same tired crap of T.E.A. or “ponzi scheme”.

                  You’ve had your say, we’ve heard it, and you won’t be part of any solution. So you need not bother us anymore with extraneous circular discussion. Make room for the others.

                  • Harry says:

                    As I said about T-SPLOST, it’s not a good idea to stick citizens with a regressive sales tax for 30 years in order to pay off some bond issues that will be spent through a political process in a not very effective manner. There is a point where spending on non-quality growth becomes unsustainable. There are limits to growth.

                    • Charlie says:

                      See, now you’re trying to throw out new words like “regressive” to try to restart an argument you’ve already ceded by blowing it off by saying “taxed enough already”.

                      Go. Away.

                      I will not argue with you anymore for the sake of you taking out your frustrations that the world is no longer 1960. Sorry. Go play elsewhere.

                    • Harry says:

                      You have not responded at all to my concerns and objections. It doesn’t matter though. The arguments I bring have been and are being made by others as well. Any proposal to increase gas tax will be DOA in the Legislature.

            • Charlie says:

              It was from a presentation that Commissioner Golden made to the first Joint Study Committee Meeting on August 5th. The Highway Trust Fund deficit spends. There are no donor states. And thus the problem with the “bring that money back home” argument, as all states must balance budgets. Not to say that less deficit spending is bad, but the thought that we have more, rather than less if we do is assinine.

              Furthermore, from the same presentation, we get $1.2 Billion from DC. We raise $1 Billion locally. So if we eliminate what we send to DC, we’ll have to raise 120% more of what we tax locally to replace it. AND that just keeps us at status quo, where we are 50th in per capita spending.

              • ryanhawk says:

                Well Commissioner Golden is mixing apples and oranges. Yes the Feds deficit spend. The Feds also divert gas taxes to non-road uses. And they build with work rules and engineering standards that exceed what would be required at the state level. Bottom line there is no way we get back 1.14 in roads for 1 in federal gas tax. It’s been a few years since I’ve done the math, and deficit spending has increased in that timeframe, but I’m about to do the math again and I don’t expect it to be pretty.

                • Charlie says:

                  Here’s the thing. There’s a lot of “Flanders Facts”* out there about how much can be saved if we got rid of the various federal requirements that come with the federal money. But when you start asking folks – even/especially the ones that advocate for this – no one has a single study that demonstrates how much these regs really add to construction costs. Time seems somewhat quantifiable. (probably 6-9 months off a typical large highway project). Money? Made up estimates that no one has verified.

                  Can there be savings? Sure. Are we going to make policy based on speculative feelings? I’d advise against it.

                  *Flanders Facts is a term coined by my late family friend “Uncle” Frank Flanders. For the simplicity of political discussion he preferred to make up his own statistics to prove his points, and called them such. At least he admitted his talking points were for illustration purposes only…

                  • ryanhawk says:

                    That may be, but there are actual facts about the number of federal gas tax dollars that are diverted to non-road uses and these are substantial. “Currently, about 37 percent of motorist-paid fuel tax revenues is diverted from the trust fund to projects of no value to the typical motorist who pays the taxes.” That’s from a 2008 report. I’m sure it’s worse now.

                    http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2008/01/the-transportation-commissions-proposed-200-percent-gas-tax-increase-one-of-several-bad-ideas-in-its-report

                    • Jon Richards says:

                      Ryan, you seem to forget that money is fungible. That is, even if, as you say, only 47.5% of gas tax and other transportation-related revenue is actually spent on highways, the bottom line is that $1.14 in transportation funding comes back to Georgia for every dollar collected in the state.

                      Maybe that money comes from income taxes. Maybe it’s funny money printed by the Fed. In the end, there’s still more coming back than was paid in.

                    • Will Durant says:

                      You are misreading that table. 47.51% of “Revenues Used for Highways” in 2012 was taken from 35% of the money. ~17% of the money not already allocated went for non-highway use. Of course there is no mention of the percentages on the pre-allocated but from other data I’m guessing about 75% goes to highways. This is still a tricky number though because matching funds from states and locals for projects are included as “receipts” not just taxes and tolls.

                      Receipts Available for Distribution 64.39%
                      Less: Amount for Nonhighway Purposes -3.71%
                      Less: Amount for Mass Transportation -8.08%
                      Less: Amount for Collection Expenses -5.02%
                      Less: Amount for Territories -0.07%
                      Net Used for Highway Purposes 47.51%

                    • ryanhawk says:

                      Jon — Roads and trains are not fungible. We send a dollar of gas tax and get less than a dollar of roads plus some “transit” spending, bike paths, bureaucracy, pork, etc… and a lot of debt for which we will eventually get a tax bill. That’s not a good deal. I’d just like a dollar of roads instead. Do you favor perpetuating the subsidies, diversion of funds, and debt?

            • Dave Bearse says:

              Presumably Charlie means the “Ratio of Relative Highway Trust Apportionments / Allocations to Relative Highway Trust Fund Payments”, i.e. federal motor fuel taxes.

              That ratio was in the low 90’s for Georgia at least into 2010. I was going to ask for a cite too, because going from the low 90’s to 114% in a few years seems to me a little remarkable. There have been a couple of transportation funding bills since then, and the trust is in deficit, so it’s certainly possible.

          • gcp says:

            Ah yes, the endless federal money debate. After all, if its good for education spending and medicaid, it has to be good for transportation. But just maybe we could live with 14% less if it means the state would have total control of the money. Will Graves proposal ever go anywhere? Probably not under this president.

            My other point references how we spend transportation funds. Moving cars from one congested road to another just doesn’t work in the long run. Look at 85/285 intersection. That massive project helped a couple years but quickly became just another congested intersection. As for 285, it can’t be expanded.

  2. blakeage80 says:

    It seems to me we have some very capable people that truly want to move forward with fixing our transportation shortcomings. I look forward to the end of the month when we can start arguing about their offered solutions instead of talking endless amounts of rhetoric. I propose a rule to go into effect immediately: No more mentions of the Federal gas tax being repealed unless it is 1) a bill with a chance in Hates of passing in Congress OR 2) part of the committee’s findings. (Lord, help us).

    I, for one, am impressed there are 900 ‘high-tech’ companies crammed in between the Perimeter and Alpharetta along 400. Losing those would be worse that continuing to pay the federal gas tax. (sorry, broke my own rule)

  3. zedsmith says:

    How much will it cost to build a toll plaza on 400? We could use it to pay for the cost of the interchange upgrades!

    😉

  4. saltycracker says:

    I’m still in recovery from Beach’s proud high tech achievement: getting an area along Mansel rd in Roswell not far from 400 declared an economic opportunity zone and then getting $3 mil a year tax break for GM in the UPS/Miller facility.

    Not sure about the hidden agendas in a drive to get more revenue for transportation with these offsets. Dedicated transportation tax dollars offset by tax breaks for selected “friends” while adding routes to move poor folks?

    Meanwhile empty MARTA buses are running all over north Fulton. Trade them for a Marta station at north point mall with a $10-15 express train to downtown and the airport.

      • George Chidi says:

        Gwinnett’s bus service is absurd. It should surprise no one that it runs empty.

        I needed to take a bus from Norcross — corner of Indian Trail and Steve Reynolds to Five Points, some years back. It was a two-and-a-half our trip. Bus to the express line: 45 minutes. Wait 45 minutes. Bus to Five Points: one hour.

        This isn’t rapid transit. It’s malice.

      • Will Durant says:

        Gwinnett Transit buses are not GRTA. GRTA is a state agency that primarily runs commuter express buses and van pools from many Atlanta suburbs and exurbs. Gwinnett Transit are subsidized by a county TSPLOST and run within the county along with their own commuter express buses from different Park/Ride lots than GRTA. The mostly empty ones are primarily the inter-county lines. This is just part of the redundant lunacy I mentioned on the other thread regarding the alphabet soup of bus service around the metro area.

          • Will Durant says:

            If you want to see a real waste of money check out my response to Debbie down below. And on work days the park & ride lots exhibit that there are plenty of commuters who disagree on buses being a waste of money. The largest waste at the moment however is in redundancy of the same services.

            • Harry says:

              There’s no problem with buses full of commuters running from Park ‘n Ride locations, but there is a problem with normal buses running almost empty during off hours.

        • Jon Richards says:

          Minor correction: The Gwinnett SPLOST does not pay for bus operation. SPLOSTs can only cover capital improvements, not operating expenses.

          Gwinnett’s bus operations are paid for roughly by 1/3 farebox revenue, 1/3 federal / state reimbursement and 1/3 subsidy from the county’s general fund.

  5. debbie0040 says:

    Am I understanding this correctly? Republicans pushing to raise taxes ? Sure their Republican Primary voters will love that..

    • Will Durant says:

      As should TEA Party Patriot contributors when they find that more than half of their $20 million goes to the parties that collect the contributions.

      A Republican legislator doing the right thing for his district and can show why should welcome the opportunity to demonstrate this to his constituency in a Primary.

    • saltycracker says:

      You missed the big picture, the tax increases are offset & oft exceeded by credits to attract business/jobs……. This is Republican redistribution which is better than Democratic redistribution, ’cause the ne’er-do-wells don’t get it……. 🙂

    • John Konop says:

      I am confused…..first you supported taking down tolls on 400 needed revenue source to help fix the problem. Now you are against taxes to fix the problem. We need revenue to fix the problem…..what is your solution? BTW in Texas the used a combination of taxes, tolls, fees….

      • Dave Bearse says:

        It’s not confusing. Stop doing anything until everything else done is right. Spend years doing nothing since everything can’t be done right. Blame government for not getting anything done.

        Repeat with any and all issues…. immigration, etc.

  6. debbie0040 says:

    Will Durant, TPP raises the majority of their money from INDIVIDUALS using direct mail. That is very expensive and most of the contributions are 25.00 so you can just imagine how many pieces of mail is sent out. We reimburse the fundraising firm for postage, printing, etc. .

    TPP is the national group and they don’t get involved in local issues. It is the local tea parties elected officials need to worry about. I can tell you I have already begun to spread the word and activists are livid. There are also Libertarians and other conservative activists not happy.. Especially in Sen. Gooch.

      • Harry says:

        FWIW today the USPS delivered to me a piece that advised where I could vote early. Says on the outside “Why is Barack Obama so happy? He just heard you still haven’t voted.” I guess the postal workers weren’t too happy to get that delivered on time.

        • John Konop says:

          I did not say that other companies could not do it…but the cost is way more verse reach…..in many business models it does not add up. Debbie implied that their model was tight via postage cost.

    • Will Durant says:

      Well I would hope you guys would get away from the telemarketers you were using in FY2011 & 2012 because it appears y’all were paying some of them 95¢ on the $1. But since I’ve been looking at the IRS Form 990 that y’all file as late as possible each time my information is admittedly quite dated. But, a click or two got this article which concentrates on FEC financial reports spanning a more current period from JAN 2013 through JUN 2014 and it appears some of the flock has wizened up:
      http://practicalpoliticking.com/2014/08/18/flushing-your-money-down-the-tea-partys-toilet/

      Now rather than $20MM per annum the TPP is down to a bit more than half of that in gross receipts over an 18 month period. Well the article tells the story of the TPP better than I can so:

      Tea Party Patriots

      Total receipts were $10,659,371 with expenses of $9,263,753 and $1,027,354 benefiting candidates; that’s 90% on expenses and 10% to candidates. The Mississippi race was conspicuously the largest investment the Tea Party Patriots made, with almost $600,000 spent in opposition to Thad Cochran, and more than $200,000 in support of Chris McDaniel. When pushing out just 10% to candidates, the rationale for dropping more than three-fourths of that trifling amount on a single race calls into question their political savvy, as well as it highlights their poor fiscal management.

      So rally your troops, make your threats, carry on all you want, but trying to forage over the same ground you have already scorched may prove to be more difficult this time around.

      • Dave Bearse says:

        An impressive return on contribution—2.5% going to candidates not named McDaniel or running against McDaniel.

      • WeymanCWannamakerJr says:

        Con games for Conservatives. Is this evidence of a reduction of contributions by two thirds enough for Republicans to quit falling prey to the extortion tactics of being ‘primaried’ by Debbie Dooley? If not, then I’m going to get my minions of activists engaged too. Bubba and Earl can both deliver some mean Facebook jabs and the only overhead is a case of beer.

  7. Will Durant says:

    If you actually look at the FEC filings the expenses for the “ground game” you describe is the 10%. Some faith healing TV preachers give a better return on contributions.

    In surveying a half-dozen or so in-state articles on the issues in the PA governor’s campaign only one even mentioned the increase in the transportation tax. And that one stated that it was a non-issue with the majority of the voters as they were needing road improvements. In fact the Democrat is proposing a 5% extraction fee on fracking and still won by 10 points. Your cite is from a site owned by the Heritage Foundation whose position has long mirrored that of the American Petroleum Institute. They don’t want any taxes on their products ever, imagine that.

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