Based on the draft list approved earlier this month, 55 percent of the Atlanta region’s proposed transportation sales tax would be used to support mass transit, a fact that has generated considerable grumbling in some quarters.
Benita Dodd of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, points out that just 5 percent of commuters in metro Atlanta regularly ride a bus or rail system, concluding that with its emphasis on transit, “the project list ignores this reality.”
State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Cobb County, believes the list should favor road projects that deliver more immediate relief than longer-term transit projects. State Rep. Sharon Cooper, also a Cobb Republican, argues that the bond between Southerners and their cars is so strong that transit might not work here.
All in all, there’s a sense among many in metro Atlanta that transit is somehow experimental and untested and represents too much of a risk. I’d argue that the exact opposite is true. The real gamble, the real experiment, would be in refusing to make major investments in transit.
Look at who we are. According to the 2010 Census, the 20-county metro Atlanta region has grown to 5.3 million people, an increase of 1 million over the 2000 Census. By 2030 — less than 20 years from now — the region is predicted to host 7.4 million people, which by any measure makes us a major metropolitan region.
So here’s a challenge: Name a major metropolitan region anywhere in the industrialized world that has not made or is not making a major investment in transit. I’m aware of none.
Some people might challenge that claim by pointing to the example of Los Angeles. However, given that region’s severe problems with congestion and air quality, I’m not sure that helps the anti-transit case much. And the truth is, Los Angeles is now trying to hard to retrofit itself, adding subways, light rail and high-speed rail to its auto-centric system.
In addition, Los Angeles already boasts an extensive bus system. According to a new study by the Brookings Institution, Los Angeles ranks second in the country in the percentage of its population within reach of mass transit, behind only Honolulu. Metro Atlanta ranks 82nd out of 100 U.S. metro areas in that category, and most of the areas ranked below Atlanta, such as Chattanooga, Augusta and Baton Rouge, are considerably smaller.
In every human endeavor, changes in scale force changes in systems. In business, for example, small companies are forced to go outside their comfort zones and adopt new ways of doing things as they grow. The systems that worked when you have 10 employees or 100 employees don’t work when you have a payroll of 1,000. The same is true of metro regions. If metro Atlanta chooses to try to grow without a major investment in transit, it takes a course that no other region on the planet has found workable.
Furthermore, the transportation sales tax is our only feasible source of transit investment. Under Georgia’s constitution, revenue from the state’s gasoline tax is restricted to use for roads and bridges and can’t be used to fund transit. The Legislature has made it clear that it has no stomach for altering that provision, and it is even less likely to fund transit directly through general revenues.
(In fact, state leaders are so fearful of transit and taxes that earlier this month, they balked at moving the date of the transportation referendum to an allegedly more favorable date, lest they be accused of supporting such a noxious combination.)
It’s also important to remember that gasoline-tax revenue will continue to be earmarked for construction of highway projects, such as the proposed new toll lanes on I-75 through Cobb County. Taking those projects into account, total transportation spending in the metro region would continue to be weighted toward asphalt over transit.
– Jay Bookman