A conservative mass-transit advocate — your eyes deceive you not; such creatures exist — came to Atlanta recently to tell liberals how to sell public transportation to tea partyers.
Briefly: It’s about the money.
Money already was on the minds of those in William Lind’s audiences: They want transit to get a big chunk of the $8 billion that a new 1-cent sales tax could generate in 10 years. And they know that, to get any money, they’ll need a lot of conservatives to vote “yes” in a referendum next year to establish the tax in 10 metro Atlanta counties.
If they listened closely to Lind, director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, they won’t get stuck on tactics, such as using words like “conservation” or “stewardship” — instead of “environmentalism” — to talk up transit. Changing up the vocabulary won’t Jedi-mind-trick conservatives into voting yea.
Instead, they’ll have taken to heart this message, as Lind put it to me in an interview: “If it’s done right, it should be able to be done cheap. … Cheap doesn’t mean worse.”
Money may be on local transit advocates’ minds, but saving money — being cheap — isn’t. At least, not on the evidence.
Unlike many conservative or libertarian transportation experts, Lind favors trains, from streetcars to light rail to commuter rail. (Heavy rail, like MARTA subways, “essentially priced itself out of the market” for future projects, he told me.)
But, unlike many liberal transit advocates, he has strict standards about how much such projects should cost — not counting highly variable land-acquisition costs. For streetcars, $10 million per mile. For light rail, $20 million per mile.
In comparison, here’s a handy list of estimated costs for the transit projects that metro Atlanta planners want to put before the electorate. Some of these cost estimates haven’t been updated in some time, and the revised figures will almost certainly go up. But even with some potential underestimation, here’s what voters may be asked to swallow (where possible, I’ve zeroed in on actual construction and equipment costs):
Just one project, a light-rail line plus streetcar circulators from the Arts Center MARTA station up I-75 and U.S. 41 all the way to Acworth, comes in close to Lind’s targets. That two-phase project is listed at an average of $23 million per mile. The bad news: A new study by the state ranked that project among the region’s worst options as far as being completed within a decade.
Local transit officials say Lind’s numbers are unrealistic, though I note the huge gulf between his idea of realistic and theirs. Lind hit smack dab on what I see as transit’s biggest problem in our area: “Without any constituency for cost control,” costs rise out of control.
Between (mostly liberal) transit advocates afraid of hurting their cause by scrutinizing costs and (mostly conservative) transit skeptics who think cost-effective transit is impossible, we have no such constituency. Anyone, on the left or right, who values Lind’s advice for solving our transportation problems will get to work building one.
– By Kyle Wingfield