For transportation tax, keep projects doable and affordable

We’re beginning to get an idea of how metro Atlanta’s transportation network might change — and how it won’t — if voters next year approve a 1 percent sales tax to pay for new infrastructure.

First, how it won’t change. The $6.1 billion in projected revenues from the tax would not contribute to a bypass to divert freight traffic around Atlanta as it moves between Savannah’s port and the rest of the country. Nor would the money expedite a regional network of variable-toll lanes so motorists can move from A to B quickly if they’re willing to pay a premium.

And, as my more transit-oriented friends note, the money would contribute little to (relatively) low-cost bus rapid transit and nothing to (potentially) high-use commuter rail.

In other words, there are few things on the lists that advocates of either roads or rails would consider game-changers.

Instead, we might fulfill some basic needs: e.g., new interchanges at such bottlenecks as I-285 and Ga. 400 and the development of Tara Boulevard into a southside “super arterial” road to ease gridlock.

Most striking about the trio of possible lists produced by regional experts — one roads-heavy, one transit-heavy and one split evenly between the two — is how similar they are.

Oh, some roads vs. transit questions are evident. For instance, the difference between the transit-heavy list and the roads-heavy list could be reduced to: Do you want a light-rail line from downtown Atlanta to Lithonia (price tag: $814.9 million), or 32 other projects tackling some of the very worst congestion in DeKalb, Douglas, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties (cumulative price tag: $846.5 million)?

But while a debate about modes of transportation is to be expected, a deeper dive shows the question is more complicated than one’s mere preference for roads or rails.

Every project under consideration has been assigned a total expected cost, an amount of recommended funding (which doesn’t necessarily equal its cost), and a likelihood of completion within 10 years.

The roads-heavy list includes 90 projects that are fully funded and could be finished with a decade. The evenly split list includes 71 such projects.

The transit-heavy list: just 52.

The disparity is not just a function of higher costs for transit projects — though, as in the case of the light-rail line to Lithonia, that often is true. It is also because the transit-heavy list simply adds more money to items that, in many cases, would still remain hundreds of millions of dollars short.

For example, the transit-heavy list would devote an extra $150 million on the first phase of a light-rail line from downtown Atlanta to the Cumberland area in Cobb. But the project would still be less than half-funded. Same story for Atlanta’s Beltline, which would get an extra $200 million but remain short by $1 billion-plus.

Then there’s the fact that all three lists allocate more than $150 million to placeholders (e.g., engineering studies) for big-ticket transit items such as light rail along I-85 in Gwinnett, just in case new federal money becomes available. Meanwhile, the lists rely on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal matching funds to complete key projects on 285 and 400.

In case you haven’t noticed, Washington is embroiled in a struggle over how to cut spending, not add to it. That attitude is mirrored, and in part generated, by Georgians who think they’re taxed enough already.

If the transportation tax is to gain approval next year, supporters need to spend less time worrying about whether to hold the tax referendum in July or November, or ensuring an arbitrary share of money goes to transit. They need to worry more about convincing voters they have a feasible, results-oriented plan.

– By Kyle Wingfield

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69 comments Add your comment

Road Scholar

July 28th, 2011
5:45 am

Kyle the cheap easy projects are done and the ones needed will be costly not only because of construction costs, but right of way costs. ROW is now more expensive than construction. While many express their dislike for transit, these projects can add capacity by adding rail cars/buses; roadway’s become more clogged as you add cars. Atlanta has to move towards more transit. For you who must have a car, transit use increases the removal of vehicles from the roads which will improve your time of travel, even though it may not be reduced.

Karl Marx

July 28th, 2011
6:37 am

‘They need to worry more about convincing voters they have a feasible, results-oriented plan.’ Well they do not have that plan do they? This is just another fabricated tax increase. Where are the real Republicans? So far all I have seen is RINO’s and Democrat party switchers who want more sales tax. And please no “public transportation” that cannot fund itself on fares alone. MARTA cannot survive without a massive tax infusion through another “Penny Sales Tax”.

Ayn Rant

July 28th, 2011
6:50 am

I say, go big! Great nations aren’t built by timidity and penny-pinching . We need investment and bold projects to attract businesses and new residents. The Atlanta area now has a 10.5% jobless rate and dim prospects for future economic growth.

JohnnyReb

July 28th, 2011
8:11 am

Kyle, good piece but I suggest the obstacles to an endorsement vote are even larger. The project list reads like a “North Side” wish list where those who would benefit are hoping us on the South Side will be dumb enough to help fund it. My crystal ball says NO.

Marta Rida

July 28th, 2011
8:50 am

Why is the AJC so anti-trainsit? Look at the great cities of America, they all have extensive transit networks that connect the suburbs employment centers. Atlanta will continue to choke on its own congestion if transit is not expanded. Adding more lanes is not the answer.

Junior Samples

July 28th, 2011
8:55 am

We should do nothing and let other cities like Charlotte invest in their transit infrastructure, and take more businesses away from Atlanta. That should make everyone happy, right? Once the large corporations move out of Atlanta we’ll have less traffic. Problem solved…

carlosgvv

July 28th, 2011
8:56 am

The Tea Party is so determined not to raise taxes, they are willing to let our Country go into default. So, will a large Tea Party delegation come to Atlanta and urge voters not to approve this tax raise?

Bart Abel

July 28th, 2011
8:57 am

Ayn Rant nailed it @6:50.

We’re the most developed and richest nation in the world, in large part, because of our physical and economic infrastructure. If going forward, we’re going to invest like a third-world country because, you know, “It’s my money!”, then we’re going to be a third-world country.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that taxes, properly invested, have contributed to our wealth. For example, we raised taxes in the 90s and our wealth grew. We cut taxes ten years ago, and our wealth fell. Taxes, in and of themselves, are an investment, and they have grown businesses and grown the wealth of households.

The question isn’t big government vs. small government, high taxes vs. low taxes. The question is where and when does government work to grow the private sector and where and when does it fail. We need to focus on getting more of the former and less of the latter rather than reflexively turning down any tax increase that might actually be a damn good investment for most Georgians.

MARTA is Unsafe

July 28th, 2011
9:15 am

I was robbed a few days ago on a Marta train heading to the airport. Many others I’ve spoken with since have said they don’t feel safe on Marta and no longer use the service. Until the security issues are fixed, expanding Marta and/or adding a new rail make zero sense.

ATLBadger

July 28th, 2011
9:25 am

Kyle – Do you really think the relatively cheap and easy road fixes will do a lot of long term good for the metro area? They mostly just remind me of that famous movie line, “If you build it, they will come…”.

I’d rather not spend the money if we’re not going to do anything visionary and truly transformative for the metro area.

The 10B

July 28th, 2011
9:26 am

Don’t ever forget, roads and bridges already have other funding avenues (the gas tax?). Transit must happen or the region’s attractiveness. The MARTA maps desperately need to show more destinations. What other funding alternatives would you suggest for transit outside of this referendum?

Bart Abel

July 28th, 2011
9:30 am

MARTA is Unsafe,

I believe that MARTA is the only major metropolitan rail system in the country that is financed entirely by local government and receives no funding whatsoever from state government. (Please correct me if I’m wrong).

Whether my details are precise, the point is that MARTA is poorly funded relative to successful and heavily used rail systems in other parts of the country and the world. As I said, if we invest like a third-world county, then we’ll be like a third-world country. Your post illustrates that point.

BPJ

July 28th, 2011
9:33 am

MARTA is a lot safer than driving.

zeke

July 28th, 2011
9:44 am

Sometimes stupidity abounds! The simple solution to the traffic problem in the Atlanta metro are is not wasteful mass transit, but, providing ways for trucks, travelers, to STAY OUT OF THE MAIN METRO AREA! Just take a look at how much less traffic would be on 285 or 75/85 if all those just passing through could move freely AROUND Atlanta! The outer beltway should have been built in the 80’s/90’s when the projected cost was about $2 billion.The only reasonable proposal I have seen is from Paulding and their proposed North/South by-pass, which is not even considered because Pauling is not included in the proposed area!! STUPID!!

allen981

July 28th, 2011
9:44 am

Invest like a third-world country? I’ve been to third world countries that are nicer than many parts of Atlanta. Investment by the government, without question, is far higher in the blighted sections of the city than in places like Alpharetta or Peachtree City.

Liberals believe if government spends money for things, everyone benefits. Wrong, just plain wrong, and at no point in U.S. history has that philosophy been proven right. The New Deal? Lots of debt, no jobs (World War II ended the Depression, not the New Deal) and no economic rebound in this country. In fact, it was during the Depression that the Communist Party actually had a strong political base in this country.

As for transportation in Atlanta, we have absolutely no need for more rail. If there’s mass transit demand, build an extra lane on every interstate highway and create dedicated bus lanes, with special exits linked to local bus lines. The cost would be far cheaper and accomplish the exact same thing as rail at far, far lower cost.

Kyle Wingfield

July 28th, 2011
9:53 am

Bart @ 8:57: “we raised taxes in the 90s and our wealth grew. We cut taxes ten years ago, and our wealth fell.”

This is one of the most tiresome, false examples of “correlation = causation” in current circulation. It undermines your otherwise arguable point.

Public investments — for argument’s sake, I’ll adopt your loaded word this time — crowd out private investments. The question is always this: Does the value of a particular public investment outweigh that of the private investments it would crowd out (by using the money that would have been available for them)?

In fact, your “high taxes good, low taxes bad” formulation doesn’t even make sense. Spending — which, if we’re going to talk about public “investments,” is the appropriate measure, not taxes — grew relatively slowly during the 1990s and relatively quickly during the 2000s.

allen981

July 28th, 2011
9:53 am

By the way, when you look at the major metropolitan cities that have large, relatively useful train/transit systems, go back and look at when those systems were built. In practically every case, they were built long before cars became practical. New York, Boston, London, Paris, Chicago were all major metro areas before cars became practical. Yes, D.C. and San Francisco have systems that get some use, but cars there still predominate.

This country was built by people who had a never say die spirit, who did everything they could to improve their own lives. More and more government is killing that spirit in all of us.

Steve

July 28th, 2011
9:55 am

We are so freaking backwards down here. The South is the last to do anything, and we progress kicking and screaming.

Light rail and improved mass transit! I would take Marta to work if I could just GET THERE USING IT. Adding another lane to a road solves nothing.

Kyle Wingfield

July 28th, 2011
9:59 am

But back to the topic at hand.

ATLBadger @ 9:25: What I think is that there are so many potential projects that can be both completed and fully paid for within 10 years that it makes sense to load up the list with them.

What I also think is that there’s a trust issue involved. And a list that promises only partial progress on a particular item during a period of time when people will watch their children go from starting school to having driver’s licenses — or from middle school from grad school — or will themselves transform from recent college grads to married homeowners with a couple of kids (I’m generalizing here, but you get the point) — is not, imo, going to be all that convincing to all that many voters.

And for Ayn’s benefit: It’s not necessarily about big vs. little. Rather than contributing half the money needed for a Cobb transit line, and a third of the money needed for the Beltline, and a couple of hundred million dollars for studies on a host of others, why not fully fund one of them? I realize there’s some geographic politicking at play here, but OTOH I don’t think Cobb voters are going to be any more likely to vote for the plan because it partially funds a project that would only barely make it across the Chattahoochee River in the first place.

Build The Outer Perimeter

July 28th, 2011
10:00 am

Everything is so expensive because we have screwed around for 30 years and so much needs to get done!

Kyle Wingfield

July 28th, 2011
10:02 am

zeke @ 9:44: I agree — based on what I’ve learned about it so far, the idea out of Paulding for a (completely privately financed) western bypass to keep trucks and Florida tourists off Atlanta’s roads is a potential game-changer. Because it calls for private financing, I hope it will proceed regardless of how the tax referendum goes.

jd

July 28th, 2011
10:07 am

More of the same will not solve the problem. This is a NO vote for me.

BW

July 28th, 2011
10:07 am

Kyle

Is the future of “private investment” turning every interstate built with federal dollars into ones with HOT lanes? I don’t think that will solve the problem…it will give people a choice but they aren’t nicknamed Lexus Lanes for nothing. We have to make some investment in a transit backbone now….we may not build it out for 50 years but these improvements must start today…I think alot of people equate this with the ANWR analogy…if we’d opened ANWR 10 years ago etc.

Kyle Wingfield

July 28th, 2011
10:09 am

Btw, on the topic of getting value for money, I refer you to another column I wrote not long ago: http://blogs.ajc.com/kyle-wingfield/2011/06/10/one-conservatives-approach-to-mass-transit-control-costs/

Kyle Wingfield

July 28th, 2011
10:10 am

BW @ 10:07: I do believe that tolls are likely eventually to replace the gas tax as a means of public financing of infrastructure, which will help make privately financed toll roads more palatable, too.

Bart Abel

July 28th, 2011
10:10 am

Kyle,

I didn’t say high taxes good, low taxes bad. In fact, I made an argument against such generalities.

Where did the spending grow during the 2000’s? Iraq? Farm subsidies? Medicare Part D? Did spending grow in unemployment when unemployment went up and food stamps when poverty went up? Did Medicare spending go up because more people are eligible? You’re making the same general case that you criticize me for for making (despite the fact that spending did grow during the 90s): Cut spending good, raise spending bad.

I’m arguing against those generalities, and I absolutely agree that we have to balance how public investment affects private investment. But as I said, proper public investment actually leverages private investment, as in the case of roads, highways, ports, trains,… Again, the argument should not be, big vs. small government, but proper vs. improper government.

To be clear, I don’t believe taxes good, spending good. But the exclamation I hear all the time is taxes bad, spending bad. And that argument is just as silly.

allen981

July 28th, 2011
10:12 am

What’s wrong with a dedicated bus lane (use natural gas or other clean bus technologies) that serves the exact same purpose as a rail line? More demand? Add buses. Soft demand? Reduce buses.

What is it about a train that people are so fond of? They are dinosaurs, created, used, and discarded because they don’t serve modern society. Freight is another issue, but trains and people just are not a good combination in today’s world. (Check out fares on the high speed trains in Europe; outrageous, with very low load factors.)

Kyle Wingfield

July 28th, 2011
10:14 am

No, Bart, what you said was “Taxes, in and of themselves, are an investment.” Which is plainly false.

Bart Abel

July 28th, 2011
10:14 am

By the way, the problem with toll roads, are that those who drive on them aren’t the only ones who benefit from those roads. The businesses that people use those roads to get to work or purchase their goods or services benefit. The customers of products or services delivered via the roads benefit. The people who benefit from the sale of those goods and services benefit.

Toll roads charge the cars the drive on them, which account for a small portion of the users. Hence, the case for public roads.

Johns Creek

July 28th, 2011
10:15 am

It seems to me that the roads heavy list is the preferable option. Funding studies and projects that will not be completed will leave us looking back with nothing accomplished to solve the problems. I prefer 32 projects that address some of the worst congestion over one rail line from Atlanta to Lithonia.

Bart Abel

July 28th, 2011
10:16 am

I also said, “taxes, PROPERLY INVESTED, have contributed to our wealth” and I wrote, “The question is where and when does government work to grow the private sector and where and when does it fail.”

A little context would be appreciated.

MrLiberty

July 28th, 2011
10:18 am

Kyle, why not just ask for everyone involved to walk on water while you are at it. Government has never done either of the things you suggest. It isn’t THEIR money. Why should they care? They don’t answer to the citizens. All the public hearings, votes, etc. are all just to give the ILLUSION that government is reponsive and accountable. THEY ARE NOT. Every project lines the pockets of someone or benefits some else indirectly. It is those folks who will lobby to make sure their pet project is on the list. Once the list is set and all the backs have been scratched, the onslaught of fearmongering will begin on TV, radio, and most assuredly in the AJC that the world will end if the tax is not passed. They will move the election to a date more suitable to better big government support so as to skew the results. Then when it passes they will waste, cost overrun, and the ususal results we see in these projects. In the end the trains will go nowhere useful, ridership will be less than optimum, there will be no money available for maintenance, developers will walk away with millions for projects near the train stations (the plans are already drawn up I’m sure), another bond measure will be needed to cover the cost overruns, fares will need to be so high that ridership declines.

Let the private sector build what it needs. Vote NO on the tax and eliminate the inevitable failure that government is so good at.

Kyle Wingfield

July 28th, 2011
10:20 am

allen981 @ 10:12: I happen to agree with you about buses. The transit advocacy groups say “riders of choice” won’t ride buses, only trains. I say, not many people are choosing to ride the trains we do have because they were built in one place and the population — and, just as important, the jobs — grew elsewhere. And that pattern could well repeat itself.

Tony

July 28th, 2011
10:22 am

Marta Rida, over 20 years ago the former Marta chair Chestnut attributed rapid transit development in Georgia to basically race. He may have not been further from the truth. There is a fear of (home) invasion by certain suburban dwellers that suggests that rapid transit expansion into the suburbs would increase crime. You may even see some comments relating to the same thing. When did Americans become so fearful? Boo! A nation with so-called Christian beliefs, have forgotten about their main messenger, Jesus, who often preached not to fear, but to believe in him. Anyway, these elite suburbans would rather trudge through miles of bumper to bumper traffic rather than jump on a more efficient commuter train. Ironically, some of these suburban dwellers will drive in close enough to take advantage of the park and rides. Meaning: it’s ok to drink the government tea if its going to benefit them individually. Using good taxpayer money and spending it on more lanes is like taking a stack of $100’s and dumping them in the wastebasket. I have seen expansion after expansion and the result is gridlock. Spaghetti junction is a great example of that. We need to get beyond the politics and prejudice, and act on behalf of the citizens of our entire state and country. Imagine, how much fewer traffic would be on our highways and byways if a light rail ran at least 30-40 miles in east, west, north, and south. There would be tremendous revenue and pollution control. We need to get on the stick, and move towards 2050, and not 1950.

Kyle Wingfield

July 28th, 2011
10:24 am

Bart @ 10:16: Then it seems to me you should be making a case for better allocation of spending than for higher taxes.

Hillbilly D

July 28th, 2011
10:24 am

The project list reads like a “North Side” wish list where those who would benefit are hoping us on the South Side will be dumb enough to help fund it. My crystal ball says NO.

I don’t live in the Atlanta region, so it’s probably none of my business but I can fully understand the sentiment of that post. In my region, 2 counties have all the people and all the votes, so in effect, they’ll be able to vote in a tax to fund projects for themselves, while getting the other counties in the region to help foot the bill. In my own county, we’ve already got enough roads. Building more roads will only bring more traffic, as it always does, and we don’t need that. When the vote comes up in my region, I’ll vote “No”.

I suspect one of the first projects on the board in our region, will be a four lane through one of the DOT board member’s land.

BW

July 28th, 2011
10:26 am

Kyle

Speaking of the gas tax…apparently that is the next BIG issue after the debt ceiling. It’s supposed to expire in September. I think it should be cents per dollar not cents per gallon but given that you think tolls will replace it eventually what are your thoughts on that happening anytime soon especially with the partisan gridlock in DC?

Churchill's MOM.....Ron Paul for President

July 28th, 2011
10:30 am

The real question is how much Mayor Reed, Governor Deal, and their cronies are going to make. Are they going to only skim 10% or want more, Deal is still deeply under water so he needs the money & Reed is just another Maynard Jackson/Bill Cambell.

Hillbilly D

July 28th, 2011
10:37 am

Churchill’s MOM

There’s really no need to worry about Nathan’s finances. He’ll have his Congressional pension, his Governor’s pension, and he may even get a Legislative pension. Life at the public trough can be pretty good. He’ll be fine. ;-)

Churchill's MOM.....Ron Paul for President

July 28th, 2011
10:42 am

Hillbilly D

July 28th, 2011
10:37 am

Even if Deal didn’t need the money he’d still take it once a crook always a crook, He & Reed are going to get very well off this..

Taxes?

July 28th, 2011
10:45 am

There is always this ongoing conversation about taxes. Enough is enough. We may as well except the fact that taxes will be on earth until all of our deaths. Get over it. We are so obsessed with it that this fake political group, the tea party has many brain washed. And none of them can hard state an American historical fact. Those laboring arguing about higher and lower taxes are the same ones that use public highways, the local police department, fire department, military, etc. It appears that as long as certain individuals have what they need, who cares about the rest.

Hillbilly D

July 28th, 2011
10:46 am

Churchill’s MOM

Not disagreeing with you, just a little levity. .

Kyle Wingfield

July 28th, 2011
10:46 am

Kyle Wingfield

July 28th, 2011
10:49 am

BW @ 10:16: I don’t see the replacement happening anytime soon, because politicians are always loath to give up a source of dough. I think it would happen a lot faster if the gas tax became a revenue source purely for the states, some of which might decide to scrap it and shift to tolls.

But the idea that the gas tax will continue to be a reliable, major source of money for infrastructure doesn’t quite square with the Obama administration’s apparent decision to raise fuel standards above 50 mpg by the middle of this decade.

Tony

July 28th, 2011
10:54 am

Who cares about these government officials? Whether Democrat or Republican, we are all Americans. And the fact is that we make the choices not them. They are only concerned about our interests when we load their pockets full of money. No blame but our own. We need rapid transit to spur growth in jobs, enticing industry to move here, and to reduce pollution and traffic. We have the advantage at this point that the northern states do not. We have the advantage of using current technology to build an elaborate transit system, not another highway project that someone’s Uncle Billy Bob will get millions for acquiring his grandpappy’s land. Let’s get beyond taxes and small talk and embark on a course that will set us apart from our competitors around the world. China is making us look like peasants.

Hillbilly D

July 28th, 2011
11:01 am

Kyle @ 10:46

If the people of the Atlanta district want to vote themselves a tax or not vote themselves a tax, that’s their business. Like you say though, the one size fits all approach, doesn’t work. It’s two vastly different worlds with different needs.

Road Scholar

July 28th, 2011
11:03 am

Mr Liberty: You couldn’t be more wrong about whether government/GDOT doesn’t care. After 34 yrs in the business, we took our responsibility…..to the people…very seriously. We changed how we do business to educate the taxpayers and to LISTEN to what they wanted.

Kyle you are right about the move to tolls replacing the gas tax. With electric and hybrid vehicles, they do not pay their fair share for use of the roads as presently taxed. But the move is beyond managed lanes. It will be to a mileage tax, where one pays based on the weight of the vehicle and the miles travelled.Iit could also be expanded to a congestion tax (like the managed lanes) where you pay more during congested times of operations.

I disagree with you though that the use of the gas tax for transportation IS an investment. How does trucks get their goods and services to where they are needed? How is the increase in development and its potential addressed.Doesn’t development increase the tax base?

BW

July 28th, 2011
11:06 am

It’s a case of two separate interests meeting head-on…consumers’ pocketbooks vs maintaining the road network. No easy fix at all…kinda like every other problems facing the US…all the long hanging fruit has been picked.

Chip

July 28th, 2011
11:14 am

Oh please, people, can we just drop the urbanist fantasies about ‘light rail’ and other large-scale mass transit boondoggles? These things will be permanent money-losers, forever subsidized by the vast majority who will never use them. Think MARTA… a dinosaur that only goes to a few fixed places, full of criminal thugs and freaks, pulling in and out of dingy urine-drenched stations.

The core issue is freedom. People choose the freedom and flexibility of driving because it suits our schedules and our lives, and we prefer the freedom of doing so. This, of course, drives liberals and “urban planners” crazy. After all, scratch a liberal and you uncover a control freak.

Mass transit? Very simple… BUY SOME MORE BUSES! Buses are cheaper than trains, and routes can be changed using a map and a colored marker, unlike permanent rail lines, and you don’t need to acquire property and rights-of-way for rail lines and stations. (Or waste thousands more dollars on goofy “art” for those stations.)

Why are we still having this debate? Simple… liberals just can’t let go of their psychotic urge to control other people, and force us all into their little pre-planned boxes and mazes and gates and control points. Sorry, urbanites, but I choose FREEDOM, and any cost in gas and my time is my buisiness, none of yours. Butt out!

JDW

July 28th, 2011
11:17 am

Kyle, check out this interesting dose of reality….

http://swampland.time.com/2011/07/27/still-true-today-frequently-forgotten-facts-of-the-debt-debate/?hpt=hp_t2

Kind of reminds you who got us where we are today.