The chief argument for approving the T-SPLOST in a referendum this year boils down to this: If it fails, what kind of signal will that send to businesses wary of Atlanta’s notorious traffic congestion?
Instead of worrying about a negative message for a couple of years — until Plan B emerged, as it inevitably would — voters ought to be more concerned by what it will mean for the next couple of decades if we spend billions of dollars on projects that don’t improve matters much.
It’s true that some worthy projects would receive funding from the 1 percent sales tax lawmakers are putting to a public vote. To wit: Improved interchanges of major interstates, such as the top end of I-285 with I-85 and Ga. 400, should ease bottlenecks that now back up rush-hour commuters for miles.
But the list is too compromised by other big-ticket items that will tie up tax dollars for far more than 10 years without lessening traffic. Transit projects, which consume more than half of the $6.14 billion expected to be available for regional projects, are the prime suspects.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am not opposed to transit per se. But let’s review the T-SPLOST list’s obvious flaws by looking at the effects it would — and wouldn’t — have on MARTA.
MARTA is down for $540 million from T-SPLOST for repairs and upgrades to existing infrastructure. This backlog exists even though half of the agency’s sales tax revenue is reserved for capital improvements and maintenance.
In other words, the agency can’t keep up with its maintenance and capital needs now. Yet, a proposed answer is to drop the restriction and allow MARTA to divert maintenance money to subsidize operations. Passenger fares yield a fraction of what it costs to run trains and buses.
Stick with me here: I promise to tie all this together.
A big reason MARTA’s farebox recovery is so low is that its trains and buses too often aren’t full. Having too few passengers forces the agency to cut frequency to make trains and buses more full and thus cost-efficient.
Cutting frequency, however, means fewer people choose to ride MARTA if they have other options. Which leads to fewer passengers, which leads to less fare revenue, which makes MARTA even less able to sustain itself.
The obvious answer is to draw more people into the network, but MARTA’s reach is limited geographically. So, logically, the T-SPLOST list should expand that footprint.
Two major transit projects on the list are the Beltline and the Clifton Corridor line. Each exists within MARTA’s current footprint. A third is the line that extends northwest from MARTA’s current rail lines to Cumberland Mall. That’s an expansion of sorts, but the line would still be miles and miles — and more than $1 billion — from reaching the parts of Cobb County where traffic is worst.
Together, these projects consume a third of the money for regional projects while bringing a relatively small number of people just a couple of miles closer to a MARTA station. The real traffic woes lie tens of miles from MARTA’s furthest outposts.
Here’s the kicker: Ending the restriction on MARTA’s sales-tax revenues is being offered in exchange for putting the agency under a regional authority. This new entity wouldn’t actually run MARTA, the Cobb or Gwinnett transit agencies, or any others. Instead, its chief purpose would be to give metro Atlanta a single voice when seeking federal funding for transit.
Why is this important? Because regional leaders think federal funds will be necessary to extend transit out into the suburbs. Why? Because T-SPLOST money is being spent on projects that don’t extend transit to the suburbs!
You can ride a long time in the ruts of this circular logic without getting anywhere. Surely, the commuters who sit in traffic, while T-SPLOST doesn’t address their problems, will do just that.
Two Cobb leaders have asked the Legislature to reopen the region’s T-SPLOST list to move money away from the Cumberland line and toward new reversible lanes on I-75. Some key legislators are hesitant to do anything that could prevent a vote on the tax this year.
My advice? Worry less about getting this done soon and more about getting it right.
– By Kyle Wingfield