By Benita M. Dodd
Given the wall-to-wall coverage of the upcoming regional transportation sales tax referendum, Georgians could hardly be blamed for believing that all transportation improvement in the state, and especially metro Atlanta, hinges on voter approval of the 10-year, penny sales tax on July 31. In fact, there are ways to improve transportation policy and funding that can and should be implemented, whether the tax passes or not.
Mass transit is a big sticking point in the list of projects that would be funded if the 10-year tax is approved in the metro Atlanta area. About 52 percent of $6.2 billion slated for regional projects would go to transit – in a region where less than 3.6 percent of commuters use transit. More transit use and coverage is necessary in metro Atlanta, but the focus on rail transit will bring minimal improvement in transportation, proportionately few new transit users and, especially, little congestion relief.
A better approach would be express buses able to capitalize on the state’s existing plan to transform the current high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) managed lanes into a network of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. HOT lanes are priced to guarantee a congestion-free minimum speed; for example, the goal is a minimum of 45 mph on the I-85 HOT lanes. An express bus that isn’t stuck in traffic in the general-purpose lanes is a far more attractive and flexible option than fixed-guideway transit for commuters and a cheaper alternative for penny-pinching taxpayers. With buses, the potential for greater frequency of service and the ability to site numerous feeder stations across the metro area also will improve ridership.
The second change would be to make the MARTA system’s fares distance-based, along with an attractive “frequent rider” discount. There are various discounts, but none that encourage an individual to routinely use the system for work and not much of a break for low-income, transit-dependent individuals, who must fork over $90 at once to get the best (30-day unlimited trips) deal.
Then, too, the flat $2.50 cost of a one-way trip doesn’t vary by distance, mode, time of day or direction. Transit-dependent, low-income individuals are paying the same price as the “choice” rider occasionally taking the train from North Springs to the airport, the suburban family going from Lindbergh to the Braves game or someone riding from Candler Park to Five Points. Changing to a distance-based fare will increase revenue for MARTA without harming the low-income transit riders who typically live closer to where they work. Reducing fares during off-peak time may encourage greater use of transit, too.
A third change would be to provide a fuel tax rebate to users of the HOT lanes to overcome the accusation of double taxation. HOT lanes provide what Bob Poole of the Reason Foundation describes as “congestion insurance.” Solo drivers can choose to ride in the HOT lane for a price that changes to ensure the free flow of traffic; the ride is free for vehicles with three or more occupants and buses. The premium that solo travelers pay for a predictable travel time has sparked complaints from some who see it as paying for roads their gas taxes have already paid for and others who see it as special treatment for motorists on roads everyone paid for. The argument that roads are never really paid for is rarely persuasive. Calculating a rebate on the gas tax for that portion of road and returning that to motorists may make it more palatable; the state’s forthcoming dependence on tolling for future mobility depends on successfully marketing the practice of tolling.
Fourth, Georgia should prepare to embrace innovations and technology. Two years ago, transportation policy expert Randal O’Toole visited Atlanta and keynoted a Foundation event in which he discussed the potential of self-driving “robocars.” Just last month, Volvo tested a caravan of driverless vehicles in Spain. Vehicles can safely travel closer and driver error is reduced, increasing lane capacity without having to add road. Smartphones boast real-time GPS that detour drivers around backups and transit trackers that help travelers know when a bus will arrive at a station. Telecommuting, regional business centers, flexible hours and traffic light synchronization all facilitate trips.
Finally, diverting freight traffic that does not need to enter Atlanta onto enhanced highways around the state will also add capacity within the region’s areas where right-of-way is limited and costs are prohibitive. Roads may not be able to go any wider, but Georgia can get smarter.
Read the Foundation’s Issue Analysis on the July 31 transportation sales tax referendum at http://www.georgiapolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/120523IATSPLOSTFINAL.pdf.
Read the commentary on the Issue Analysis at http://www.georgiapolicy.org/article.asp?RT=&p=pub/Transportation/120523TSPLOST.html
View the event video here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKkUC7qfVto&feature=plcp
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation (www.georgiapolicy.org), an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (June 8, 2012). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.