The Sunday edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (October 30, 2016) contained an op-ed by Foundation Vice President Benita Dodd on the November 8 transportation sales tax votes in Atlanta, “Atlanta shouldn’t railroad themselves into old solutions.” The op-ed can be accessed online here and is reprinted in its entirety below.
Atlanta shouldn’t railroad themselves into old solutions
By Benita Dodd
If there’s a bright side to November’s two transportation SPLOST votes in the city of Atlanta, it’s that they are confined to the city. The rest of Fulton County, having separated its transportation vote from the city, is largely embracing the future instead of romancing the past.
Few understand the enormity of the MARTA transit tax hike for Atlanta. It would lock in a half-penny transit tax for nearly half a century. The hope is to raise at least $2.5 billion, with the “potential to leverage an additional $2.8 billion in federal funds.”
It’s a half-cent increase. That’s not “just” a half-percent increase; in actuality it’s a 6.25 percent increase in Atlanta’s sales tax rate and, together with the city’s separate, 0.4 cent transportation tax proposal, would mean an increase of more than 11 percent in the city’s sales tax rate.
Sadly, raising the state’s highest municipal sales tax rate (8 percent) to 8.9 percent has another ramification: Atlanta residents are unlikely to ever embrace tax reform to eliminate the personal income tax if it means they must adopt a consumption-based tax that would likely include a sales tax increase.
Worse, the transit proposal is also shortsighted. The mind-boggling list of projects includes light rail, streetcar route expansion, heavy rail expansion and new heavy rail stations.
To its credit, MARTA already partners with the Uber ride-sharing service for last-mile service. Such individualized, customized demand-response transit should be the way of the future. Job horizons and opportunities expand when individuals are not punitively restricted to time-consuming, schedule- and route-restrained mass transportation.
It’s why residents should question, then, the focus of billions of dollars on waning mass transit modes even as Uber and Lyft soar in popularity. These ride-share services offer not only door-to-door service but a private-sector solution that facilitates job opportunities and entrepreneurship.
Technological advances are set to revolutionize commuting. Consider how much transportation has changed in just the 16 years since MARTA’s last rail expansion: GPS, real-time travel apps and the advent of driverless and autonomous buses and cars are transforming travel. Autonomous vehicle technology is fast improving safety, mobility and capacity on our roads.
The goal of public transportation policy should be to accommodate reasonable travel modes, working to get travelers as quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively as possible from point A to point B. It means working to relieve congestion and improve mobility. And it means maximizing taxpayer dollars by prioritizing projects from those with the greatest benefit (needs) to the lowest (wants).
Why relegate residents to nearly a half-century of costly projects with diminishing returns that will be obsolete long before they are completed?
This transit TSPLOST estimates $3.1 billion for “high-capacity” (heavy rail/light rail/streetcar) projects and just $64 million on improving bus service. New and improved bus service, as the most cost-effective solution to broadly – and immediately – implement, should be a transit priority.
Buses are flexible, can be attractive, and can be rerouted to accommodate changing travel patterns and demographics. They don’t require dedicated lanes and – unlike the failing Streetcar or light rail proposed for Atlanta’s Beltline – can be diverted or move around a problem.
Funds for improving aging, existing rail stations can be justified, but there is no evidence those billions of rail dollars will move the transportation needle. Even the Clifton corridor– perhaps the most defensible rail proposal – could be considered as an innovative, autonomous-vehicle, on-demand demonstration project.
It’s a shame a “yes” vote will railroad Atlanta residents into yesterday’s technology, which doesn’t efficiently address tomorrow’s transportation challenges.
Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.