Don’t Railroad Taxpayers into Transit Subsidies

By James H. Orr Jr.

Will massive, endless subsidies become a way of life for Georgians? Apparently so, if our policy-makers listen to the proponents of commuter rail line and other heavy rail and/or light rail options. 

In April, the Transit Planning Board (TPB) held public meetings throughout metro Atlanta to “educate” and get the blessings of the public on the TPB’s Concept 3 Proposed Transit Vision Plan Vision. In Gwinnett County, where the meeting was co-sponsored by the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District in Lawrenceville, there were just eight members of the public present – hardly a representative sample for public input and opinion.

TPB Staff Director Cheryl King, who presented the Concept 3 plan, reinforced several times that all public transit, which included the airlines, was subsidized. I could not dispute her statement that the airlines were subsidized, but the major airlines continue (and strive) to be investor-owned, for-profit ventures. From the emphasis on subsidies, it seems that subsidizing public transit would be a way of life with the Transit Planning Board. 

According to King, the cost of operating and maintaining the current regional public transit system through 2030, including MARTA’s debt service, is $26 billion. It is unclear how much of this cost is subsidized. But what is clear is that from May 2008 through April 2009, the projected cost to subsidize the Gwinnett Transit System is $4,397,733. Where will these dollars come from? The Gwinnett County general budget, which is funded by taxpayer revenues.

The regional transportation plan that Concept 3 envisions relies heavily on commuter rail, heavy rail and light rail. The system expansion proposed in Concept 3 is estimated by TPB to cost $16 billion to implement (capital costs) and another $12 billion for operating and maintenance costs for the expansion alone.

The total, according to TPB, is a whopping $54 billion, or a mere $2.4 billion a year. That’s more than the entire fiscal 2009 budget for the state Department of Transportation ($2.14 billion). Keep in mind that there is no funding available for Concept 3; the plan appears to rely on federal transportation funds and regional taxes much like SPLOST.

Atlanta is 20 years “behind” in its transit “needs” compared with other cities such as Charlotte, N.C., according to the TPB. As Concept 3 is implemented, the objective would be to capture 15-25 percent of ridership to activity centers. An activity center would be a definitive place of commerce and employment.

The one interesting aspect is that “all roads” in Concept 3 lead to Five Points in downtown Atlanta. The Transit Planning Board wants to spend $28 billion over what would be a 22-year period to “capture” at best, a maximum of 25 percent of the available ridership. What means of transit will the other 75 percent use? They would use a more flexible means of transportation known as their personal vehicle.

The transit options offered by the plan would not serve my transit “needs” as a retiree. To travel from my home in Bethlehem, Gwinnett County, to Northpoint Mall in Alpharetta, Fulton County, I would have to drive to a station in Lawrenceville or Winder, on the route of the proposed Georgia Brain Train. Exiting at the proposed station at Emory University, I would transfer to a proposed commuter rail line that would take me to MARTA heavy rail somewhere around Midtown Atlanta. From there, I would transfer to MARTA heavy rail which, as per Concept 3, would have been extended to Northpoint Mall.

What would the fare be? The proponents of Concept 3 haven’t said. But for the Georgia Brain Train segment alone, the projected round trip fare from Lawrenceville is $13.20 and $17.00 from Winder. 

It’s hard to believe that this concept would serve the region efficiently, and it’s not in the interests of taxpayers to underwrite the costs of capital dollars to initiate commuter rail, heavy rail, or light rail as proposed by Concept 3. It certainly is not fair to subsidize commuter rail, with its estimated cost of $5 million to $7 million annually that counties through which commuter rail would pass would have to find. Henry County withdrew its support of the Atlanta-to-Lovejoy commuter rail line when county commissioners learned of their costs to subsidize the line.

It is time to stop the unnecessary outlay of federal and state tax dollars, both on the Transit Planning Board and on studies of alternative transit plans throughout what in actuality is the Atlanta Regional Commission. There are too many cooks, especially when it comes to commuter, heavy and light rail. 

All transportation planning should be consolidated under the auspices of the Georgia Department of Transportation, with all study funding through the department and oversight by the department.  Next, no rail lines should be designed or constructed unless approved by majority vote at the ballot box. An Alternative Transportation Program would become a new separate entity under the GDOT to study all transit options, including local and express bus routes, public/private partnerships, toll lanes, toll roads, etc.

Finally, when it comes to commuter rail, remember, if the CSX Railroad and the Norfolk-Southern Railroad found it profitable to transport passengers from Point A to Point B, they would already be in the business of doing so.

James H. Orr Jr., a retired management professional who lives in Bethlehem, Georgia, wrote this commentary for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Foundation is 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 (May 2, 2008). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.