Move Transit Policy in the Right Direction

By Benita M. Dodd

A massive expansion of the Streetcar System is envisioned. The cost of the current 2.7-mile loop, originally projected at less than $70 million, was (at last report) around $100 million.

When the CEO of the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority resigned last year, he left MARTA in a good place. The agency was in the black. A new 40-year, $2.5 billion transportation sales tax had been passed. Clayton County bus service had been added to the system.

Big plans were in the works with the new money: Expand the struggling Streetcar system. Expand heavy rail into Clayton County. Expand rail in the Emory corridor. Expand heavy rail along Georgia 400 to Alpharetta. Add bus rapid transit. Add buses.

With the money part in place, now comes the heavy lifting. Keith Parker has moved on, and before the dream became reality. Legislation currently under consideration is intended to build upon this dream as if MARTA, passenger rail and public transportation are the future of regional transportation and mass transit.

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation has pointed out numerous times that rail transit is an enormous waste of money in metro Atlanta. The Foundation came under fire in 2012 for opposing the rail-heavy proposed project list behind a proposed transportation sales tax for metro Atlanta. Metro voters rejected that tax; it passed in just three regions across the state.

Here’s the truth about rail in metro Atlanta: The region does not have the population density to justify the enormous cost. Unlike New York, Washington or Chicago, metro Atlanta has a cobweb of destinations, not just one central business district. It is an automobile-centric region in which technology and innovation are outpacing rail as a viable public transportation option.

It bears repeating: Across the nation and in Atlanta rail ridership is declining, not only as a number, but as a percentage of population.

Despite this, proponents persist. When numbers unravel the “rail as viable transportation” argument, it becomes “rail as economic development:” that corporations refuse to relocate without assurance of rail and millennials insist on having rail as an option. Numerous corporations have relocated, yet there is no rail ridership bump in MARTA.

First, legislators deserve a commendation for their effort to corral the alphabet soup of transportation agencies. With 11 transit agencies in the 13-county region, coordination is necessary.

But there’s more! Senate legislation seeks to turn any transit expansion funded by a county transportation sales tax over to MARTA, renamed “MARTA-ATL.” Counties must seek permission from an Atlanta-heavy “ATL Commission” for their projects. This is unlikely to end well, for several reasons. First, local control is paramount, and the idea of seeking permission from one board, taxing one’s county citizens then handing off service expansion to MARTA-ATL is anathema.  

House legislation banks on the currently skeletal but far more palatable (to the region) Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, renamed the Atlanta-region Transit Link “ATL” Authority. But that legislation, too, is packed with problem proposals, among them:

  • A 50-cent “fee” on all taxi and ride-hailing service trips
  • Justifying a tax on all for-hire vehicles because, “An effective air quality control measure is to reduce the number of motor vehicles on the roadways through an increased use of transit vehicles”
  • A transportation tax district only in Cobb County’s Cumberland Community Improvement District area, to fund “rapid transit.” That penny sales tax will hurt businesses by raising costs for area residents and driving shoppers elsewhere in the county.
  • A penny sales tax on consumer sales and rentals at Hartsfield-Jackson and Savannah/Hilton Head airports (Savannah airport’s retail spaces are already largely vacant.)
  • A repeal of any limits on how much the state can contribute to MARTA.

If the Legislature’s intent is to coordinate transit among jurisdictions, the solution is not to create one giant bureaucracy by harnessing 11 operators under MARTA, the least efficient transit service in the region and an agency stuck on pie-in-the-sky rail dreams. Nor is it to impose punitive taxes and fees to discourage automobile use – the choice of the majority – with flimsy justifications about air quality.

The solution is to figure out where coordination is needed; to prioritize the kinds of projects needed; to unleash innovation in autonomous vehicles, ride-share and Georgia’s express lane network, and to weave together the various agencies where needed.

As cities around the nation are demonstrating, traditional transit is no answer to traffic congestion. New technologies are surging forward. Public transportation ridership is flailing, and not because commuters need a better bus or train, but because they want flexibility and personalization. Georgia legislators say it has taken years to get this far. We say they need more time.

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the view 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 (February 23, 2018). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.