Ga.’s transit dreams, transportation nightmares

Benita Dodd's picture

The headline on an article in The Onion satirical magazine in 2000 was, “Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others.”

Sometimes truth is even stranger than fiction. Fewer than four out of every 100 metro Atlanta workers rely on public transportation for their daily commutes, according to Census Bureau data.

Yet the priorities in proposals for congestion relief in metro Atlanta would lead any outsider to believe that the public is clamoring for more mass transit.

The preference for automobiles should be driving the project list, but it’s clearly foolish to dismiss the need for public transportation in the region. For good or bad, two upcoming initiatives could impact the future of mass transportation in Georgia and metro Atlanta: transit governance and transit funding.

Governor Nathan Deal’s Transit Governance Task Force released its 67-page final report in January, which included draft legislation to implement its recommendations.

Among the recommendations, the task force proposed that the alphabet soup of local transit agencies come under the governance and oversight of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA), which would also be the transit governance authority for the state.

It would cover agencies that cross a county line, have a route in the 13-county metro nonattainment area and are eligible for federal transit funds.

The task force recommended that GRTA design and implement a future strategic plan; control and coordinate the flow of federal and state dollars for budgets; oversee and monitor spending; apply for and manage funds and federal funding applications, and provide an integrated fare system strategy and application.

A regional approach makes sense. Of course, there’s sure to be controversy. MARTA, Atlanta’s transit agency and the nation’s ninth largest, would lose independence but gain some financial flexibility if the legislation is adopted.

It would relax the requirement that MARTA dedicate 50 percent of sales tax revenues to capital and 50 percent to operations.

A single regional transit agency appears unlikely, and that’s a good thing. Systems have vastly different expenses, and those run more efficiently should not have to assume others’ greater expenses. According to National Transit Database figures (2010):

Cobb County’s CCT lists its (outsourced) bus operating expenses per vehicle revenue mile at $4.78 and at 43 cents per passenger mile. Fares cover 24 percent of operating expenses.

GRTA’s (outsourced) express buses operate at $5.43 per vehicle revenue mile and 34 cents per passenger mile. Fares cover 35 percent of operating expenses.

Gwinnett’s (outsourced) buses operate at $5.11 per vehicle revenue mile and 34 cents per passenger mile. Fares cover 32 percent of operating expenses.

MARTA, which does not outsource, sees bus operations cost $7.88 per vehicle revenue mile and 78 cents per passenger mile. Fares cover 21 percent of MARTA’s operating expenses; (union) salaries, wages and benefits account for 82 percent of its operating expenses.

The second initiative is the July 31 regional transportation sales tax referendum. If approved, the 10-year penny sales tax is expected to provide $6.14 billion for regional transportation projects.

Proponents are campaigning hard. Unfortunately, the plan barely translates into improved regional mobility.

Operating in an if-you-build-it-they-will-come fugue, regional leaders allocate more than half the expected funds to expensive transit projects, most of which would not offer congestion relief within 10 years, if ever.

The Atlanta region’s 3.36 percent transit use is the highest in Georgia but far behind No. 1, New York City (30.5 percent).

It may be that Atlanta ranks 49th among 942 metropolitan and micropolitan areas because the region needs more mass transit alternatives.

But even a focus on transit does not have to grow government. Given limited and shrinking local, state and federal funding, regional leaders should be offering voters wiser, more frugal choices.

The private sector should be co-opted to provide intercity buses, more taxi service and expedite an express lane network that provides a virtual express bus lane, making public transit more attractive.

Instead of commuters’ needs, transit decisions are being based on what patronizing planners want.

They’re yearning for yesteryear, so commuters endure a costly romance with rail and streetcars and lose the flexibility needed for today’s fast-paced, every-which-way travels while others suffer service cuts in less-expensive, much-needed alternatives such as buses.

Perhaps regional governance will bring regional common sense.

[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.]

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