Planners’ transit menu ignores tastes of commuters

Benita Dodd's picture

Imagine serving Brussels sprouts instead of broccoli casserole at Christmas dinner. You know most guests won’t eat them, but you believe they’ll bring balance to the meal and that guests will like them if only they taste them. That is the “build-it-they-will-come” mentality behind the project list for the July 31, 2012, penny transportation sales tax referendum in the Atlanta region.

The vote on the 10-year transportation special purpose local option sales tax – TSPLOST – was central to the discussion at an Atlanta conference hosted by the Urban Land Institute on Dec. 7. Not surprisingly, speakers frequently referred to the transportation referendum as the “transit referendum:” Fifty-two percent of the anticipated $6.1 billion in revenue will go to mass transportation projects. Proponents called that “balanced.”

Among the reasons cited for the regional transit-heavy project list were the anticipated growth in the over-55 population, an expected tripling of truck traffic and increasingly unpredictable commutes in the congested metro Atlanta region that is home to more than 50 percent of Georgia’s population.

Choice and alternatives are key for freight and commuters. In this case, more than half the funding goes to transit in a region where less than 5 percent of commuters use transit.

Of every 100 workers in the metro Atlanta region, 82 drive alone, according to a 2010 survey for the state Department of Transportation.

Of the remaining 18 who use alternatives, seven telework, five carpool or vanpool, three ride the train, two use a commuter or local bus and fewer than one walk or bike. (Numbers are even lower statewide.)

An optimistic Tad Leithead, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), suggested to attendees that once the projects are built and mass transit use “goes to 10 percent,” the ridership increase will help justify the next phase of construction.

The chairman of the campaign committee for the TSPLOST, Dave Stockert, urged “smart transit” in a “resource-scarce” era, reinforcing: “It’s not the transit referendum. It’s the transportation referendum.”

Stockert is correct in worrying about scarce resources. The list’s rail projects, especially, produce long-term taxpayer obligations.

Transportation analyst C. Kenneth Orski wrote earlier this year that even Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff was questioning the wisdom of expanding rail networks when money is badly needed to maintain and modernize existing facilities.

“At times like these, it’s more important than ever to have the courage to ask a hard question: If you can’t afford to operate the system you have, why does it make sense for us to partner in your expansion? If you can’t afford your current footprint, does expanding that underfunded footprint really advance the President’s goal for cutting oil use and greenhouse gases. ... Or are we at risk of just helping communities dig a deeper hole for our children and our grandchildren?”

When it comes to transit, limited funds and the region’s “Brussels sprouts” reaction necessitate flexible, cost-effective options.

Street cars, light rail and heavy rail are costlier and can’t be moved with demographic changes. Proponents see fixed guideway transit as desirable for economic development, not transportation reasons: Developers won’t bank on bus service if it can be relocated when ridership declines.

The state DOT commuter survey found that dependability of travel mode was rated highest among respondents (78 percent) followed by safety (77 percent), flexibility (56 percent), travel time (48 percent), and cost (45 percent). Productive use of travel time scored lowest, at 38 percent.

In other words, most travelers don’t rate highly the ability to read the paper or work on their laptop while traveling: They want a dependable, predictable and safe trip.

Public transit will always be subsidized, but public-private partnerships and other measures can improve mobility without creating a money pit for taxpayers:

Seniors are aging at home. Give them income-based vouchers for private taxis to subsidize home-to-destination trips.

Encourage local governments to issue more taxi permits.

Enable smaller, private shuttle services to perform the last mile service between bus stops and destinations.

Bus-rapid transit, express buses that can take advantage of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes and the proposed HOT lane network in the state’s transportation plan, will make transit more attractive and flexible.

Add capacity by diverting unnecessary freight traffic outside the metro region.

Continuing the Brussels sprouts analogy: Of those indicating an above-average interest in the vegetable during a survey, 43 percent were significantly dissatisfied after tasting them and 14 percent of those changed their opinion completely and pledged never to eat another Brussels sprout ever again.

[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.]