October 02, 2012We Atlantans are fortunate to live in one of the nicest large metro areas in the country.
Yet, we are allowing our quality of life to be steadily eroded by a failure to upgrade our transportation system. First, we voted down the Northern Arc, which would have significantly reduced congestion in the northern suburbs.
Then we voted down TSPLOST, which was unacceptable, largely because it wouldn't have reduced congestion and also unfairly asked voters from eight of 10 counties to subsidize MARTA rail, as well as a downtown streetcar, in just two counties — Fulton and DeKalb counties.
If we are serious about saving our city from transportation-related decline, we need to focus on three things. First, build the Northern Arc to reduce northside gridlock. Second, since well-designed rail is the only practical way to significantly reduce overall metro congestion, upgrade MARTA rail so that it can achieve critical mass and function like rail in Toronto and New York, where you can travel efficiently between outlying cities and both downtown and midtown areas.
Third, fund these projects equitably, focusing revenue efforts on "core" counties and users that would benefit from them, and therefore would be willing to pay for them.
The Northern Arc
Building the Northern Arc, combined with widening of Ga. 400 all the way north to the Arc, would significantly reduce north suburban congestion on both Interstate 285 and many of our east-west roads.
Political leadership is needed to circumvent the "not in my back yard" and anti-growth attitudes (and real estate-related corruption) that derailed it the first time.
Upgrading MARTA rail
Though new rail costs a bit more than new roads, it reduces congestion where new or wider roads are impractical. It also provides reduced rush hour travel times, the ability to work or relax while in transit and a reduced environmental impact. Extending the existing MARTA rail north and well past the current gridlock zones on Ga. 400 and I-85 is a no-brainer; currently, the congestion north of the final stations on these lines is so bad that by the time most drivers get to the train they might as well just drive all the way into the city, adding to congestion there, too.
Similarly, adding the obvious rail line up I-75 past Marietta would reduce congestion for what now, having no rail service, may be the metro area's worst commute.
These changes, plus addition of the missing northeast midtown CDC/Emory/VA job destination line (perhaps with extension out to Highway 78), would give MARTA the critical mass to get thousands out of their cars, reducing overall metro congestion. For this to work, commuters in the northern suburbs need to realize that the potential benefits are very real, while the concern some still have that it might bring increased crime is exaggerated.
The Northern Arc should be funded by temporary tolls, as previously planned. Core county rail expansion should be funded by taxing the counties that would benefit most directly: Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Cobb. Georgia is one of the most rapidly growing states, but in the bottom five in both per capita transportation spending and gas excise taxes.
So, we need to admit that there is no "federal free lunch" and fund most of this expansion ourselves with: 1) a core county 3 percent gas tax; 2) a temporary core county 1 percent sales tax for construction; and 3) a state contribution from tolls on rural I-75 and I-85 (perhaps near the northern (I-75) and northeastern (I-85) state line), compensating Atlanta for congestion due to out-of-state traffic to Florida.
Gov. Nathan Deal's leadership would be desirable for such a plan.
He's the obvious choice, as a fiscal conservative already committed to picking up the pieces after TSPLOST.
While the governor correctly pointed out that TSPLOST voters gave rail a "thumbs down," one would expect the opposite result for this new proposal, since it would actually both reduce congestion and fairly allocate the costs to those anticipating the benefits.
Hopefully, new MARTA leadership will provide further cost/benefit improvements to an upgraded system. It's time to get moving to maintain the high quality of life in our wonderful city.