Expansion of rail beneficial for the state

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In early June, I wrote how Mayor Mike Bodker and Mayor Ralph Moore of Union City were participating in the metro Atlanta roundtable governing how the monies raised by the proposed additional one-percent sales tax would be spent.

Among the projects on the “unconstrained” list were an $839 million MARTA heavy-rail extension to Holcomb Bridge Road, a nearly $369 million extension to Turner Field, a $146 million extension to Norcross and a nearly $1.1 billion extension to Emory University. These costs include operation and maintenance for 20 years.

Although the numbers fluctuate based on economic predictions and further refinement of the data, estimates on the amount the 1 percent sales tax could collect range from $6.8 billion to $8.4 billion during its 10 year run.

I will admit this represents a substantial amount of government spending, and rail does not have a reputation for paying for itself.

However, Director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation William Lind pointed out on a June 3 visit to Atlanta that highways do not pay for themselves either — user fees, which include the gas tax, cover only 52 percent of the cost. In contrast, often-reviled Amtrak covers 67 percent of its own costs and in the Northeast is actually profitable.

Furthermore, reductions in traffic, gas prices and air pollution will benefit the residents of the region, who spend too much time in traffic, spend too much money on gas and suffer health problems from too much car exhaust. Even if, in the long run, the fare box will not cover the costs, the state will benefit in many other ways.

The northern suburbs are full of people who commute to Atlanta for work, and thus spend a great deal of money on gas these days. Although many have jobs unsuitable for transit due to the need for daytime driving, those who stay in one place during the workday and whose offices are conveniently located to a station would benefit if MARTA came north.

Gas prices do not appear likely to go down anytime soon, even if domestic drilling is expanded, due to increased demand from India and China and instability in the Middle East. And as Bodker pointed out, even if one does not take transit oneself, if others take it, it makes driving places easier.

A direct line to Turner Field may not enter the suburbs, but parking there is a tricky business and if people could take the train directly, it would improve the situation. The same with the Emory line — MARTA’s rationale is that Emory is far from the interstates, leading to the congestion of smaller roads with university traffic. Both these improvements would also remedy the criticism that MARTA does not go anywhere and increase ridership.

I recognize MARTA as it is currently structured has its limitations. When MARTA was founded, no more than half its funding could contribute toward operations. HB 277, which established the tax, removes this cap for only three years.

MARTA also does not receive state funding, the largest mass transit system in the United States to not do so. This contributes to problems with service that make riding unattractive and reduce usage. And on top of the structural problems, there have also been problems with personnel, including financial mismanagement, public indecency, a controversial arrest of a man legally carrying a gun and workers killed in accidents due to miscommunication.

However, there is a proposal to replace MARTA with a regional transit authority, a move supported by Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos and even by MARTA CEO Beverly Scott.

This new authority could be free of MARTA’s structural problems and hopefully the taint MARTA has in many people’s eyes. Also, one regional transit system would operate more effectively than the multiple organizations that now exist in the metro counties.

In addition to being more effective overall, suburban voters might be more willing to fund a single system with their tax dollars or use it themselves.

Bodker and Roswell Mayor Jere Wood wish to focus on road projects that benefit voters quickly in order to get the tax passed. I recognize the political wisdom of that. However, I urge them to push to include at least one or two rail expansions to improve the transportation situation in the long term. I for one will decide how I will vote in 2012 based on whether rail is included.

Those of you who would like to make your feelings known about what should go on the list for the 2012 vote should do so quickly. The executive committee will send the draft list to the full roundtable Aug. 11, and the roundtable will approve the final list Oct. 13.

For those who want see the full unconstrained list go to:

http://www.atlantaregionalroundtable.com/docs/unconstrained_list_by_projectid_6-8-11.pdf

Matthew W. Quinn is the editor of the Johns Creek Herald. Those who would like to find out more about him are welcome to check out his blog, www.accordingtoquinn.com.