Over the past few months, countless media op-eds, Truth-o-Meters and anti-tax campaigns have given us reasons to despise TSPLOST. “Wrong tax”, “wrong projects”, “wrong authority”—“it’s just wrong” says a queer combination of anti-taxers, environmentalists , constitutionalists and truth-seekers. If you add it all up, the big picture argument is really whether it makes sense to use limited funding capability to pay for Atlanta’s addiction to long commutes and unconscious cross-regional driving. Any dollar toward roads seemingly will take away from mass transit, a multi-dimensional asset with almost no capacity limitations, while road dollars only seem to add to future obligations in wider pavement. At some point, will it dawn on us that Atlanta needs not only to wean itself from the road monster, but also build something visionary—and maybe that should start with the FIRST dollar, whether a sales tax or any other funding source?
Now you say, “but TSPLOST does have transit”. Not enough. If we don’t regroup and ask whether the direction of the region’s demographic, work and living trends are our primary consideration, then the TSPLOST debate will have been wasted. All of the great international capitols have vibrant living centers, transit—and auto congestion (in fact, the worse the auto congestion, the better the transit). Paradoxically, congestion can act as a disincentive to sprawl or inversely as an incentive to “center”. Unsolved congestion (it really can’t be eliminated), higher fuel costs and inflationary pressures on household budgets will gradually cause anyone with the means to seek better living—while newer, younger entrants don’t choose sprawl (and cars) in the first place. Congestion will essentially solve itself—at least to the extent that politicians won’t feel obligated to pay homage to it.
Unbelievably, we need about three times the transit that TSPLOST’s ENTIRE $8 billion will pay for—IF you want Atlanta to become globally influential, not only to provincially keep up with highway demand (a fool’s errand). So really, what’s required is (1) a realization that continued congestion actually suits the living arrangements that the growing part of our population will demand—live/work/play; (2) clustered living is most efficiently served by “clustered” transportation, medium to long range connections and small local trips, by car if need be and (3) the whole plan needs to be laid out with a cost estimate and the precise different mechanisms that will be combined to pay for it—BEFORE a single dime is spent. This is obviously not a tax issue, it’s a vision “thing”. We will pay some combination of sales tax, gas tax, repayment of state bonds— but it should combine buy-in by the public (not a forced vote) and courage to lead by decision-makers (not forcing a vote).
For (1) above, the trends are unmistakable. First, in our own region, more cities are being formed and “centers” such as CIDs are promoting more dense living arrangements. Seems smart, because a couple of weeks ago it was reported that more people have moved into cities than counties predicated on a younger demographic buying fewer homes—and the trend began before the meltdown(http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/47992439) It has also been reported that transit usage (including bicycles) is up and vehicle miles driven is down over a decade. Also, contrary to our own ARC claims, Atlanta is 14th in vehicle congestion (not 5th) and only one corridor ranks in the Top 50 for congestion ion.
What is this “clustered” living I referred to in (2) above? Well, aside from recently published studies about the living patterns preferred by the young and overall transportation trends (see below), we also found out this past week that the Atlanta Chamber paid Boston Consulting to provide an economic development vision for the next 50 years . Here are some descriptions of Forward Atlanta: http://www.ajc.com/news/atlanta/business-boosters-admit-atlanta-1464295.html and http://www.bizjournals.com/atlanta/news/2012/06/25/metro-atlanta-chamber-unveils-forward.html?ana=e_du_wknd&s=article_du&ed=2012-06-30
The basic recommendation is that employers be arranged in synergistic clusters among enterprise sectors. If you go one step further, the suggestion would be that employees might want to live close to or in the clusters. What that means is that the Gen Y and Next Gen won’t only live “intown” they can live “in towns”. By the way, cities and towns do require street grids and walkways—that’s where road funds should go—if not paid for by developers.
So now that the legislature has raised our temperature a bit and gotten our attention, let’s send it back to the drawing board to square a mass transit vision with the new Forward Atlanta. A second priority might be to square that with the rest of the state by adding longer distance rail. Lay the whole $20 billion program out with a complete plan to pay for it among about four or five different sources. Then maybe a PIECE of it can be a sales tax—only “offered” simultaneously with the other mechanisms.