TSPLOST vote offers the path of proven failure

By Ron Sifen

In the last few days, several pro-TSPLOST advocates have challenged me regarding my opposition to the Cobb light rail project.

One emphatically defended the Cobb light rail project. Another emphatically denied that the Cobb light rail project is on the TSPLOST projects list. Hmmm.

Let’s take a closer look at this “phantom” light rail for Cobb.

* The TSPLOST projects list identifies this project as a $700 million upgrade of existing bus service. However, it goes on to say that if the new alternatives analysis study recommends light rail for this corridor, then this project can be converted to light rail.

Are politicians really asking taxpayers to spend $700 million to upgrade existing bus service to something that is labeled “Bus Rapid Transit” but it is not actually real “Bus Rapid Transit”, and has “queue jumper lanes” that will slightly improve the trip times of local buses?

Whether we wind up with light rail or not, this “study” is clearly an attempt to justify light rail. Most pro-TSPLOST advocates do not view this as phantom-light-rail. They view it as done-deal-light-rail.

If this project winds up being upgraded bus service, then I will concede that it can be done for the outrageously expensive price of $700 million. Is that a good investment for taxpayers?

If this project winds up being light rail, the $700 million will wind up being a tiny down payment on the total construction cost and future operating and maintenance costs of this project. Taxpayers will be trapped into paying billions of dollars of additional costs.

Over the last 30 years, some cities have implemented light rail by buying already existing inactive track from the railroads. Others have built light rail from scratch. Generally, those cities that have built light rail from scratch have experienced massive cost overruns. This is a build-from-scratch project. Cobb County and the Atlanta region are choosing the path of proven failure.

And in this case, we know what some of those cost overruns will be, because there are known obstacles identified by previous studies. But the special interests don’t want taxpayers to know about these extra costs until after they approve the TSPLOST on July 31.

* When the pro-TSPLOST propaganda campaign suggests that light rail can improve traffic congestion, that is not a lie. But it is incredibly misleading.

Light rail can be designed to promote redevelopment, or it can be designed to improve traffic congestion. These two objectives are necessarily mutually exclusive.

In order for light rail (or any kind of transit) to improve traffic congestion, it must provide a trip time that is reasonably competitive with driving. On average, light rail increases trip times by 70 percent.

When the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) did the Northwest Connectivity Study (NWCS) a few years ago, GRTA concluded that light rail in this corridor would more than double trip times from north Cobb to Atlanta. GRTA concluded that very few commuters would get out of their cars and utilize transit if transit doubled their door-to-door trip time. That was one of the reasons why GRTA concluded that light rail was the wrong answer for this corridor.

This project, as proposed, will do nothing to alleviate traffic congestion in Cobb County. This project is designed to place transit stations where Cobb County wants to incentivize the redevelopment of targeted properties. The taxpayers of Cobb County should not have to pay massive new taxes to incentivize the redevelopment of selected parcels of private property.

* There are some projects on the projects list that will alleviate traffic congestion, but too much of the money goes to projects that will not alleviate traffic congestion.

On balance, the TSPLOST projects list is a bad deal for taxpayers. In the long run, the current TSPLOST projects list will cannibalize future dollars that could otherwise have been used for other projects that actually would alleviate traffic congestion. It will actually financially obstruct the region’s ability to fund future projects that would alleviate traffic congestion.

One last point. The pro-TSPLOST claim that voters must approve the TSPLOST because there is no Plan B is very close to an outright lie. There is a Plan B built into the legislation that authorized the TSPLOST. The Transportation Investment Act, which authorized the TSPLOST, provides that if the voters in any region vote down the TSPLOST, that region can put together a better projects list and bring it back to the voters in two years. That is a Plan B. And Plan B is the better choice for taxpayers on July 31.

Ron Sifen of Vinings is president of the Cobb County Civic Coalition. His views are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCCC.

Article Printed in the Marietta Daily Journal on April 11, 2012

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