With TSPLOST in rearview mirror, it’s time for ‘Plan B’

By Ron Sifen

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation has produced an outstanding “Plan B” transportation plan. It was developed by transportation professionals to cost-effectively address our real transportation needs.

One of the major reasons why the TSPLOST failed is because many voters understood that the projects list squandered most of the money on projects that would not improve the flow of traffic in the region, and did not address the region’s real transportation needs. If implemented, Plan B would actually improve mobility throughout the region.

I have been saying for years that rail transit is ill-suited to meeting the needs of a region that is characterized by low population density and widely dispersed employment centers, and that it would provide the worst cost-effectiveness of any transit alternative. GPPF had previously pointed out that Atlanta has the lowest population density of any major city in the world.

In Plan B, GPPF says in addition to having very low density, Atlanta’s commuters are not primarily traveling to one central destination, but from one suburb to suburb. That makes a rail-based network unaffordable, it says.

“We find it very frustrating that the Georgia Public Policy Foundation is often referred to as ‘anti-transit.’ We are not anti-transit, we are ‘anti’ wasting money,” it says. “We believe a rail focus is a lose-lose scenario. Those not politically connected are unable to get rail lines in their neighborhood. The cost prevents the creation of a true interconnected network that fits our commuting patterns. Plus it hurts low-income residents: We’ve seen in many cities that the bus routes the poor depend on are eliminated in order to shore up the operating costs of expensive heavy and light rail lines.”

Plan B effectively demonstrates how terrible the TSPLOST allocation of dollars was. Cobb’s recent transit alternatives analysis study also demonstrates that rail would be extremely cost-ineffective compared to BRT and express bus.

I had previously written about the Regional Transit Action Plan, which was a comprehensive affordable transit network that would have cost a tiny fraction of what a few new rail lines were going to cost in the TSPLOST. GPPF’s Plan B is recommending a plan that is very similar to the RTAP. The 10-year price tag to implement and operate and maintain the entire comprehensive transit network is about $650 million. The TSPLOST would have spent 500 percent more (more than $3 billion) to provide worse transit service to far fewer people throughout the region.

Some people ask why everyone should invest in transit if only 5 percent use transit. Transit that is designed to meet the transportation needs of the region helps everybody, including those who don’t actually ride the transit themselves. If transit provides good connectivity, it can help more people to get to jobs and also result in less traffic on our roads. Those who drive benefit from less traffic congestion and better traffic flow.

A less aggressive timetable for completing the transit in Plan B might reduce the cost over the next few years. But overall, Plan B’s transit component is the right plan for the region.

Transit captures only a little more than 10 percent of Plan B’s dollars (as opposed to 52 percent of the TSPLOST boondoggles list).

Plan B allocates a lot of its money for fixing dysfunctional interchanges and adding managed lanes, which is by far the most cost-effective way for the region to add capacity today. If the tolls apply only to new lanes, then if you continue to drive in the existing free lanes, you won’t have to pay the tolls, and when others pay the toll, you benefit by having less traffic in the free lanes.

Plan B recognizes that a growing region has more people driving more cars. We do need some increased capacity and we need to improve the performance of the infrastructure that we already have.

Perhaps the most impressive and cost-effective component of Plan B is its focus on utilizing technology to improve how our existing infrastructure performs. Plan B has an impressive array of cost-effective technology recommendations, including better synchronization of traffic lights, and numerous other items.

The financial portion of Plan B may need to be tweaked. Many people will like the fact that Plan B relies on a reallocation of $5 billion of tax dollars, rather than new taxes. However, it may be difficult for the Legislature to reallocate this much money annually within three years. In addition, GPPF’s analysis may be correct in its comparisons of transportation infrastructure and education infrastructure, but it may be politically difficult to transfer money from education to transportation.

I agree with GPPF that the state should allow SPLOSTs with fractional pennies. For a Plan B that does a great job of meeting our transportation needs, I would not object to a new half cent sales tax. You can get more information about Plan B at gppf.org.

The State Legislature needs to address the failure of the TSPLOST. GPPF has provided an outstanding Plan B.

Ron Sifen of Vinings is president of the Cobb County Civic Coalition. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCCC.  All articles are posted with the author’s permission.

Article Printed in the Marietta Daily Journal October 7, 2012.

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