Saporta Report Video on Atlanta’s Post-TSPLOST Options

Maria Saporta of the Saporta Report has an interesting video roundtable with post-TSPLOST thoughts from regional transportation leaders.

Or direct from YouTube here. Definitely worth a look.

Moving Forward on I-20 East (the Transit Line)

The Federal Transit Administration and MARTA announced their intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for MARTA’s I-20 East Transit project.  This project would extend the existing east-west rail line from the Indian Creek Station to the Mall at Stonecrest in eastern DeKalb County and new Bus Rapid Transit service along I-20 between downtown Atlanta and a new station at Wesley Chapel Road, east of I-285 in DeKalb County.

The I-20 East Transit project was the topic of heated debate during the run-up to the TIA, as residents of eastern and southern Dekalb County felt that the project was not sufficiently funded.  These environmental review documents are required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for any project to receive federal funds.  Without these documents, the project could only use state or local dollars (like those from the TIA) to fund its construction. But completion of the NEPA process renders the project “shovel ready” and eligible to compete for New Starts and other federal funding programs.  In other words, having these documents in hand would allow state and local dollars to be multiplied through the federal transit programs.

Beyond the environmental review, the federal funding programs also require a local match for capital costs and a long term plan to fund a project’s operations.  Undertaking the NEPA review is an important step forward in the planning process, but there remain important funding questions that need to be resolved to move forward on the I-20 East and other transit project in metro Atlanta.

The Role of Value Capture

Streetsblog has an interesting post on the DC Metro’s Silver Line extension to Dulles Airport. The article explains how the project’s value capture financing helped garner support in fiscally conservative suburban counties:

Rather than increase taxes on all county residents and businesses, the county adopted an innovative funding structure that seeks to capture the value created along the rail line.

. . . . .

Politically, value capture impacts fewer people than broad-based taxes like sales and gas taxes, and those who are affected stand to benefit directly from the investment, making it an easier sell.

Referencing Atlanta’s recent referendum, the piece reasons that value capture will a key financing tool for transit projects around the country.

In addition to the reasons discussed in the article, value capture is well suited for Atlanta given the current political discourse.  TIA opponents criticized its transit entries as economic development projects posing as transportation projects.  They are correct in that, in addition to their transportation benefits, transit projects have the potential to direct investment and shape how we grow.  But instead of rejecting this economic development potential, value capture financing embraces it and uses it to fund the project.

Value capture also benefits from its scale.  The TIA demonstrated the challenge of trying to build support for a particular vision across (or even within) Atlanta’s heterogeneous counties.  But value capture can work on a micro scale, mile by mile or even block by block.  This community-level approach can utilize local support for a project to generate local funding and provide local benefits.  Although this strategy won’t further the necessary goal of regionalism, it may avoid spending the foreseeable future trying to reach some unobtainable degree of multi-county consensus around transit.

Value capture already exists in Georgia in the form of tax allocation districts and, like any other policy, these strategies are not above misuse. But the underlying concept is sound and resonates with fiscal conservatives.  So, like our peers in suburban Virginia, the robust use of value capture may be the path forward for transit in metro Atlanta.

Emerging Toll of the TIA?

This past Sunday’s AJC offered four opinions on transportation in metro Atlanta, focusing on “what’s next and how do we pay for it.”  In his piece, Governor Deal offered that “reversible managed lanes on I-75 south and north of Atlanta and improvements on Ga. 400”  are the type of “worthwhile” projects that the State will pursue.  Atlanta Magazine reports that, according to GDOT’s Deputy Commissioner, even more toll road projects could be in the works.  But are these HOT lanes really “worthwhile,” and are they viable given the limited transportation funds available?

The blog Transportation Nation recently examined a similiar HOT lane project in Washington, D.C.  In that piece, transportation consultant Rachel Weinberger explains why HOT lanes are unlikely to deliver real improvements in traffic conditions:

 “All of the research shows that when you add capacity to highways, rather than relieving congestion in the long run, you actually create more congestion in other parts of the system,” she says.

In short, wider highways induce more traffic. Those new users ultimately have to exit the highway somewhere, producing more traffic on secondary roads where expansion is not possible. “Now you have dumped more cars onto the streets on Washington D.C. because you’ve added this capacity on I-495,” Weinberger says.

The limited transportation benefits of the Northwest Corridor project have already been documented.  The environmental review documents for the I-75 South HOT lane project will likely show the same when they are released.  Politicians like Governor Deal like to tell their constituents that the HOT lane projects will improve traffic, but the experts, the traffic studies, and the motorists on I-85 all suggest otherwise.

And significant questions remain about the financial viability of future HOT lanes.  The I-85 conversion did not involve constructing new lanes (thus lower capital costs) and was largely underwritten by a grant from the federal government.  Georgia has struggled to fund the I-75 Northwest Corridor project for years, with the current  financial plan relying on both a low-interest federal loan for one third of the project’s cost and $300 million in “found” state gas tax covering a second third.

The current plan for the I-75 South HOT lane projects looks almost exclusively to state bonds.  The three I-75 South HOT lane projects (AR-ML-600, 630, and 640) would total $185 million, and current plans call for 63% ($116 million) to come from general obligation bonds and 22% ($40 million) to come from toll backed revenue bonds.  A substantial portion of GDOT’s budget is already tied up in debt service, the legacy of past bond-financed road expansions that failed to alleviate congestion.

Considering the limited transportation benefits and the financial risks, let’s hope that Plan B is not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Laboratories for Transportation Policy

The National Conference of State Legislatures recently released “On the Move: State Strategies for 21st Century Transportation Solutions,” an excellent survey of the transportation challenges facing states around the country and the different strategies they are exploring to address these challenges.  The Report is divided into four sections: “Taking the Long View,” “Using What You Have,” “Giving People Choices,” and “Achieving Multiple Benefits.”

The Report covers far too much ground to summarize it all here.  But for those thinking that metro Atlanta can address its transportation needs solely through better management of existing revenue streams, the Report has some sobering statistics:

  • Our infrastructure is aging: 32% of the nation’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition; 24% of bridges are structurally or functionally obsolete.
  • Declining infrastructure drags down productivity: In 2010, U.S. households and businesses lost $130 billion in time delays and other costs due to deteriorating infrastructure. At the current rate, the price of this aging infrastructure will reach $210 billion in the next eight years and $520 billion by 2040.
  • We are driving less: Since 2001 the number of miles traveled per capita has been in decline across every age group.  For drivers between 16 and 34, the average number of vehicle miles traveled dropped 23% in that period. Fewer miles driven means less gas (and less gas tax revenue).
  • Increasing MPG means decreasing tax revenue: Proposed CAFE standards are estimated to result in a 21% drop in federal gas tax revenue by 2040.  This same trend will hold true for state gas tax revenue.
  • Today’s gas tax is worth less than it once was: The real value of gas tax revenue declines by $10 billion annually.   The federal gas tax has lost 33% of its purchasing power since it was last raised in 1993 and the average state gas tax rate has effectively fallen by 20% since it was last increased (Georgia’s indexed gasoline tax offsets this erosion to some degree, but only when the rate adjustment is not frozen by gubernatorial order.)

These statistics are not specific to Georgia but the national trends hold true here. Our transportation needs are increasing and changing but our funding tools are weakening.  States around the country have addressed these needs by exploring new funding sources, often in the form of regional sales taxes like the recently-defeated TIA.  A regional sales tax may no longer be the preferred option for Georgia but the underlying needs and trends that necessitated it remain.  The Report provides a good starting point for evaluating what other options are on the table.  Maybe it is time to trade the gas tax for a mileage based fee?

Where Are We and Where Can We Go?

An awful lot of ink has been spilled (and pixels projected) about the TSPLOST referendum’s failure. But here are two sets of “lessons learned” from very different corners that give a pretty good starting point for thinking about what happened and perhaps how to move forward. 

David Goldberg is with the national transportation advocacy group Transportation 4 America but in a previous life he covered transportation for the AJC.  From his insider/outsider perspective, the two lessons learned are:

  • Regional votes in places without a tradition of regional institutions and decision-making are an extremely heavy lift;
  • A project list is not necessarily a plan.

A long way from the policy shops of Washington, DC, Jarod Apperson is a writer for the East Atlanta Patch.  He offers three insightful and similar take-aways:

  • The Beltline is wildly popular intown;
  • “Metro-Atlanta” (still) doesn’t exist;
  • We need more local spending control.

So what does this mean?

The strong opposition from areas as incongruous as Cherokee and south Dekalb Counties shows that across the region, voters rejected the project list as a coherent vision for addressing their needs. They did not accept that the tax would improve their lives and were not satisfied with abstract promises of alleviated congestion, job-creation, and investment in the future.  The project list, in the aggregate, seemed less a game plan for the future and more a hodgepodge of random projects.   New transit, improvements to existing transit, money for freeways and some local roads, with some bike/ped sprinkled on top. Voters didn’t see an overarching plan behind the list, a vision for where this was supposed to take us.     

The absence of a clear vision exacerbated the underlying distrust and aversion to taxes.  Without a clear concept of what the project list was supposed to do it would be impossible to evaluate its success (or its cost-effectiveness).   And the web of agencies, governments, and assorted other responsible entities involved would obfuscate any clear chain of responsibility and accountability. The citizen review panel, GDOT, and GRTA could deliver projects on time and on budget, but what were the project intended to do and would they achieve it?  Voters were unwilling to put billions of tax dollars into a black box without a better sense of what the end product was supposed to be and a mechanism for ensuring that transportation actually improved.    

But perhaps more than anything else, the TSPLOST was about regionalism and the absence of a universally-accepted vision for transportation.  It asked us to move parochialism – beyond local interests in generating funds, making decisions, and building projects.  Suburban residents were asked to trust that transit was right for the city residents, and urban residents were asked to reciprocate.  It asked us to trust that what was good for other parts of the region was therefore good for us.   

The referendum’s failure shows the absence of a singular shared idea of how metro Atlanta should address transportation.  Politics, race, class, and lifestyle preferences remain active fault lines that can balkanize the region.  Without a regional vision that voters accepted and wished to advance, the TSPLOST became something that was done to them and not for them.  

So where does this leave us?

Any solution will have to be built from the bottom up. A clear vision for transportation will have to be developed and accepted by the voters, community by community and county by county.  A regional approach, or at least a multi-county approach, remains possible but only where common denominators can be found.

One of the TSPLOST’s strongest pockets of support was in the City of Atlanta.  It is no coincidence that the city had a clear vision: the Beltline on the project list and bike/ped investments with its 15% local set-aside  City residents support this vision, and their YES votes showed a desire to move forward with funding that plan.  Crafting a plan and then consensus-building around it must begin elsewhere.  Metro Atlanta remains heterogeneous in its politics and preferences; Cherokee County and south Dekalb may never share the same vision and are unlikely to find much common ground on what to build and how to build it.  But transformative projects will require broader support than any one municipality or county. So to advance as a region we must find common ground where we can and moving forward, even if it means smaller steps and a slower pace.

MMPT on the Fast Track

Rendering of Atlanta’s MMPT

As has been widely reported, Atlanta’s MMPT was selected for inclusion on the Presidential Dashboard of infrastructure projects, fast tracking it environmental review.  This is widely seen as a signficant coup for the the project, but reports have been less clear on exactly what this listing decision means. 

In August 2011, President Obama sent a memorandum to the heads of all executive agencies instructing them to:

(1) identify and work to expedite permitting and environmental reviews for high-priority infrastructure projects with significant potential for job creation; and

(2) implement new measures designed to improve accountability, transparency, and efficiency through the use of modern information technology.  

The memo reasoned that these goals could be accomplished by “integrating planning and environmental reviews; coordinating multi-agency or multi-governmental reviews and approvals to run concurrently; setting clear schedules for completing steps in the environmental review and permitting process; and utilizing information technologies to inform the public about the progress of environmental reviews as well as the progress of Federal permitting and review processes.” 

The Administration formalized and built upon this memo when it issued Executive Order 13604.  The Executive Order instructed federal agencies to identify infrastructure projects of national and regional signficance to be tracked on a “Federal Infrastructure Projects Dashboard,”  the list to which the MMPT was added.

Why was the MMPT selected for inclusion on the Dashboard? According to the Memorandum, Dashboard projects are to be selected based on the following criteria: 

(i)    the project will create jobs, with consideration given to the magnitude and timing of the direct and indirect employment impacts;

(ii)   all necessary funding to implement the project has been identified and is reasonably expected to be secured within 6 months of completion of the Federal permitting and review processes; and

(iii)  the significant remaining permit decisions, environmental reviews, consultations, or other actions required before construction can commence on the project are within the control and jurisdiction of the executive branch of the Federal Government and can be efficiently and effectively completed within 18 months of the date of this memorandum, with priority given to projects for which required Federal actions can be completed within 12 months of the date of this memorandum.

The MMPT clearly meets the job requirement, but the latter two elements are less clear from publicly available information.  Nonetheless,  the project has been added to the list.

So what does this listing mean?  A close reading of the Memorandum and Executive Order show that, beyond the aspirational language of expediting projects, most of the substantive requirements pertain to inter-agency coordination and enhanced public review.  Given that most delay in environmental review arises from other sources, it is unclear how much the Dashboard listing will actually expedite the MMPT’s environmental review.  The real importance of the MMPT’s inclusion on the dashboard is not the length of environmental review but a statement of support it represents from the Obama Adminstration. 

Congressman John Lewis and Kasim Reed are proponents of the project with strong connections to the Obama Administration.  The project ticks all of the boxes for the Administration’s transportation policy: an intermodal project that will encourage transportation options, create jobs, build communities, and tap into P3 opportunities.   The Dashboard listing means that the MMPT has political juice. 

In turn, this political support suggests that the project may have the inside track for federal funding programs.   For example, intermodal facilities are eligible for low interest loans through the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF) program.  RRIF financing can fund up to 100% of a rail project with repayment periods of up to 35 years and interest rates equal to the cost of borrowing to the government.  Another option is the TIFIA program, which was dramatically expanded under the recently-passed transportation bill.  Denver tapped both of these financing tools to the tune of $155 million (RRIF) and $145 million (TIFIA) to finance their multimodal station.  Identification of the MMPT as a project with regional, if not national, significance suggests that those funding tools could be an option here as well.  

Rendering of Denver’s Union Station

The real challenge facing the MMPT isn’t environmental delay but the availability of intermodal service.  In recent meeting with federal officials, the GDOT delegation was told that the MMPT needed to include commuter and/or intercity rail service.   But Georgia’s efforts to build intercity or commuter rails have failed to move beyond the planning stages, and those plans have further  dimmed with the failure of the TIA.  

The MMPT is not eligible for RRIF funds without rail service.   P3 redevelopment opportunities will be significantly diminished without rail service.  Federal interest in this project will wane without rail service.  Without rail service, the MMPT is a fancy bus station.

The MMPT’s inclusion on the Presidential Dashboard provides clear validation for the concept and a challenge to see it through to completion.   It reaffirms that the MMPT is a project with regional, if not national, importance and is the kind of forward-looking project that metro Atlanta needs to be developing.  But it also challenges Georgia to get its long-stalled regional rail plans moving.

TIA Referendum, In Four Charts

There will certainly be plenty of discussion about why the TIA referendum failed and what happens next.  But perhaps the best place to start is to figure out who voted and how they voted.  Drawing from the AJC.com’s election results and the Secretary of State’s voter registration data, the following four charts examine voting patterns for the ten counties in metro Atlanta’s TIA referendum.

 There are many observations to be drawn from this information but here are a few:

  • Voter participation was much higher than expected, with 26% of registered voters going to the polls.  So instead of a 400,000 voter election as predicted by the political consultants, this became a 600,000 voter election;
  • Fayette and Cherokee Counties had both the highest voter turnout and the highest percentage of votes in opposition;
  • Dekalb County had the third highest turnout of any county but its votes were almost evenly divided;
  • In contrast to the heated rhetoric from its politicians, Cobb County had the lowest voter turnout for any of the ten counties;
  • Although many lumped the outer five counties together,  voting patterns in Douglas, Henry, and Rockdale Counties were more similar to Cobb and Gwinnett than to Cherokee and Fayette; and
  • More opposing votes came from Fulton than any other county and Dekalb provided the third most opposing votes.  Cobb and Gwinnett Counties both provided more votes in favor of the referendum than Clayton County. 

 This information paints a more complicated picture of voting in metro Atlanta, where counties did not follow an election strategy based on density and party affiliations.  Understanding these nuances will be essential for us to develop a successful post-TIA strategy on transportation funding.