Locally Preferred Alternative for Cobb County

Cobb County DOT has released the Alternatives Analysis for the Northwest Corridor transit study.  Required by environmental laws and FTA regulations, the Alternatives Analysis is the first step toward constructing a major transit project. After weighing the costs and benefits of different modes and alternate alignments, Cobb County DOT selected arterial bus rapid transit on US 41 and express bus service in the I-75 HOT lanes as the locally preferred alternative.

Map of Locally Preferred Alternative

The merits of bus rapid transit, or BRT, are a much-debated topic in transportation circles.  Supporters assert that BRT performs similar to rail transit but at a fraction of the cost.  Critics argue that BRT is loosely thrown around to describe a wide variety of bus service and, in practice, BRT projects frequently devolve into little more than fancy buses.  But as cash-strapped systems look for cost-effective ways to provide high quality transit over long suburban distances (i.e., the length of Cobb County), BRT is a recurring part of the conversation.

The difference between Cleveland and Chicago in their approach to BRT highlights the sucesses and potential pitfalls of the mode. The Urban Land Institute ran a lengthy article on Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue project, widely viewed as a BRT success story.

Since the BRT line opened in 2008, the corridor has attracted $5.8 billion in investment—$3.3 billion for new construction and $2.5 billion for building rehab, together totaling more than 110 projects. Disproving naysayers and exceeding the expectations of supporters, the project has generated the economic growth that many thought could only be achieved with rail—and at a fraction of the cost.

The Cobb Alternatives Analysis suggests that BRT has the potential for equally impressive impact on that corridor:

Within Cobb County projecting 1.2 million sf of new retail space; 10.8 million sf of new office space; 11,000 new housing units; plus over 50,000 new jobs in the office and retail sectors

The Euclid line’s success has been attributed to its a strategy of “thinking rail while using bus.”  This approach meant a dedicated bus lane separated from other traffic, promient stations with raised platforms, real-time arrival updates, and off-vehicle fare collection.  Although more expensive, these upgrades gave the bus service “the sensibility of an urban rail line.”

But two Great Lakes to the west, Chicago’s BRT project offers a cautionary counter-point.   Originally touted as a model for BRT in Chicago, the Jeffrey Boulevard Express Route has abandoned a number of its innovative facets as it nears completion.  Instead of dedicated right of way, the Jeffrey Boulevard BRT project will operate in existing lanes.  It will not have off-vehicle fare collection.  The bypass lane at a critical bottleneck remains in the plans but will not be ready when the line opens.  Nor will the prioritized traffic signals.  In fact, the primary differnce between this “BRT” project and the area’s existing express bus service will be the distance between the stops.  Stripping these key elements from the project raises questions about whether it is still BRT and, if so, what the term really means.

The big question is whether the initial taste of a world-class bus transit service on Jeffery [the BRT route], minus the bells and whistles, will be enough to whet commuters’ appetite for more. One risk is that the CTA’s watered-down, phased-in substitute could form the public misconception that BRT isn’t much of an improvement over regular express bus service, except for the fancy packaging and higher cost.

When executed correctly, by “thinking rail while using bus,” BRT can provide benefits comparable to light rail at a lower cost. But the benefits of high-quality BRT erode as key attributes – dedicated right of way, attractive and well designed stations, off-vehicle fare collection – are eliminated.  All of these key attributes benefit a project’s performance but also increase its cost.  To realize the potential of a transit investment in Atlanta’s Northwest Corridor, Cobb County DOT must ensure that these critical elements of high-quality BRT are preserved. Without them, the project will simply be dressing up the same bus service in new packaging.

Completing the Streets

Georgia has joined the growing list of states, counties, and cities to adopt a “Complete Streets” policy.   Last week the State Transportation Board adopted a Complete Streets Resolution incorporating the concept as part of the GDOT Policy Design Manual.  Complete Streets is the practice of planning, designing and constructing streets and roadways to integrate and balance the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, and motor vehicle traffic.  Although they will not apply to projects already in the pipeline, the Complete Streets requirements will cover new road projects and projects to repair existing roads. The National Complete Streets Coalition has map of all the jurisdictions around the country that have adopted variations on the Complete Streets policy.

This resolution is the outgrowth of lobbying efforts by bicycle and pedestrian advocates, as well as GDOT’s willingness to work with the advocacy community, ARC, and local governments to address the needs of metro Atlanta’s increasingly multimodal travelers.  Atlanta Bicycle Coalition has their recap here; Georgia Bike’s summary is here.

Beyond the policy itself, the resolution also contains some enlightened statements in its “whereas” section:

WHEREAS, the State Transportation Board is committed to providing safe, adequate, and balanced accommodations for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users, regardless of age or ability, wherever it is practical to do so; and

WHEREAS, the projected doubling of Georgia’s senior citizen population over the next 20 years is evidence of the increased need for community based transportation options that are less dependent on driving; and

WHEREAS, providing options for individuals with disabilities requires making available access to a broader range of transportation options; and

WHEREAS, the full integration of all modes of travel in the design of streets and roadways will reduce traffic congestion, improve mobility, and provide more reliable commute times;

Statements like these, and the larger Complete Streets policy, show progress toward becoming a Department of (All Modes of) Transportation.

Where the Artists Are

The Wall Street Journal reports on the trend of high tech industries increasingly moving from suburban office parks to the urban core. The author reasons that this shift is driven by two factors. First, tech savvy young workers prefer to live in urban, walkable areas, so locating in cities makes it easier to attract top talent.  And tech companies increasingly view the energy and variety of urban life as a conducive medium for cultivating these creative businesses.

In July, ARC considered the same issue when they released a Regional Snapshot on creative industries in Atlanta. Compared to its peer cities, ARC found that Atlanta had more people working in arts-related fields per 1000 residents and the third most arts-related businesses per 1000 residents. These jobs are largely clustered in the urban core, with 1/3 of all the region’s arts-related jobs in Fulton County.

Location of Metro Atlanta’s Creative Industries from ARC’s Regional Snapshot

Like the American economy generally, the past decades have seen the tech sector move toward ideas and services as their core products.  The first generation of America’s tech boom was essentially an outgrowth of the manufacturing sector with comparable requirements in terms of space, low cost utilities, and access to freight facilities.  Locating in a suburban office park makes sense if your business is manufacturing and shipping microchips. But the current tech boom is smaller, leaner, and more idea driven.  Facebook doesn’t need space to manufacture, store, and ship its product.

Intellectual capital is the currency of the evolving tech economy and location remains an important consideration for these idea-driven businesses.  The difference is that the preferred location for these idea-driven businesses is the urban core.


Siblings Reach Middle Age

The San Francisco Chronicle reports on the challenges facing the Bay Area’s BART heavy rail system as it approaches its fortieth year of operation. Opened in 1972, the BART system and Washington DC’s METRO are sibling systems of Atlanta’s MARTA.  Built around the same time and using similiar technology, it should not be surprising that the challenges facing BART echo those facing MARTA.

Now, entering its fifth decade, the transit agency, despite having made a huge  impact on the Bay Area, is struggling to deal with the challenges that come with  age: growing pains, staying in good physical health and keeping up with  the times.

When critics hear that MARTA needs to upgrade its train control systems, expand its system, or buy new trains, they reflexively cry agency mismanagement.  But, like any other capital asset, transit systems require periodic investment to upgrade and replace equipment, to incorporate technological improvements, to comply with regulatory changes, and to otherwise adapt to changes in their cities.  These costs are the aches and pains of a transit system reaching middle age.  And they are the price of ensuring that MARTA continues to provide transportation options in Atlanta for forty more years.

And the picture of President Nixon riding BART is certainly worth a click.

Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile

The Atlantic has a longer piece fleshing out a subject covered there (and here) before – whether the Millennial Generation has a different view of automobile and home ownership than their parents.  Car companies have tried a variety of tactics to market automobiles to this generation (including hiring a MTV subsidiary to do their marketing) based on the premise that, like their parents, Millennials should want to buy cars.  The problem is, they aren’t:

[I]t’s highly possible that a perfect storm of economic and demographic factors—from high gas prices, to re-­urbanization, to stagnating wages, to new technologies enabling a different kind of consumption—has fundamentally changed the game for Millennials. The largest generation in American history might never spend as lavishly as its parents did—nor on the same things.

Our attitudes toward the automobile, community building, and home ownership evolved dramatically from the 1960s through the 1990s and into today.  And these attitudes continue to change, which cautions against taking Atlanta’s growth over the past two decades and assuming that it can be extrapolated out over the years to come.  As the stock brokers like to say, past performance is no guarantee of future results.  Instead, we need to recognize and adapt as these trends evolve.

Millennials are growing toward a society less motivated by ownership and driving as indicia of success, and these shifting norms have important ramifications for what our transportation system looks like, how our communities grow, and how our economies will thrive.

Fuel Economy Versus Transportation Funding

Last week EPA and DOT finalized their Model Year 2025 Fuel Economy Standard for cars and light-duty trucks. Building on the Model Year 2016 standard, which call for average fuel economy to reach 35.5 mpg by 2016, this new standard will require an average vehicle fuel economy of 54 mpg by 2025.   Current average fuel economy is 29 mpg.

US DOT’s Infographic on the New Fuel Economy Standards

This change is good news for air quality, as more miles per gallon means less air pollution.  Vehicle exhaust is the largest source of ozone pollution in the Atlanta region and the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.  Increased fuel economy also means less money spent at the pump, an important consideration for the Southeast where people spend well above the national average on transportation.

But these new standards are bad news for transportation funding.  The vast majority of Georgia’s state transportation funds are derived from gasoline sales.  With average fuel economy set to increase by 26% by 2016 and 86% by 2025, gas tax revenues could decline in roughly those same amounts. Unless we increase the tax rate or diversify the sources of transportation funding,  Georgia’s transportation funding regime is facing a mounting crisis over the coming decade.

The graphic below, from GDOT’s own materials, compares the agency’s motor fuel tax revenue to its debt service obligations. The year to year trends show tax revenue in sharp decline but debt obligations relatively flat (or even increasing slightly).

Rough analysis of these numbers shows the potential severity of the problem.  Using the 2011 figures as a baseline ($800 million in tax revenue; $300 million in debt obligations) and assuming that the debt obligations remain constant, a 63% decrease in motor fuel tax receipts would mean that gas tax revenues no longer cover the state’s debt obligations.  Given that the fuel economy standards are scheduled to increase 86% by 2025, the possibility of debt obligations outstripping gas tax revenue seems plausible.  Increasing fuel economy erodes the gasoline tax’s viability as our primary method of funding transportation.

Higher fuel economy also highlight the gas tax’s lack of precision as a user fee.  The gas tax is intended to impose a cost commensurate with use: people that drive more will use more gas and pay more to fund transportation.  But as certain cars get significantly more fuel efficient than others, the correlation between use and payment can begin to break down.  Imagine two people, one driving a Prius that achieves the new 54 mpg standard and the other driving an old sedan that gets the current average of 29 mpg.  They both contribute to congestion and wear and tear on the roads.  Over the same distance the Prius owner will use roughly half the gas and thus contribute half as much to transportation funding.  This difference in gas tax paid per mile driven (or per space on the road) incentivizes buying more fuel efficient cars, but at the same time undermines the gasoline tax’s accuracy as a user fee.

Other regions of the country have looked to a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax as a more accurate user fee. VMT taxes record the distance traveled and assess a fee on a per mile basis. In this way, the tax paid directly corresponds with the amount driven. But shifting from a gasoline tax to a VMT tax will not be easy – at the same time the Obama Administration was announcing the new fuel economy standard the Republican Party was rejecting the premise of VMT taxes as part of their 2012 party platform:

We oppose any funding mechanism that would involve governmental monitoring of every car and truck in the nation.

The 2025 Fuel Economy Standard is without question a positive and long-overdue development.  It will improve our air quality, alleviate our dependence on oil, and reduce the cost of transportation for drivers across the country.  And it was achieved collaboratively, with the participation and blessing of the automobile industry. But this standard also has important consequences for transportation funding. These funding issues are clearly coming down the road; the question is whether we will do anything to avoid them.