Tolls and TDMs

An interesting aside to last week’s announcement on the removal of tolls from GA 400 is the decision’s impact on traffic. According to WSB Atlanta, the State Road and Tollway Authority anticipates an 18% increase in traffic volume once the tolls are removed.

Managed lane supporters argue that tolling is not only a financing strategy but also a tool for managing traffic demand.  The idea is that requiring a toll imposes a monetary cost on the trip and that cost will dissuade some drivers from using the road. Some may simply elect to use an alternate route but others may forgo the trip altogether.

According to GDOT’s State Traffic and Report Statistics, 115,000 vehicles use GA 400 on an average day.  An 18% increase in this traffic volume would mean 20,700 more drivers to the road.  Some of these drivers will shift their drive to GA 400 from other roads, and others will decide to drive when before they would not.  But SRTA’s modeling is compelling evidence that even a modest price, like a $0.50 toll, can dramatically influence driver behavior.

But this trade off between tolls and traffic wasn’t part of the public debate when the GA 400 tolls were extended in 2010 and supporters of removing the toll might not be so enthusiastic if they knew that it would add thousands of additional drivers to the road.  Politicians certainly wouldn’t make a campaign pledge to add 20,000 new drivers to GA 400.

This decision highlights the tension between cost and transportation performance.   People demand transportation improvements but are less excited about paying for them.  And sometimes, like here, the cost itself is what produces the transportation improvements.  This decision and the other managed lane projects being explored across the region tee up the same policy question for metro Atlantans: which do we hate more, tolls or traffic?

Transit Pays

The Atlantic Cities blog reports on research concluding that the economic benefits of state transit subsidies may equal or even exceed the amount of the subsidy.  An economist at the University of Lausanne attempted to quantify the economic value of the reduced externalities (air pollution, vehicle crashes, etc.) resulting from state funded rail service. The study concludes:

Our estimates indicate that these monetary benefits are in the same order of magnitude as the costs. While we do not have any precise figures on the additional subsidies required to finance this growth, it appears unlikely that these additional funds are much higher than the corresponding monetary benefits.

The idea that state subsidies for transit service can be an economically beneficial proposition is timely as the Georgia General Assembly considers changes to MARTA’s governance and funding GRTA service.  Although this particular study focuses on rail improvements (and in a foreign country, no less), the underlying logic hold true.  Whether through German trains or GRTA buses, taking drivers off the road reduces the number of vehicle accidents. It reduces the amount of air pollution. It reduces the amount of congestion.  And each of these social benefits has economic value, a fact that critics of state funding for transit too often ignore.

Cities and Agencies

The blog Human Transit has an interesting post on the challenges of funding and operating a transit system that spans multiple jurisdictions with different levels of transit needs. The author wonders:

Most agencies rely on their voters to approve their basic revenue raising authority.  So what happens if the voters over the whole agency area give transit a resounding “no,” but parts of the area — a core city for example — does value transit and is willing to pay for it?  And what should happen in the many urban regions where the whole region will pay for a low level of service but certain communities within it — usually including the core city — want to pay for a higher level of service?

Sound familiar? The post was talking about Tacoma, Washington but the situation is all too familiar.

Voting patterns in the TSPLOST showed strong support for investing in transit in metro Atlanta’s urban core, even if it meant one cent more in sales tax.  But this support was not uniform across political and agency jurisdictions, with other parts of the region disinterested in additional transit service or unwilling to pay for it.  The idea that local governments should be able to raise fund to provide the services their constituents desire (and are willing to pay for) is central to the idea of home rule.  Yet political and bureaucratic lines pose vexing obstacles to increased transit even in areas where the citizens favor doing so.

The Human Transit post focuses the idea of an “enhanced transit zone,” allowing a portion of the region “to tax themselves more at higher rates for better transit service.” But metro Atlanta provides some some other ideas on how to solve this conundrum.  The Atlanta Streetcar tapped directly into local sources, using funding from the City of Atlanta and Central Atlanta Progress as part of a public-private partnership.  Value captures strategies, like the tax allocation district used for the Beltline, directly link local benefits to local funding.  And, like the enhanced transit zone contemplated in the blog post, the transit governance structure in metro Atlanta should be modernized to allow a community to scale its transit investment up or down according to it needs.

Metro Atlanta’s transit needs are not heterogeneous and they don’t follow political or bureaucratic lines. But where the demand and the desire to fund it exist, transit expansion in metro Atlanta should not be derailed by lines on a map.


Map Your Commute

Slate and WNYC have released an interactive map of average commute times across the country based on data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.  The map allows a ZIP code-level comparison of average commute times from around the country.  Like the recent Urban Mobility Report, this map and the underlying data do not quantify the contribution of distance in these trip times but the location of the darker shades in the more distant areas reveals this relationship.

See how your commute stacks up against other commute times across the region and the country.

The data is part of the Census Bureau’s recent “Trends in Commuting” data release which also includes a map comparing the states on their percentage of commutes longer than 60 minutes (the Census’ threshold for a long distance commute).

Map of Average Commute Times Based on American Community Survey

Map of Long Commutes Based on American Community Survey