Looking Back

In a recent interview with WABE, Mayor Kasim Reed suggested that the region might take another shot at a transportation sales tax referendum at some point in the future.  He points out – correctly – that in many other regions failed before they succeeded in passing their referendums.

ARC's Map of TSPLOST Votes

ARC’s Map of TSPLOST Votes

But before we consider a new referendum we need to make sense of the last one.  To that end, Emory’s Southern Spaces journal has an interesting and thorough post-mortem on the TSPLOST entitled “A Well-Tied Knot: Atlanta’s Mobility Crisis and the 2012 T-SPLOST Debate. ” Authored by a Ph.D candidate in the University’s history department, the piece weaves together much of the existing information on the circumstances and events leading up to the referendum’s failure.

But noticeably absent, both from the article and the public conversation about the T-SPLOST more broadly, is an empirical examination of why the referendum failed.  No polling data or statistical analysis has been released showing why citizens voted the way they did or what might have caused them to vote differently.  Did the referendum fail because any tax increase was dead on arrival in the economic and political climate? Because it had too much transit or because it had too little? Was the project selection process too opaque or distrust of public agencies to great?  Would a smaller region or a shorter time period have produced a different result?

According to the old adage, success has many fathers and failure is an orphan.  Both seem to fit here.  No one has stepped forward to own the referendum’s failure by showing why it came up short.  In the absence of such data and analysis, every pundit has an explanation and every opponent can claim victory.  But now, approaching the one year anniversary of the vote, it is time for someone – from academia, government agencies, or civic institutions – to figure out what happened.   Without an understanding of why the 2012 referendum failed there is no guarantee that future efforts won’t meet the same fate.

Trends and Projections

US PIRG and the Frontier Group released a report this week on driving trends, “A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving the Implications for America’s Future.” The report in its entirety is here but they’ve also released an infographic summarizing its results.

With a number of high profile (and high price tag) managed lane projects in the works throughout the region, it is an opportune time to reexamine their justification in light of this report.  Largely conceived prior to the recent decline in vehicle travel, these projects are premised on growth, transportation and economic forecasts comparable to the infographic’s red curve.  But what if our future looks more like one of the other curves? What if driving rates in 2025 haven’t reverted to those seen in 2005?  A certain amount of uncertainty is inherent in any forecast, but the data from this report and elsewhere certainly suggest the need for robust due diligence before sinking hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into projects based on potentially outdated trends.

To this end, the Report makes a series of recommendations for approaching transportation policy decisions and project selection:

  • Plan for uncertainty. With future driving patterns uncertain, federal, state and local transportation officials should evaluate the costs and benefits of all transportation projects based on several scenarios of future demand for driving. Decision-makers should also prioritize those projects that are most likely to deliver benefits under a range of future circumstances.

  • Support the Millennials and other Americans in their desire to drive less. Federal, state and local poli­cies should help create the conditions under which Americans can fulfill their desire to drive less. Increasing investments in public transportation, bicycling and pedestrian infrastruc­ture and intercity rail—especially when coupled with regulatory changes to enable the development of walk­able neighborhoods—can help provide more Americans with a broader range of transportation options.

  • Revisit plans for new or expanded highways. Many highway projects currently awaiting funding were initially conceived of decades ago and proposed based on traffic projec­tions made before the recent decline in driving. Local, state and federal governments should revisit the need for these “legacy projects” and ensure that proposals for new or expanded highways are still a priority in light of recent travel trends.

  • Refocus the federal role. The federal government should adopt a more strategic role in transportation policy, focusing resources on key priorities (such as repair and maintenance of existing infrastructure and the expan­sion of transportation options) and evaluating projects competitively on the basis of their benefits to society.

  • Use transportation revenue where it makes the most sense. Trans­portation spending decisions should be based on overall priorities and a rigorous evaluation of project costs and benefits—not on the source of the revenue.

  • Do your homework. Federal and state governments should invest in research to evaluate the accuracy and useful­ness of transportation models and better understand changing trans­portation trends in the post-Driving Boom era.

Ramping Up Ridership

As metro Atlantans navigate the construction barrels and anticipate the opening of the Downtown Streetcar, a post from the site Neon Tommy describes LA’s experience with ridership projections for their new Expo Light Rail Line.

When the Expo Line, Los Angeles Metro’s newest light rail line, opened in April 2012, initial ridership numbers were low, starting at around 11,000 per average weekday, Ridership on weekdays has been increasing at a steady clip of about 1,000 per month, reaching an estimated 26,000 per day during the week.

The article cautions against judging the success of a line the day it opens:

But changing to rail involves a longer process of changing habits. Our experience with rail patronage, and I believe experience elsewhere, is that rail growth is incremental.

As Neon Tommy’s chart shows, the initially disappointing ridership quickly rebounded and is now approaching levels projected for 2020.

The Downtown Streetcar is decidedly smaller than LA’s Expo line in cost, length and estimated ridership.  But like the Expo line, one should not expect the Downtown street car to achieve its estimated 2,600 daily boardings the day it opens.  Instead, as with any new service or technology, we should anticipate a transition period as riders become familiar with what the streetcar is, how it operates, where it goes, and how to incorporate it into their daily lives.


A Formula for Spending

In mid-April, Gov. Deal signed  HB 202 into law, modifying Georgia’s congressional balancing requirements to exempt certain interstate and freight projects.  Georgia’s congressional balancing law, which requires state gas tax dollars to be spent equally across Georgia’s congressional districts, is intended to ensure that transportation funds are spent (more or less) evenly across the state.

Georgia's Congressional Districts

Georgia’s Congressional Districts

HB 202’s changes are intended to address the fact that major interstate projects are used by Georgians statewide but may be located in a single congressional district.  These projects are also extremely expensive so they can suck up the funds allocated for that district, preventing the funding of other, purely local projects.  Lawmakers hope that removing these state priority projects from congressional balancing will allow them to move forward and local needs to be met.

The following day, North Carolina Gov. McCrory announced a proposal to rework the “Equity Formula” used by that state to allocate its transportation funds.  NC’s Equity Formula allocates funds across seven regions based on population, lane miles and other considerations.  The new proposal would allot defined percentages of the state’s transportation funds for statewide projects, regional projects, and local projects.

These are alternate approaches to the same problem:  every state has limited funding and wishes to spend that money equitably across the state.  But every state also has large, strategic transportation projects that it wishes to fund.  Long on needs and short on funds, Georgia and North Carolina are adjusting their funding procedures to ensure that their equitable distribution formulas do not prevent investment in the state’s priority projects.   Georgia attempts to accomplish this by moving the projects and North Carolina seeks to move the funds.  It remains to be seen which approach proves more successful.