Restarting C-Tran

As the AJC reports, a bill passed on the final day of the Georgia General Assembly session removes a key obstacle to reinstating transit service in Clayton County.C-TRAN_logo

HB1009 exempts county sales tax levied “for purposes of a metropolitan area system of public transportation” from the two percent limit set in state law. By exempting this sales tax from the state limit, this change clears the way for Clayton County to move forward with a sales tax to fund transit in the county.

This provision was originally adopted in the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, the same bill that created the TSPLOST.  But the original version required the transit sales tax to be implemented by 2012 and Clayton County failed to enact the tax before that deadline.  The new provision likewise has a time limit: to qualify for the exemption the public transportation sales tax must be in place by November 2016.

According to the National Transit Database, when C-Tran shut down in 2010 it carried 1.5 million trips annually and averaged 6,600 weekday boardings. The system’s operating cost that year was $6 million, of which 26% ($1.5 million) came from fare revenue and 74% ($4.5 million) came from local funds. According to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey, 7.8% of Clayton County households have no car, a significantly higher rate than in Cobb (4.2%) and Gwinnett Counties (2.6%).

The AJC article reports that a one cent county sales tax could potentially raise $49 million per year in funds dedicated to transit. Many times larger than the local funding contribution in 2010, funding transit at anything close to this level would not only allow bus service to be reinstated but also creates the opportunity for strategic expansion of transit in the county.  Equally important, a multi-year commitment of funding from a dedicated revenue stream will allow for the long term investment and planning a successful transit system requires.

Ridership Trends

Earlier this week, the American Public Transportation Association released a report on transit ridership data from 2013. The report finds that transit ridership increased 1.1% nationally, reaching the highest level in 57 years. The increase in transit ridership almost quadruples the 0.3% annual increase in driving.  In Atlanta, however, the report finds that MARTA ridership decreased -0.85% from the previous year.

Annual MARTA Boardings 2006-2012

Annual MARTA Boardings 2006-2012

But parsing the numbers more carefully, these ridership gains are not evenly distributed.  For example, although heavy rail ridership increased 2.8% across the country, only 8 out of 15 heavy rail systems reported increases.  Light rail ridership increased 1.6% with 17 out of 27 systems reporting increases.    Ridership on the nation’s buses was essentially unchanged, with a 0.1% decline.

We can draw several conclusions from this data.

Annual Boardings for Other Metro Atlanta Transit Providers 2006-2012

Annual Boardings for Other Metro Atlanta Transit Providers 2006-2012

First, MARTA’s slight dip in ridership is not particularly unusual, as almost half of the heavy rail systems did not see ridership increase.  Second, instead of small increases across the board, the uptick in transit use appears driven by sharp increases at select systems. Heavy rail in Miami, FL, saw an increase of 10.6% due to increased peak period service. Light rail systems saw double digit increases in New Orleans (28.9%), Denver (14.9%), and San Diego, CA (10.4%).  Third, in many cases these sharp increases in ridership correspond with increased service.  When transit service is more frequent or when lines are expanded, ridership goes up. This supply/demand response suggests that there is a greater market for increased transit service all around the country.

In this context, MARTA’s relatively flat ridership is not surprising. The past decade has seen the agency repeatedly reduce service, increase fares, and no expansion of the rail network.  But all of these dampening factors are set to change in 2014: the agency is reinstating service cut during the depression and has reversed a planned fare increase. And when the downtown streetcar starts service, the region will see its first new rail line in fifteen years.

MARTA may not have followed the national trend of increasing ridership in 2013, but future APTA reports may produce a very different result.

Climate Change Planning

According to the Energy Information Agency, a higher percentage of Georgia’s CO2 emissions come from the transportation sector than the national average and thirty three other states.

CO2 emissions totalsector-by state2010

These percentages in part reflect the degree to which the states rely on fossil fuels for electrical generation. States that are heavily reliant on fossil fuels will emit more GHGs through electrical generation, meaning a lower percentage of the state’s total emissions from transportation.  But even in coal-fired states like Georgia, driving long distances and heavy reliance on the automobile result in a significant share of GHG emissions from transportation.

ARC has been leader among Georgia’s administrative agencies in studying and addressing GHG emissions.  ARC released a white paper examining regional trends in GHG emissions in early 2010 and later that year hosted a workshop on climate change and transportation planning. Plan 2040, adopted in 2011, incorporates GHG emissions into the region’s transportation planning process as a “cost” to be considered in a project’s cost/benefit analysis.

Each of these was an important step forward, particularly in the Southeast, but best practices for climate change planning have evolved and developed since that time.  As ARC updates Plan2040 and begins looking toward the next long range plan, here are four things it should do to keep pace with best practices on climate change planning.

First, ARC should update its March 2010 GHG white paper. In the four years since this paper was released ARC has adopted a new regional transportation plan (Plan2040) and is now substantively updating that plan.  The Obama Administration has adopted new CAFE standards that will dramatically improve fuel economy and reduce emissions over the coming years.  The region has seen important demographic changes in where development is occurring, where Atlantans want to live, and how they choose to travel. Updating the white paper to reflect these changes will give a current view of the regional trend in GHG emissions.

Second, ARC should prepare a regional inventory of transportation-related GHG emissions.  States and MPOs around the country have prepared such inventories to clarify the sources and quantities of GHGs emitted by different transportation-related sectors, including not only automobile travel but also trucking, air, and rail. This information would build on the GHG white paper, which focuses on automobile travel, and will help identify the low-hanging fruit for emission reductions.

Third, ARC should initiate a climate vulnerability and mitigation study.  Climate change will impact metro Atlanta in a myriad of ways including changing historical precipitation patterns, accelerating ozone formation, increasing the number of severe weather events, and diminishing the performance of existing transportation assets. Unless the region identifies these potential risks it cannot begin planning to address them.  FHWA initiated a climate resilience pilot program and released a Climate Change & Extreme Weather Vulnerability Assessment Framework document for State DOTs and MPOs to use.  ARC should follow the lead of its peers around the country and prepare a climate resilience study for metro Atlanta.

Fourth, ARC should adopt a GHG reduction goal.  Just as the region’s motor vehicle emission budget caps the amount of ozone and particulate matter that can be emitted, ARC should establish a regional GHG emission target.  The region’s short term and long term plans could be modeled against this target to ensure that its climate change reduction goals are achieved.

Forward-looking MPOs and State DOTs have already begun implementing each of these steps and they are quickly becoming best practices in the industry.  These steps will continuing aligning the region with the federal policy trend toward performance-based planning and position the region for future regulations on transportation-related GHG emissions.  ARC should use this update to Plan2040 to evaluate how industry practices around GHG planning have changed since the plan was adopted and ensure that the next plan stays on the cutting edge.

SELC’s complete comments on the Plan 2040 Update can be found here.