That’s the problem

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Last Thursday I attended the Evening to Support Transit Expansion With Senator Brandon Beach in Alpharetta hosted by the organization Advance ATL. It was a friendly and informal event held to support Alpharetta State Senator Brandon Beach’s proposed legislation which will permit Fulton County to increase the current MARTA sales tax by 50%. The additional $130 million a year would fund the expansion of MARTA’s heavy rail trains as far as Windward Parkway in Alpharetta.

Most of the people who attended were affiliated with Advance Atl but there were also representatives of the Sierra Club, the Council for Quality Growth and the Atlanta Regional Commission among others. There was even a state legislative candidate from Gwinnett County advocating better transit access for the impoverished immigrants in the district she would like to represent.

Of the 35-40 people attending I only spotted 5 people who live in Alpharetta: Senator Brandon Beach and his lovely wife, Alpharetta City Councilman Jason Binder, one person who identified himself as an Alpharetta resident and me. Suffice it to say that for an event to support a transit tax hike that will have an enormous impact on the people of Alpharetta the crowd was overwhelmingly composed of millennials who drove from inside the perimeter.

The casual environment of the event provided an excellent opportunity to discuss transportation, taxes and transit with people who are actively lobbying to pass Senator Beach’s tax hike. I found my conversations with a gentlemen who is a Transit Coordinator for the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) and a woman who is a transit advocate for the Sierra Club especially enlightening.

The Transit coordinator for ARC actually made the most thought provoking comment of the evening to me. He and I had a great discussion about heavy rail, my reasons for believing heavy rail would be the absolute worst possible transit option for Alpharetta and why based on those reasons I believe Senator Beach’s tax increase would have a devastating impact on the future of Alpharetta and North Fulton County.

We discussed the point that heavy rail was too expensive for the small number of people it would serve. We discussed how heavy rail was too inflexible to justify the exorbitant expense at a time when the future of transportation will be determined in large part by innovations like self driving automobiles and more flexible work environments. We even discussed how heavy rail would create worse rush hour traffic in North Fulton because it would concentrate heavier automobile traffic on the arterial roads as the majority of train riders would have to drive from other areas during the times our roads are already the most congested.

Then I mentioned that heavy rail was also the worst possible solution because it would never serve more than 7% of the surrounding population and would therefore never be feasible given the residential densities which foster the quality of life people here desire. His candid response was,”Well… that’s the problem.

That’s when I realized that to a transit coordinator from the Atlanta Regional Commission the problem is that the people of Alpharetta reject the dense, urban environment needed to justify exorbitantly expensive and inflexible trains which would only make our traffic worse. Which is very different than the problem from the perspective of people who live in Alpharetta, prefer our green spaces, great schools and low crime rates but don’t want to be stuck in traffic on their way to work or back home to the lifestyle they love.

On one hand you have rail advocates who want suburban Alpharetta to become a dense, urban environment to support the lifestyle and transportation mode they prefer. But on the other hand you have people who enjoy a quality of life that can’t exist in an urban environment and simply want a cost effective mode of transportation to support their lifestyle. So when we get right down to it that is the problem: as a region we haven’t agreed on the problem we are trying to solve and if we can’t agree on the problem we will never agree on the solution.

North Fulton is a pretty affluent area. If most residents in Alpharetta or Johns Creek or Milton wanted to live in Sandy Springs or Buckhead they could… but they don’t. They prefer exceptional school districts, lower crime rates, and single family homes with yards for children and pets to play in. That is why they live here and they expect their elected officials to provide transportation solutions which support that quality of life.

I ran for office because I love Alpharetta. I love living in a city full of diverse people from all over the world who have chosen to make Alpharetta their home because they believe it is the best place in Georgia to raise a family and do business. I love my single family house on a 1/3 of an acre with grass and oak trees on a cul de sac lot. I love coming home to deer and chipmunks in my front yard and the occasional hawk or owl perched on my son’s basketball goal. I believe Alpharetta is a special place and so do thousands of other people who invest their time and money in this community to keep it that way.

And yet my neighbors and I are not so arrogant as to believe everyone should share our preferences. I have never heard a neighbor criticize people who live in Buckhead or Kirkwood for choosing to live in areas with higher crime and poor schools because they prefer urban environments with easier access to heavy rail. I have also never heard any of my neighbors advocate for higher taxes on those people who don’t choose our lifestyle to subsidize our preferences.

Different people have different priorities and should have the freedom to live as they choose as long as it doesn’t negatively impact other people’s rights. Fortunately events like the one Advance ATL hosted allow people with different backgrounds and perspectives to share their views face to face.

Because until we agree on the problem we can’t hope to find a solution… that’s the problem.

Caution Recommended on Sales Tax Increase for Rail Transit

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation has published an analysis of the proposed tax increase being pushed by State Senator Brandon Beach to fund MARTA heavy rail expansions. You should read the whole article by Baruch Feigenbaum here but I will highlight a few of the most critical points here as well.

The north Fulton corridor, in contrast, has a population density of approximately 1,500 people per square mile, far too low to support rail.

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Given the high cost of expansion of rail and the corridor’s low population and employment densities, a bus rapid transit/express bus line using SR 400’s soon-to-be-constructed express lanes would be a much better option.

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Increasing the sales tax is also regressive; it harms low-income riders who depend on transit the most.

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Rail systems, which are hub and spoke, are designed to transport workers from suburban regions to downtowns. But many metro Atlanta jobs are in the suburbs and most workers commute from suburb to suburb. Many residents of North Fulton commute to the Cumberland area, North DeKalb area or other job centers without rail service. Expanding the rail line is no benefit to all these workers.

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North Fulton could have BRT connections to East Cobb, North DeKalb, Southwest Gwinnett, South Forsyth, and Southeast Cherokee counties. Rail is estimated to be 16- to 22 times the cost of bus rapid transit, which means that for one MARTA heavy-rail expansion we could provide 20 high quality bus rapid transit expansions.

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New transit technology is likely to revolutionize transit service over the next 30 years. Many Millennials are substituting ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft for traditional fixed-route transit. Autonomous vehicles while still in the development stage, are likely to revolutionize transit service and land use. While quality mass transit service is important today, policy makers should build a system that has the flexibility to evolve with new technological developments.

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A new quarter-penny sales tax for transit could build one heavy-rail extension that would lock up transit funding and lock in an aging technology for the foreseeable future and take more than 100 years to pay off. Alternatively, the same funding could implement a network of high-quality express bus and bus rapid transit service across North Fulton County.

Any objective analysis shows that Senator Beach’s proposed tax increase for heavy rail would be a tremendous misallocation of resources in a time when transportation dollars are too hard to come by already. What a shame.

Alpharetta City Council Meeting Agenda February 1, 2016

Below is the agenda for Monday night’s Alpharetta City Council meeting along with highlighted links to many of the supporting materials. Please feel free to leave questions and comments about agenda items in the comment section and I will do my best to respond in a timely manner.

I. CALL TO ORDER
II. ROLL CALL
III. PLEDGE TO THE FLAG
IV. CONSENT AGENDA
A. Council Meeting Minutes (Meeting of 01/19/2016)
B. Council Meeting Minutes (Meeting of 01/25/16)
C. Financial Management Report for the month ending December 31, 2015.
V. PROJECT UPDATES
A. Convention Center
B. City Center – Public Development
C. City Center – Private Development
VI. BOND DISCUSSION
A. Discussion of Potential Recreation and Parks Bond Projects
VII. PUBLIC HEARING
A. CLUP-15-14/Z-15-15 Oak Hall Companies/Webb Bridge Road
B. MP-15-06/V-15-12 Marriott Courtyard/Pkwy 400 Pod C
VIII. OLD BUSINESS
A. PH-15-24 Sign Ordinance And Text Amendments
Second Reading
IX. NEW BUSINESS
A. Discussion of Financial Audit Reports
B. Fire Engine Acquisitions (Replacement Of Fire Engines #4 And #6)
C. FY2016 Cured-in-Place Pipe (CIPP) Lining Project
D. Update To Personnel Policies: Bereavement Leave
X. PUBLIC COMMENT
XI. WORKSHOP
A. UPDATE: MARTA Route And Fare Changes
XII. REPORTS
XIII. ADJOURNMENT

Senator Beach Proposes 50% MARTA Tax Hike

Every man, woman and child in Fulton county has to pay a 7% sales tax which means a hundred dollar pair of shoes really costs them $107. Of that $7 tax one dollar goes to subsidize MARTA. It may not sound like much but over the course of a year it adds up to about $265 million dollars.

Now two hundred and sixty five million dollars is a lot of money no matter how you look at it but in a county with a million residents it might be justified if the taxes were going to something everyone uses, needs or wants. Unfortunately in a county plagued by congestion only a tiny percentage of Fulton County residents use MARTA trains during rush hour.  The census charts below demonstrate only 2% of the county’s population ride MARTA trains to work.

Fulton commute chartFulton commute stats

More people work from home or even walk to work than ride MARTA trains but we pay hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize the trains. It is a perfect example of why Fulton County already has transportation issues. Politicians allocate transportation money based on politics rather than sound fiscal policy.

Which brings us  to this news story from 11 Alive News about Alpharetta’s own State Senator Brandon Beach who is proposing a 50% MARTA sales tax hike to expand trains into North Fulton. While I couldn’t disagree more with Senator Beach on this issue I do appreciate his consistency. He was pushing for heavy rail in his dual role as CEO of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce and President of the North Fulton CID long before he was elected to the state legislature.

But there is absolutely no objective justification for a massive tax increase to expand the least used, least efficient, least flexible and most expensive transit option available in Fulton County. Over the past few decades billions of dollars have been spent to subsidize a rail system which serves a tiny  portion of our population while the roads that support 100% of residents have been sorely neglected. Any further diversion of transportation money to MARTA trains will only make the problem worse.

A transportation tax increase of hundreds of millions of dollars on Alpharetta residents dedicated to trains that would make traffic here worse would be unconscionable so as an elected representative for 63,000 residents I will not support this effort. Instead I will vigorously oppose any legislation which would permit a 50% MARTA tax increase and encourage my fellow elected officials in Fulton County to do the same.

 

Growth and Traffic in Fulton County

 

Transportation funding will be a crucial issue for Fulton County in 2016 as mentioned in this previous article. Transportation can often be a complex issue to discuss but in Fulton County it is further complicated because it involves a million people stretched over 90 miles including the high density urban areas of Atlanta, medium density suburban areas and extremely low density rural areas concentrated at either end of the county.

The county’s demographics are as varied as the geography as well. Over the last 40 years Fulton County has become a true melting pot with people from all over the world representing every economic background imaginable.

Given these characteristics it is important to understand that there is no universal solution to solving transportation issues. Expecting a single solution that would allow a million people from varied geographic, cultural and economic backgrounds to reach unanimous consent would be unreasonable. But it is reasonable to believe that an objective evaluation of current options could result in a reasonable proposal that an overwhelming majority of residents can agree on.

The first step of that process is to objectively assess our current situation so let’s take a look at the numbers. The largest city in Fulton County is Atlanta and our metropolitan area was one of the fastest growing metro areas in the nation from the year 2000 to 2010.

As you can see in the charts below the Atlanta metro population increased by more than 1.1 million people between the last two censuses taken. The population of Atlanta actually decreased slightly over that decade but the population of Fulton county as a whole increased by more than 100,000 people.

Fulton growth 00-10Atlanta-MSA comparison

In the year 2000 Roswell and Alpharetta were the only cities which existed in North Fulton county but they only accounted for 130,000 of the 297,000 people who lived in the area. The other 167,000 residents lived in areas of unincorporated Fulton County until the municipalities of Sandy Springs, Johns Creek and Milton were formed.

The formation of the new cities took place before the 2010 Census which showed the population of North Fulton to be over 347,000. So over ten years there was a total increase of approximately 50,000 residents in the region which equals a 17% growth rate.

That means North Fulton County has been one of the fastest growing areas in one of the most rapidly growing metropolitan regions in the United States over the last 15 years. So it is only natural an area experiencing such growth would also experience growing pains. In North Fulton the growing pain most often complained about is rush hour traffic.

And while traffic is definitely an issue most areas only experience congestion for a few hours a week. In Alpharetta we generally have complete mobility for about 20 hours a day during the week and any time on the weekend. During the summer when schools are out there is hardly any rush hour at all in most areas.

For example on an average Tuesday morning at 11:00 a.m. a person can drive anywhere in Alpharetta in about 20 minutes. They could get to I-285 on GA 400 in about thirty minutes or even reach Hartsfield Airport in less than an hour.

So as we assess infrastructure needs in North Fulton county it is important to realize that most roads flow freely except for about 4 hours a day, five days a week. The other 88% of the time we already have an abundance of transportation capacity.

The issue North Fulton faces isn’t really a lack of road capacity but rather a problem of poor traffic flows during peak hours. The distinction won’t make you feel better when you’re  sitting through 3 cycles of a red light to get through an intersection during rush hour… but we have to identify the right problem if we want to find the right solution.

However as we discuss what to do about traffic in 2016 let us not lose sight of the fact that it is only an issue because North Fulton provides one of the most attractive places in the world to live, raise a family and do business. As a region we have successfully created a place where people and companies from all over the world want to be. That is a good thing and we should not take it for granted.

Success does bring challenges but they are the challenges we should welcome as we work to resolve them.

 

 

 

North Fulton Transportation Funding 2016

The year 2016 promises to be a defining one for the City of Alpharetta and our neighbors in North Fulton County. In Alpharetta we expect to see construction begin on the land in front of City Hall as well as hundreds of homes and townhomes in the surrounding area. Construction of the second phase in Avalon has begun and we expect to see a new convention center take shape along with the hotel, stores, restaurants and apartments also planned on the site.

Around North Fulton our neighbors are also expecting great things. Sandy Springs has begun construction of its own town center and is welcoming the North American Headquarters for Mercedes to town. Roswell is working hard to reinvigorate their beautiful historic areas with new growth while the relative newbies of Johns Creek and Milton are in various stages of creating their own visions of their future.

These are exciting times to live and do business in North Fulton. We are blessed.

And as all of these great things are going on there is an underlying discussion taking place that will affect us all. How will we work as a region to build and maintain the roads and infrastructure needed to accommodate this growth and development?

For the past two decades North Fulton has experienced tremendous growth but the network of roads and infrastructure have not grown accordingly. Anyone who has driven in other metropolitan areas knows that traffic in North Fulton is not as bad as most other comparable cities but it is still an important issue.

That is why the Georgia state legislature passed House Bill 170 last year which raised taxes to fund infrastructure projects at the state level. The bill was heavily publicized after its passage but many people in North Fulton County still don’t know about a seldom discussed feature of the legislation.

HB 170 allows Fulton County to hold a county wide referendum to authorize an additional 1% sales tax increase for funding local transportation projects. There has been media coverage about this lately but many people still don’t realize how this discussion will impact our region for decades to come.

Current projections show that a 1% sales tax increase for 5 years could raise more than $83 million to be used for transportation projects in the city of Alpharetta alone. The total amount projected for all of North Fulton would be more than $500 million. That would approximately double the amount cities currently have to address transportation projects and could make a huge dent in the backlog of projects which have accumulated as fast growing cities struggled to keep up.

But will residents vote for a large tax increase if it’s for transportation? Would the money go to fund road improvements or will some of it go to pay even more than the current 1% MARTA sales tax subsidy? Would the tax increase be limited to 5 years as proposed in the legislation? Or will the county and cities agree to extend the tax for 40 years to allow bonds for expanding MARTA?

These are all questions that have yet to be answered. However if the referendum is going to be placed on the November ballot these questions and many others will have to be answered soon. And those answers will go a long way in determining what the City of Alpharetta and North Fulton County look like for the next 10, 20, even 50 years.

So over the next few months I intend to explore many of the questions posed by the proposed Tsplost tax increase proposal. Hopefully this will be a constructive forum for us to discuss what promises to be the most important issue of 2016, North Fulton Transportation funding.

 

 

 

 

Alpharetta City Council Meeting Agenda for January 19, 2016

Below is the agenda for next week’s Alpharetta City Council meeting along with highlighted links to many of the supporting materials. Please note that next week’s meeting will be held on Tuesday night as we observe the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr holiday on Monday.

Please feel free to leave questions and comments about agenda items in the comment section and I will do my best to respond in a timely manner.

I. CALL TO ORDER
II. ROLL CALL
III. PLEDGE TO THE FLAG
IV. PROCLAMATIONS
A. Officer Charles Fannon Retirement
V. CONSENT AGENDA
A. Council Meeting Minutes (Meeting of 01/04/2016)
B. Council Meeting Minutes (Meeting of 1/12/2016)
C. Alcoholic Beverage License Applications
1. PH-16-AB-01 – Alpharetta Family Skate Center
d/b/a The Cooler
10800 Davis Drive
Alpharetta, GA 30022
Consumption on Premises
Liquor, beer, wine, and Sunday Sales
Owner: Alpharetta Family Skate Center
Registered Agent: John Bardis
VI. PROJECT UPDATES
A. Convention Center
B. City Center – Public Development
C. City Center – Private Development
VII. OLD BUSINESS
A. Consideration Of Request For Use Of City Logo By Private Entity
VIII. NEW BUSINESS
A. SR 120- State Bridge to Jones Bridge
B. Miracle Field Drainage Improvements
C. 2035 Comperhensive Plan Update Funding
D. Update To Background Check Policy
E. Update To Extended Leave And Return To Duty Policy
F. Employee Assistance Program Policies And Procedures
G. Grant Funding for Camp Happy Hearts
H. Resolution Authorizing the Adoption of an Amended and Restated City of Alpharetta Retirement Savings Plan
I. Resolution Authorizing the Adoption of an Amended and Restated City of Alpharetta Combined Defined Benefit Pension Plan
J. Fiscal Year 2015 Assistance to Firefighters Grant Application
IX. PUBLIC COMMENT
X. WORKSHOP
A. Staffing Of Building Inspections
XI. REPORTS
XII. ADJOURNMENT TO EXECUTIVE SESSION