Is The Current MARTA Vision Worth The Chase?

The article below was written by Mayor David Belle Isle, the mayor of Alpharetta, who gave me permission to share it with you here.

 

Is The Current MARTA Vision Worth The Chase?

I’m a vision guy. I love looking at something and imagining what it could be; what it could be like; and how to get there. I love chasing a vision and seeing the pieces fall into place. But, for a vision to be worth the chase, the promise of “what could be” has to be better than “what is.”

Last week, I found myself in a makeshift room midway up the interior back stairs of the State Capitol. The room was packed. The air was hot. I was there to testify on behalf of Alpharetta at a committee hearing on the proposed MARTA expansion bill, SB 330. To my surprise, the room was not full of concerned every day citizens seeking faster commute times to home and work. Rather, it was filled with developers, lobbyists, and employees of chamber and public policy groups. Indeed, a total of 7 lobbying firms have been retained to make sure this MARTA bill gets passed and that you vote for it. Big money. Big stakes. Big supporters.

Among others, two developers spoke of how wonderful the MARTA expansion would be for the economy, specifically their economy. They introduced a new phrase: “transit premium.” This is the concept by which the properties serviced by the rail will increase in value by 50%. This is fantastic! Fantastic, that is, if you’re a property owner or developer near a proposed new transit station.

On the whole, I firmly believe that the expansion of public transit is part of the solution as we look to shorten our drive times to home and to work. But, the current $8 Billion proposal has me scratching my head:

  1. What About the 97%ers? Only 3% of commuters within reach of the current rail use MARTA and ridership is down over the past 10 years.
  2. Convenience Factor. For most, using rail involves a six-part process: a drive to the station, a wait for the train, a ride on the rail, a wait for a bus, a ride to a bus stop, and a walk to their building. Real people will weigh that time and hassle against driving straight to work.
  3. Transit for Everyone… Else. Many who support the expansion of MARTA rail are laboring under the hope that others will take the train so that their drive downtown won’t take so long.
  4. Until Death Do It Tax. 43 years is a long time to pay a tax on everything you purchase. This puts the full payment outside my life expectancy. I’m 40.
  5. Bait and Switch. The MARTA project list is disposable. MARTA is not obligated to build the projects the voters are being asked to fund. They should be.
  6. Hadn’t Thought of That. No one has thought to measure the expected improvement, if any, along Georgia 400. For an informed vote, we need to know how much quicker our drives will be.
  7. Federal Match? The proposed expansion is dependent on federal matching funds of $4 Billion. There is no obligation by the Fed to commit these funds. Before MARTA expansion hits a ballot, there should be.
  8. I’m Against What? The ballot question is worded in a way that a “No” vote implies you oppose traffic relief and economic development. The question should be neutral.
  9. Stacked Deck for Alpharetta. If successful, 3 new transit stations will attract 3 new streams of traffic from surrounding areas and require 3 new 2,500-car parking decks constructed MARTA-style.

I truly want to see us, as a region, take on traffic and develop a comprehensive plan. I can see it. That’s my vision. It is imprinted on my mind. Yet, we need to look at all the options openly: heavy rail, new roads, light rail, additional lanes, bus-rapid-transit, managed lanes, bus circulator programs, intersection improvements, signal timing, adaptive traffic, Uber, driverless cars. If we’re not careful, we’ll spend more than half of our transportation dollars on 3% of our commuters. “What could be” will be no better than “what is,” except we’ll have the pleasure of paying for “what should never have been.” The best answer probably lies in some combination of travel methods. We don’t know. But before we vote, let’s find out if this vision is worth the chase.

 

 

Resolution of the Mayor and Council Regarding MARTA Tax Increase

Last night the Alpharetta Mayor and City Council unanimously supported a resolution asking members of the Georgia state legislature to allow Fulton County to finish the transportation improvement process begun last year under House Bill 170. It is my understanding that the Mayor and City Council of Johns Creek have also adopted this resolution.

Last year’s House Bill 170 laid out a well designed plan for investing in the diverse infrastructure needs of a county the size of Fulton. The resolution below would preserve that ongoing process while still providing municipalities more flexibility to expand transit within that framework as needed. You can click on the photo below to read the whole thing.

 

Alpharetta SB 330 Resolution_edited-1

Opinion of Mayor David Belle Isle

For months Fulton County mayors have been meeting to negotiate an agreement regarding a transportation sales tax which was authorized in House Bill 170 passed by the Georgia legislature in 2015. Below is a press release issued today by Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle regarding the matter.

I support our Mayor’s critical approach to an issue that is vital to the future of our region and our state. I am proud to serve with a man who has the courage to stand up for what we both know is right regardless of which way the prevailing political winds may be blowing. You can click below to view the whole statement.

 

DBI MARTA statement

Legitimate Poll shows Overwhelming Opposition to Rail in North Fulton

Supporters of Georgia State Senator Brandon Beach’s MARTA tax increase bill, SB 313, have made many claims about public support for the legislation. As an elected representative of 63,000 people who live in Alpharetta I know many of those claims are inconsistent with the truth. That is why I am pleased to release the findings of an objective, statistically valid poll which demonstrates the people of North Fulton overwhelmingly oppose such a tax increase for the purpose of extending heavy rail in the region.

Legitimate Poll shows Overwhelming Opposition to Rail in North Fulton

Voters in the 5 major cities of North Fulton county have spoken and oppose a massive tax increase to support a Marta heavy rail extension.  When presented with a reasonable and accurate set of facts, the poll showed a clear landslide rebuttal.  Women opposed the tax increase and rail line by almost 63% and Republicans by almost 69%.  Democrats also opposed by a slim majority and African-Americans opposed by over 66%.  All age demographics were a majority against the tax increase and rail line. The poll was conducted by Landmark Communications a respected, non-biased firm.

 

Landmark MARTA poll

A decision of this magnitude deserves better

In an earlier post I wrote about my experience at the state capital last week. For more background you should also read this article about the hearing at GeorgiaPol.com.

As I testified at the senate hearing Senator Beach commented, “We can disagree without being disagreeable” and I couldn’t agree more. That is why some of the comments made by him and others supporting his 50% MARTA tax increase are so troublesome.

That doesn’t make sense to Beach. MARTA’s opponents, he said, are desperate for solutions. “Some of the politicians are saying, well, nobody is going to use it, and then in the next sentence they’re saying it’s going to create so much congestion coming into it. Well, you can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to have all this congestion, you’re going to have ridership. Just tell me one or the other.”

“The politicians are scared to death” of MARTA expansion, Beach said in an interview earlier this week.

What a perfect example of heavy rail supporters insulting their opponents and misleading the public without addressing the facts laid out by their opposition. Senator Beach’s assertion that politicians say, “nobody is going to use it” is just false hyperbole.

I have never heard it said by any opponent of heavy rail. However I have repeatedly pointed out that the U.S. Census shows only 2% of Fulton County residents ride heavy rail to work.

Yet while Senator Beach’s assertion that politicians say “nobody” is going to ride MARTA is false, his assertion that some say it’s going to cause more congestion is true and supported by facts.

Only 5% of the people who live in the zip code surrounding the North Springs MARTA station in Sandy Springs use heavy rail to get to work.

Commute chart Sandy Springs

And since only 846 people who live within walking distance of the station take trains to work MARTA had to build enormous parking garages. Why? Because most of the people who ride the trains have to drive cars to the station.

That is why rush hour traffic around North Springs is so bad the state of Georgia is spending a billion dollars trying to fix the problem while Sandy Springs is considering building monorails and the Perimeter CID is designing ways to expand surface streets to accommodate more cars, buses and trolleys at taxpayer expense.

So when Mr. Beach demands to know whether it is “one or the other” the response is “the other” because no politician says nobody will ride MARTA trains. Instead informed politicians say that while a small group of people around train stations will ride them the overwhelming majority of riders are forced to drive cars to the station making traffic worse.

Which means a bill dictating MARTA must expand using expensive, inflexible heavy rail lines along GA 400 will force commuters to crowd surrounding streets exacerbating congestion. The only public transportation that can effectively address existing congestion issues while improving economic development opportunities is Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

The people of North Fulton are tired of congestion on the arterial roads and surface streets around GA 400. Of course other people have a vested interest in making sure transit forces people to visit the Georgia 400 corridor.

That’s why it was perfectly reasonable for Senator Beach to sponsor Senate Bill 313. Senator Beach is President of the North Fulton Community Improvement District (CID) a tax district created specifically to increase the property values of commercial properties along GA 400.

Understanding that, it makes sense for Senator Beach to pretend that North Fulton is doomed if taxpayers don’t spend billions of tax dollars to extend heavy rail into the CID there. No law forces political decisions to be decided on objective facts. So if Senator Beach supports a regressive tax increase which takes money from single moms in East Point to build train stations on three properties within the North Fulton CID it is perfectly fine. Even if it doesn’t seem fair, it’s good business for the CID.

Which is why it was also perfectly reasonable for Mr. Mark Toro to speak in favor of Senator Beach’s MARTA tax increase. Mr. Toro is a partner in North American Properties, the company now selling their Avalon mixed use development in Alpharetta. If Avalon is worth $500 million now it should be worth tens of millions more with a MARTA station. That’s just good business.

That’s the same reason Mr. Toro was a vocal supporter of the failed Tsplost tax that would have brought heavy rail to Atlantic Station in 2012. Now that North American has sold Atlantic Station and has Avalon on the market it is no surprise he supports a bill forcing Johns Creek retirees to pay for a MARTA station there.

And if Mr. Toro has to tell people who live in the City of Atlanta that objections to Senator Beach’s proposal are based on “racism” and a “bunch of old white guys”… so be it. If that’s what it takes to convince minority taxpayers in Atlanta they should pay for a 2.4 billion dollar amenity in the North Fulton CID, that’s just good business.

But the truth is that most elected officials in North Fulton support expanding some form of transit. Objections to Senator Beach’s 50% MARTA tax increase are not based on racism, irrational fears or muddled thinking but on sound reasoning and fiscal responsibility.

SB 313 diverts billions of dollars from efforts to build a sustainable transportation network that can support a vibrant region and directs them to an overpriced, inflexible mode of transportation that primarily benefits the commercial properties like Avalon within the North Fulton CID. To characterize principled, informed opposition to Senate Bill as irrational fear or uninformed reactionary politics is insulting.

A decision of this magnitude deserves better.

 

Comments about the SB 313 Hearing

I commented on an article at GeorgiaPol.com about a hearing I attended regarding Senator Brandon Beach’s 50% MARTA tax increase proposal. It’s the best article I have seen about the meeting and you should read the whole thing here.

I am including my comment below for readers here.

I appreciate your coverage of the event but am disappointed by your characterization of this discussion as “histrionics”. While there were some jabs taken by both sides at Senator Albers’ hearing there were also a lot of facts and objective analysis presented.

The population of the City of Atlanta was 496,973 in 1970 and MARTA was created the next year. By the 2010 census the City of Atlanta’s population had declined to 420,003 residents while the population of the surrounding metropolitan areas increased by more than 3 million.

For 45 years an outdated transit plan concentrated on a stagnant urban core received billions of dollars in sales tax revenues while booming areas of growth have been starved of money for burgeoning infrastructure needs. Senator Beach’s 50% MARTA Tax increase proposal compounds that error and makes it worse by cementing it in place for another 50 years.

North Fulton is booming and Alpharetta has attracted thousands of new jobs over the last few years despite claims of impending doom by Senator Beach and Mark Toro. The greatest threat to that success is the congestion on our surface streets, arterial roads and GA 400. Senator Beach’s plan would do nothing to address our needs would make it even more difficult for cities to address them.

The legislature tried to address that problem with HB 170 last year which allowed Fulton County to levy an additional 1% sales tax to be distributed among its municipalities for those crucial infrastructure needs. Senator Beach’s tax increase bill complete destroys that framework by cutting the funds available to cities and increasing the MARTA tax by 50% for so long that the Millennial generation will be on Medicare by the time it expires.

SB 313 would cost the City of Alpharetta alone nearly $42 million dollars over the 5 years permitted currently. The cities of North Fulton combined would lose a total of $251 million dollars to MARTA. That is money that could address immediate needs and required to be allocated for projects which can be completed or substantially begun within 5 years. But under Senator Beach’s bill that $251 million would be diverted to MARTA projects dependent on receiving billions of dollars from the federal government and under the best of circumstances would not even be through the environmental studies phase in 5 years.

And as I stated along with several other speakers including Mr. Feigenbaum, the only credentialed transportation expert to testify, Bus Rapid Transit is the only transit method which makes any sense in low density suburban areas like North Fulton. Curiously HB 313 actually designates the cheaper, more efficient BRT for expansion in Dekalb County but there has been no explanation for the extra billion dollars it would cost to use heavy rail in Fulton.

For those wondering where the tax revenue projections I use come from they are the numbers compiled by Fulton County for HB 170 negotiations among the cities.

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.