Moving Beyond the Congestion Argument
We have been trying to solve traffic congestion for as long as cars have been around. We have tried adding more lanes, and quickly learned what induced traffic was. We have tried spreading out so that we didn’t bottleneck thousands of people into a confined area, and ended up with sprawl. We tried getting creative with HOT lanes, HOV lanes, diverging diamonds, opening up shoulders, and timed signals. We have introduced heavy rail, light rail, monorail, buses, rapid buses, electric buses, streetcars, and trolleys. And yet our roads remain clogged. It is because of this, the TSPLOST campaign needs to move beyond relieving congestion.
I know that if it weren’t for transit, hundreds of thousands of additional cars would be jamming the roads. Filling them even more so then they are now. But traffic congestion is also dependent on road capacity. If the downtown connector wasn’t 16 lanes wide, and was only 8, we would see tens of thousands of more transit users, but the road would still be at full capacity. If it was 24 lanes wide it would still be as congested as it is today. And if the capacity is there to move at just a slow creep, people drive. That is why cities like Chicago, Washington, and New York, cities with some of the best transit systems in the world; consistently hang onto the top spots for the most congested roads in the country. High population equals greater traffic. The passage of TSPLOST will definitely take cars off the road. But it won’t stop others who normally don’t drive from filling those vacated spots in the traffic jam.
The campaign for TSPLOST needs to campaign on the ideas of transportation options and economic development, even more so than congestion relief. There is this fear amongst anti TPSLOST voters that the introduction of additional transit options will take away from their roads, or that they will be paying for something that they don’t use. But what they forget about is tens of thousands of Atlantans who have been dumping money into the road pot for years. Residents who either by choice, or by necessity, depend on transit or have no personal use for roads. This money has come from their property taxes (and yes Tea Partiers, transit users do pay property taxes because not all of them are poor and homeless as many of your ignorant politicians have attempted to insinuate), from sales taxes, and overall from tax revenue that could have been put to better use on schools, parks, better housing, and countless other community projects. Despite what many think, roads are not solely paid for with fuel, license, and automobile taxes. A driver’s commitment to TSPLOST encourages transportation options. The same options that many drivers have been given for decades through interstates, highways, and additional roads that have been piggy backed onto the rest of the population. My tax money has been diverted for years to provide surface streets so that 10 residents on Wisteria Lane can have their quiet home that bumps up to the woods. I think it is only fair that they contributed an extra penny so that I can go to the grocery store without starting up a car.
Economic development has probably been the most overlooked benefit of this proposal. We are just a shade over two months away from the vote, and one of the most important benefits of this tax for everyone has barely been touched upon despite there being studies and countless physical evidence that anyone can go see for themselves to prove it. Rail creates economic development. There is no way around that. Sure there are rail stops in bad neighborhoods, just as there are roads. But finding a redevelopment district or neighborhood that was turned into a well valued high activity place along a rail line is much easier than finding one off of an interstate. And it’s simply because of density. Sure there is a Wal-Mart off exit two hundred who gives a damn that appears to be busy. But that is one company paying property taxes (often not very much). But I can easily take you to countless rail stops around this country where hundreds of residences and dozens of businesses and offices have congregated in a single location, all generating much more economic activity and revenue than a single big box warehouse. Who do you think generates more income? The single use super store whose employees make minimum wage and the goods being sold are low dollar crap being purchased by people with limited income. Or the same amount of land along a rail line that has hundreds of residents paying property taxes, along with the businesses and the offices, who in many cases are also producing jobs with much higher pay than a cashier at Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, and Bed Bath and Beyond. All the while promoting entrepreneurs and innovators in the same densely filled environment. But I guess anti TSPLOST people are probably upset since they can’t get a lawn bag of potato chips and a bucket of double fudge brownie ice cream in Downtown Decatur. Regardless that is the type of economic activity that generates income, tax revenue, wealth, and neighborhood improvements. These are the type of benefits that everyone gets to enjoy. More tax revenue in the city, county, and state’s coffers equals more projects that can expand economic activity for the region and provide better schools and parks. The money that would be put into transit, would come right back through an assortment of beneficial opportunities.
As much as I rag on Charlotte, this kind of instant reward can be seen along the northern most portion of their light rail line. It’s just over nine mile long line didn’t eliminate traffic on I-485, and it didn’t run the city broke either. But what it did do, was help take an area that was full of old warehouses and industry and turn it into a rather bustling area. Even before it was built, developers were clamoring over property that used to only generate pollution and minimal income. Condos, apartments, live work units, retail and offices sprung up. One of the best projects in the city, a combination of condos, rentals, and live work units, filled up rapidly generating new activity. Which spawned businesses to relocate and rehabilitate old warehouses and industrial facilities. And all of this generates much more income for the city than did the new Wal-Mart and Ikea that opened on the other side of town, directly off the interstate. The South End area still bustles, and if the economy ever turns around there are a multitude of projects waiting in the pipeline to further advance it, generating even more revenue. Last time I checked the Wal-Mart and Ikea weren’t planning on giving up any of their acres of parking for new development and the green space around them is sacred because it was the only way they could get their building permits. The area around the light rail isn’t perfect. The city still permitted a handful of strip shopping buildings directly along the line shortly before it opened. But it is a hell of a lot better than what it used to be, and all of this was accomplished because of a ½ cent sales tax increase. It is not irony that much of Atlanta’s activity and most valuable property sits along or near a MARTA line, and that some of the fastest redeveloping areas are along it as well. Nor is it irony that the areas of the city that are most blighted and generate the least amount of income were bisected from the rest of the city by an interstate.
TSPLOST and transit provide options. Options that a majority of young professionals yearn for. And like it or not, it is those that are 35 and under, the same group who said in a majority that they would rather have an iPhone over a car, that will be the economic future. Be it as employees or entrepreneurs. In order to attract talent you have to provide what is desired. The flexibility to live without a car, along with a strong urban environment are of the utmost importance in attracting that talent. If TSPLOST doesn’t pass and we make no moves on transit, that talent will go elsewhere. That same talent, that if it remained or relocated here that would have created jobs, revenue, and countless other attributes that we all would have benefited from. And in case any of you anti TSPLOST people haven’t noticed, we aren’t necessarily bursting at the seams with economic activity. And where you do see it, it’s not found at whatever lifestyle fake new urbanism development off of interstate I-Going Nowhere Fast. It’s found in the city, and often situated very closely to transit. There is a reason why four high rises are in the works (3 currently under construction) in Midtown while your subdivision probably hasn’t seen four homes built in the last four years. And I can guarantee you that reason isn’t the proximity to the downtown connector.
I love the graphics and the statistics of many of the TSPLOST ads I have seen. They are informative, factual, and make a good point. But if we are to get this vote passed we have to move beyond congestion. We need to show the impact it will have economically through redevelopment and jobs. We need to show examples of how it has worked in other cities and the benefits that have been reaped. We need to show how more options increases Atlanta’s fluidity and its attractiveness to America’s top talent. We must show that the extra penny we all pay is about even more than just moving people around. We need to show the significant amount of financial waste that our excessive network of roads has created. Atlanta has the transit foundation. We just need to show that TSPLOST could be the thing that puts us back up top and that we can be about more than just roads and interstates. And by doing this it limits the amount of factual opposition that anti TSPLOST voters can attempt to hurl.