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The Transportation Referendum from a Capitalist Planner’s Perspective

The Transportation Referendum from a Capitalist Planner’s Perspective

 

Can a 1 penny tax fix congestion in Atlanta?

 Georgia voters are apparently being asked this question for the upcoming transportation referendum vote on July 31st.  Asking voters that question infuriates me for two reasons.  One, congestion isn’t a problem that can be fixed.  And two, the perceived problem of congestion is shrouding the real issue, which is a question about the long term economic viability of Atlanta’s development patterns, i.e. how we build stuff.

 

Congestion is not a problem that can be fixed.

 …At least not in the traditional sense.  Congestion is unavoidable with dense urban development.  Ask drivers in London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo.  All of these cities have world renowned public transportation systems, yet they all suffer from horrendous traffic.  Recently London introduced congestion pricing in an attempt to price drivers off the road during peak hours.  It’s not a solution, but it’s a way to make it better.  I repeat that you cannot ‘fix’ congestion.

If you’re looking for a problem to fix, consider mobility.  Mobility is what a transportation planner is really concerned with, even though they can’t always say that correctly.  What I described above, the London congestion pricing model, addresses mobility directly.  Officials in London were concerned that mobility through the city was stifled during rush hour and they identified a solution.  Price motorists off the road and onto alternate modes of transportation (rail, bus, bike, etc.) to improve everyone’s ability to get around.  Not everyone is 100% happy, but, like solving congestion, that’s impossible.

I ask you not to vote for or against the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST) based on whether or not you think it will fix congestion.  It won’t.  Atlanta will always be congested unless its overall economy collapses making it a city more like Detroit.  What you should consider is whether or not you think it will improve mobility for residents and visitors of Atlanta.  Easier mobility means everyone can get around cheaper and faster than before.  Cheaper and faster transportation means more consumers.  I’ll let you proceed to your nearest economics book to learn about demand side versus supply side economics to decide if you think more consumers is a good thing.

 

If the problem is mobility, how do we fix that?

 …very simply.  A long term shift, say 30 to 50 years, toward transit oriented development should do the trick.

Atlanta’s lack of mobility is derived from is history of leap frog development, which led to a massive amount of poorly connected suburban neighborhoods.  If you’re curious about what leap frog development looks like you can drive North on SR 400 starting at Lenox road all the way up to Cumming.  This style of development has happened in nearly every direction out of Atlanta, but North 400 is a prime specimen of the leapfrog effect.

Easily accessible land and low transportation costs made it easy to move suburban development farther away from the city center.  It made for short term, easy profits so long as people kept moving outward.  This type of development started post World War II and has been the American standard for how cities grow.  Demand for transit oriented development has waxed and waned over the last half century.  Over the last 2 decades, both baby boomers and younger professionals have started demanding well connected walkable developments.  City governments are responding to the demands from developers to make it easier to create such places.  Cities like Portland have introduced growth limits and Nashville has enacted a form based zoning code to guide density and require less zoning approval.

Let me take you back to a simpler time.

A transportation package isn’t the solution for the problems created by leap frog development.  Any public transportation will be vastly underused and underfunded.  As is the case with MARTA, low funding and wavering demand make for a very, very underutilized system that is a perpetual downward spiral.  Public transportation doesn’t work with the low density.  Low density suburban neighborhoods can’t create the ridership volume or the necessary tax dollars to support it.  That is, unless special taxes are enacted to specifically address transportation needs.  Using taxes to front the origination cost of the transportation projects will help guide development and create a better connected city.  It’s what Washington D.C. did.  While it’s not the perfect city, the downtown is revived from ghost town status and it’s drawing in talented professionals like moths to a porch light.

A combination of transportation funding and relaxed zoning codes regarding density and mixed uses can spur such a turn around.  One alone won’t be successful.

I won’t delve into each project and how they could affect long term mobility and development opportunities. But, I’d suggest you do so.  If you’d like to please visit The Atlanta Regional Roundtable to get a great look at what’s actually on the list.

 

After reviewing the projects on the list, sit down and consider whether or not they will improve safe, cheap, and easily accessible mobility around the Atlanta region.  If you think it will help, vote yes, if not, vote no.  Just try to avoid using congestion as your measuring stick because no one can answer that impossible question.

– Hunter

  1. Darron
    DarronAug 02, 2013

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