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Archive for December, 2011

The Atlanta region is going to vote on a transportation tax within the next year.  The prospects for passage of this 1% sales tax are currently considered to be “iffy”, due in part to the diversity of the region and a lack of a shared vision.  To be sure, traffic problems affect us all, but the approach to solution is not as clear.  In part, it is because the Atlanta region is a divided region.

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Our world is filled with unintentional consequences, of actions taken in good faith that result in unplanned events.  Certainly, the United States Tax Code, currently around 16,000 pages long, is an excellent example.  Every time Congress “fixes” one problem in the Code, creative individuals come up with some new way to bypass it.  Likewise, consider this earlier blog about the effects of MARTA on downtown Atlanta.

There are numerous other examples of unintended consequences.  Kudzu comes to mind.  For those who are not from around here, kudzu is the vine that ate the South, originally brought in for erosion control.  Other examples of unintended consequences include the scene which followed the opening inning of 10¢ Beer Night in Cleveland.  Or the free Frisbee night at one ball park, where the Frisbees were handed out to the first 20,000 attendees, as they came into the park.  Baseball can be a slow game; placing flying disks into the hands of potentially bored patrons just added to the mayhem.

At the heart of any unintended consequence is the notion that such an outcome was not deliberate.  Yet, Atlanta’s Perimeter Highway, I-285, is a monument to unanticipated outcomes.  What started out as a beneficial highway project also resulted in a chasmic divide between people in the Atlanta region.  And there are moments when you have to wonder if it wasn’t an opportunistic motive that was deliberate.

It has been opined that the world is divided into two groups; there are those that divide people into two groups and those that don’t.  All sophistry aside, we often find ourselves being grouped into some sort of identifiable entity.  Men and women, for example.  Republicans and Democrats.  Conservatives and liberals.  Vegetarians and omnivores.  Sports enthusiasts seem to be especially prone to this issue; Georgia versus Georgia Tech for example.  Sometimes it takes on geopolitical tones, such as along the border between Illinois and Wisconsin.  No need to repeat their colorful terms, but eventually things evolve into “Us” and “Them”.

In some cases, having a group identity is helpful to us, but in other cases, one group is “identified” for the purposes of manipulation or discrimination.  There’s a lot of that going on right now for political purposes.  And more than a little of that is being used to create fear for political gain.  It’s not pretty under any circumstances, and it is this notion of division that stands in the way of Atlanta coming to some sort of reasonable decision about whether to tax itself for transportation projects or not.

There was a time when the State of Georgia was solidly under the rule of the Democratic Party.  You have to be really old to remember what it was like.  The process of political change began in the 1960’s, with a Republican candidate for Governor,  Bo Callaway.  At that time, his candidacy was an oddity.  In fact, being a Republican was, in itself, an oddity.  Yet the political tectonic plates have slowly shifted, with Georgia slowly turning into what we now call a red state.  Mind you, it’s the same politicians in many cases, it is just that party loyalties have changed.

That said, I-285 (Atlanta’s Perimeter Highway) is likely to be an example of unintended consequences that have been put to political use.  Completed in the late 1960’s, the Perimeter now clearly serves to define the Atlanta region.  Locals refer to someone as being ITP (Inside the Perimeter) or OTP (Outside the Perimeter).  And there are a lot of cultural differences that have resulted.

As a progressive friend recently observed about the redistricting of our neighborhood into a probable Republican district: “I’ve always kind of regarded living inside the perimeter as living on a reservation for liberals in a conservative state“.   Yet, small fingers of red are working their way ITP.   Now, there’s even a Wal-Mart inside the Perimeter.

Consider the map of  MARTA’s heavy rail rapid transit lines:

It is no coincidence that almost all of the MARTA heavy rail lines are inside I-285; one short length extends outside to the Perimeter Mall area, as it is with a shorter line extended outside to Indian Creek.  It’s not a coincidence because a heavy rail project such as MARTA requires extensive Federal political support.  And such political support is at the whim of the political ruling class.  Federal support for such a transit project means political patronage, labor unions and labor intensive operations.  In short, a massive amount of spending to reward political support.  And, oh by the way, also providing favored political groups with services not available to others.  And the construction of projects such as MARTA’s useless Green Line, built to satisfy a constituency that no longer exists.

This is not to say that those outside of I-285 actually wanted MARTA in the first place.  Nope.  They had a chance to vote for it in the 1960’s, and turned it down flat, which points to a political divide that was simply formalized by the construction of I-285.  It is interesting to look at the original conception of the MARTA system, drawn up in the 1970’s.

MARTA as originally conceived

You will note that several of the heavy rail lines were designed to extend out into the suburbs of Atlanta.  In part, this was based upon the notion that Atlanta is the center of the world, an idea not necessarily shared by all living in the region.  Of course, it did not turn out that way because of the cultural differences between ITP and OTP.  Those ITP have been paying 1% for MARTA since the 1970’s; those OTP have not.

But that’s ancient history.  Now, the big challenge for the Atlanta region is that everybody is being asked to vote for a regional transportation sales tax.  And, as of this writing, there has yet to be a clear voice of support for the proposed transportation projects because the projects themselves reflect the individual tastes of those ITP and OTP.  Inside, the major project, the Beltline, looks like an urban renewal project.  Outside, the emphasis is upon road construction,  Connections to the center of Atlanta via light rail lines have been vocally opposed.  It is the same region with two different voices.

And until there is a clear compelling voice of support, the probability for passage of this tax remains unclear.  At this writing, there is too much that divides us and not enough that reminds us all that transportation really matters for Atlanta.

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