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Archive for the ‘Transportation Tax’ Category

One hallmark of our times has been the inability to reach consensus on many political issues.  It should be noted that your “gridlock” is my “checks & balances”, but even with all that, we should be able to reach an acceptable agreement on political matters.  We certainly did in the past, but not these days.  What used to be Advise & Consent has devolved into Devise & Assent.

So it is with the approaching transportation sales tax referendum in metro Atlanta.  While the entire state of Georgia is having similar referenda, Atlanta really is the center of the action.  In any case, when the subject was first raised about funding regional transportation projects with an additional 1% sales tax, I mistakenly assumed that there would be regional solutions offered.  Silly me.

Instead, the “projects” chosen by leaders outside of I-285 were a hodge-podge of lane widenings, intersection improvements and the like.  As I ran down their list of these transportation projects, I realized that in many cases, I had no idea where these projects were located.  Even more so, I probably had not driven over any of those stretches of highway in recent decades, if ever.  Yet, I was being asked to support them.

Not to be outdone, inside of I-285 “leadership” chose similar projects, but at least I was somewhat familiar with some of them.  The projects chosen by the City of Atlanta were primarily devoted to the Beltline, which will not produce improvements in Atlanta’s traffic situation for many years, if not longer.  And, rather than devote all their financial energy to one segment of the Beltline that would serve a goodly number of people, they chose to split things up into two disparate segments for political expediency.  If you’re interested, my earlier coverage on the Beltline project is located here.

This Beltline expenditure proposal was made after already having received a substantial amount of Federal transit money.  That money, along with local funding, has been allocated to a project that will do nothing for the average Atlanta commuter.  Not a great moment for the Atlanta region.

I find myself in the awkward position of agreeing with one of the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s more liberal opinion columnists.  In the January 8, 2012 print edition of the AJC, Jay Bookman writes “Region should run transit“.  He’s right about a couple of issues, most notably:

  • Rather than take the political risk of deciding what projects should be built and which should not, they forced that decision upon local elected leaders in the region.

and

  • If the money to fund transit is to be raised from taxpayers in this region, with no state aid involved, then those taxpayers should have a regional governing authority that they can hold accountable. And if elected leaders from the Atlanta region are required to put their jobs on the line in designing a regional transit system, those same leaders should have substantial authority over how that system operates.

Presumably, the voters already sense that this process is badly flawed.  Thus, people like Sam Massell, a respected local political expert, view the upcoming transportation tax vote as unlikely to pass.  So do many of the  local political pundits.  Right now, there’s just nothing compelling for the average voter to choose to add another 1% sales tax to an already high burden.  Add to that the fact that Fulton County and DeKalb County have already taxed themselves 1% for decades for local transportation.

[It should be noted that former Mayor Massell, although he is unsure of the possibility of this tax’s passage, is sure that such a tax is necessary.  Please see his op-ed, “Mass transit brings freedom” in the January 17, 2012 edition of the AJC.  Also, please see John Sherman’s Q&A, “More feasibility research needed” in the same edition. ro’c]

Regardless, when the subject of Atlanta traffic comes to mind, this is the poster child:

However, the hard reality of this situation is two-fold.

  • We could add 50 lanes of highway in each direction and it would eventually look like this again during rush-hours each weekday and on game days.
  • Many of the people stuck in this traffic do not vote in elections held in Atlanta; they’re from someplace else.  Besides the suburbanites, this traffic is filled with people driving to Florida.  They’re from the snow-belt, and they don’t vote in Atlanta.  Or they’re driving a tractor-trailer truck making a local delivery (or, just as likely, sneaking through the center of town to shave off an hour of drive time, even with the backed up traffic).

No.  By leaving transit decisions in the hands of local politicians, the inevitable outcome was a melange of projects designed to garner local political support.  People driving from the snow belt will never see one of our local elected best snipping a ribbon at the opening of a new highway.  Nor will they care.  Much less vote for them.

The voters themselves have apparently signaled that they view this process as bogus and will presumably respond appropriately when the transit tax comes to a vote.  The elected class also seems to understand that things are going awry.  There is talk of change in the air, and with the State General Assembly beginning its annual session, there may be change.

We need leadership on this issue.  In part this leadership needs to be cheer leading for transportation improvements.  And those improvements need to make some sense.  If we’re being asked to tax ourselves, we need to feel that the money is being properly allocated and not going down some rat hole for the benefit of some politician’s brother-in-law.

Everybody talks transparency, but delivering it is much harder.  We need to overcome our problem with reaching consensus about political matters.   In our information age, reaching agreement about political matters has become problematic at all levels of governance.

In this case, we need leadership to address a problem which is killing Atlanta, one rush hour at a time.


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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.

*****

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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Artist's Conception

Popular tastes change.  Sometimes they change because people want to do something differently.  In other cases, change is helped along by unseen hands.  Consider downtown Atlanta.

There was a time when downtown Atlanta was a vibrant place.  Then there was a time when it was decidedly not a vibrant place.  In my recent visits to downtown, all one of them, it seems to be alive again, but with an entirely different cast of characters.  Where once it was the local populace of Atlanta, now it appears to be those who are visiting from other places.  Things change.  A local saying was: “Then grits ain’t groceries and Peachtree don’t go to town.”  For most residents of Atlanta, Peachtree no longer goes to town.  Why should it when every neighborhood in Atlanta has any number of fine restaurants, grocery stores, theaters and just about everything else that a soul needs?  Yes, traffic patterns change, but the change in downtown Atlanta’s personality was helped along by an unintended consequence.

There was a time when the paper bus transfer played a key role in downtown Atlanta’s daily life.

Bus Transfer

The above slip of paper comes to us from the City of Cincinnati, but every town with more than one trolley or bus line had them.  The idea was that you got on the bus to ride across town to a destination, but this required riding on two different buses.  So, when you got on the first bus, you paid your fare and asked for a transfer.  This from the Roanoke bus system:

  • Transferring to Another Bus Route

  1. Free transfer slips are available for passengers who need to take more than one bus route to reach their destination. Ask the operator on your first bus for the transfer slip when you pay your fare.
  2. The transfer slip is good for 30 minutes after the time your first bus reaches the end of its route.  This transfer slip is only valid at our Campbell Court transfer center, or at a connecting end-of-the bus line.
Courtesy: Oran Viriyincy

Bus Transfers

Notice the phrase “The transfer slip is good for 30 minutes after the time your first bus reaches the end of its route.”  So, you get to downtown Atlanta, where your first bus terminates.  You’ve got twenty minutes before your continuing bus arrives.  Or, perhaps, a bit longer.  In many cases, bus drivers could be persuaded to extend the life span of the bus transfer by merely slipping it just a bit further down before tearing it off.  You’ve got plenty of time.  What to do?

For many years, in downtown Atlanta you ducked into little grocery stores, or food shops, or a tailoring shop, or a watch repair shop, or a bank.  Lots of shops.  At that time, downtown Atlanta was alive because it was the center of commercial activity.  In addition to the tall buildings with lawyers and business executives, Atlanta was alive with the vibrancy of an active community of small businesses.

The unintended consequence came when the MARTA heavy rail system was built.  Once the system grew into its present state, buses which used to go all the way into town now were routed into the various rail stations of the system.  Bus transfers are still issued, but where once the point of transfer occurred in downtown Atlanta, it now occurs at a distant MARTA station.  The people that were once in downtown Atlanta because of bus transfers now ride underneath the streets through downtown.  Under the place where stores used to be.

It was probably nothing deliberate on the part of the system’s designers.  And the decay of the old downtown Atlanta was already well under way when MARTA came to town, but I’m old enough to remember a little French restaurant on a side street in what we now call Fairlie-Poplar.  It was Emile’s, and it is long gone.  Paul Hemphill declared his independence from the newspaper there.  Like so many other institutions in downtown Atlanta, Emile’s went away.  It is highly unlikely that Emile’s relied upon the paper bus transfer in the first place.  It wasn’t that kind of restaurant.  But the vibrant downtown Atlanta scene that once was has changed because the bus transfer traffic went away.


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Speaking of political dynamics, DeKalb County is, as usual, in a political uproar.  This time, it’s about transportation funding.  As we approach the October 15th “deadline” for agreement on the proposed transportation projects, a squabble has broken out over rail transit in South DeKalb.  The most recent coverage is here.  The central issue appears to be:

  • Chief Executive Burrell Ellis wants to fully fund the $522 million project by pulling money from a popular road project in north Fulton County. A county commissioner has countered that the county should instead cut back spending on another rail line in central DeKalb.

Actually, cutting back spending “on another rail line in central DeKalb” is a very good idea.  The “another rail line” is the Emory Shuttle line, and it could use some cutting.  I wrote about this earlier, but it’s worth repeating:

Consider the Emory Shuttle project.  There had been background discussions about building a shuttle line from the MARTA Lindbergh Station to Emory University.  Perfectly fine, especially if you have recently tried to find a parking space in the Emory area.  Any parking space.

In its first public appearance, Kyle Wingfield reported:

  • For a combination heavy- and light-rail line from the Lindbergh MARTA station to Emory University, $92 million per mile.

Fine enough.  It’s about 4 miles, so 4 x 92M = $376 Million.  The number did make me curious, so I contacted a friend who had retired from a management position in the track department of a major railroad.  How much does it cost for a mile of railroad track?

His reply:  “Attached is an estimate form for track construction costs in 2009, probably pretty close today’s cost considering the economy.  What are you building? “  Let’s face it, we don’t go down to the corner store and buy a mile of track every day.  Since I know that you’re curious, the 2009 bid for a mile of track came in at $1,159, 352.00 per mile.  Property acquisition, bridge construction, signals, support buildings, locomotives & cars not included.

So, how did we get from $1,159, 352.00 per mile to $92 million per mile?  But wait, there’s more.  Now that MARTA has become involved, the cost has blossomed to $700,000,000.00 (or about $175 million per mile).  If you don’t believe me, it’s project TIA‐M‐028 on the “constrained” list.

What is interesting is the fact that the original plan cited by Wingfield was $92 Million per mile, but if you look across the county line at the Beltline projects, they come in at about $66 Million per mile (the east side line) and $80 Million per mile (the west side line).  And, $92 Million can possibly be justified because the Emory Shuttle line will have several bridge structures, which are costly.

MARTA has two tools in their kit; heavy rail and bus service.  There already is bus service to the Emory area, which wends and twists its way from one heavy rail station, through Emory and then twists its way to another heavy rail station.  And, apparently, it has never occurred to MARTA to create an express bus service from the nearest heavy rail station directly to the Emory area.  This is just further evidence that MARTA has evolved into a bureaucracy that has difficulty doing anything quickly.

By bringing in MARTA, the cost of the project has easily doubled, and we’re just talking about the estimated costs.  Just wait until they start pouring concrete.  The point being that MARTA has all sorts of attendant costs that a simpler design would not.  There are any number of things that will add to the cost of a MARTA heavy rail line to Emory.  All sorts of things.  There will, of course, need to be artwork:

Art

There will be countless studies, compliance officers, sub-contractor documentation, impact studies and much, much more.  This is not to say that a $93 Million per mile project doesn’t have such things, but the proportions get much bigger with a heavy rail line.  And, if you want art, there are lots of free-lancers out there with spray cans that are eager to help.

This is a classic case of mission creep.  Where something starts off at one level and then everybody starts piling on.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  Consider the Princeton University “Dinky”:

Princeton "Dinky"

One train, traveling three miles, from the four track, high-speed NE Corridor:

The "Dinky" at Princeton Junction

Through the woods to Princeton University:

Right to the edge of campus:

Princeton University Station

Since it is the only train on the line, the Princeton Dinky only needs signals at street grade crossings.  It is not a high-speed train, merely a system which takes people from point A to point B, from the high speed trains of the NE Corridor to the ivied corridors of a major university.

Woodrow Wilson and Albert Einstein rode the Princeton Dinky.  And it doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to figure out that an Emory Shuttle doesn’t need to be $700,000,000.00 undertaking.

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The design of HB 277: Transportation Funding virtually assures the give and take of political discussion.  It is the politicians who are deciding which projects are going to be on Atlanta’s list, but it will be the voters who decide if they’ve done a good job. In the language of the day, we no longer use the term “spending”, now it’s “investment.”  As in the Transportation Investment Act of 2010.  And, we don’t use the term “1% sales tax”, it’s a “penny sales tax”.  As in “For pennies a day, you can support a stalled commuter  in Atlanta.”  But I digress.

It’s a daunting reality, since I will be voting on projects in places that I do not know.  And others from places that I do not know will be voting on projects that affect me.  As a resident of the Brookhaven Free State (north DeKalb County), I do take an interest in some of these projects, even though they do not directly improve my life.  The Atlanta Beltline is one such issue, and I’ve covered parts of it earlier.  The original concept of the Beltline was that of a continuous ring around the City of Atlanta.  Built in splendid isolation, the line would not connect to any other line.  There would be no street running.  From the beginning, the line was a gauzy combination of park, running trail, electric railroad and urban development plan.  Reality was bound to stick its head in eventually, but I respect what the Beltline planners were able to accomplish, which is to get Atlanta to think about its transportation structure.

In my opinion, the first phase of the Beltline should have been constructed from the Lindbergh station complex down to DeKalb Avenue.  Doing so would connect two MARTA heavy rail lines with Ansley Park, the Botanical Gardens, Piedmont Park, Grady High School, whatever they’re calling the old Sears building on Ponce, the new 4th Ward Park, the Carter Center and lots of residences along the way.

Of course, that would never do.  Out of respect for the political implications, the City of Atlanta’s leadership has broken the Beltline project up into two parts.  There will be a short segment of about 2 miles on the east side of Atlanta.  And there will be a short segment of about 3 miles on the west side, along with another short segment of about 2 miles that connects the west side to the Atlanta Streetcar Project.

The cars used on the Beltline will probably similar to this Charlotte car:

Siemens S70 Type

The plan is to share storage and maintenance facilities with the Atlanta Streetcar project.  Because these cars ride on flanged wheels rather than rubber tires, getting them out to the Beltline requires rail lines.  For the east side Beltline, a 0.7 mile-long right of way runs from the Beltline along Irwin Street and Jackson Street, connecting to the Atlanta Streetcar at the corner of Jackson and Auburn.

In addition to the Beltline trackage itself (2.6 miles), the west side line requires a connection to the rest of the system.  So the west side of the Beltline project will continue, operating on D. L. Hollowell Parkway to Northside Drive, then to North Avenue, ending at the North Avenue MARTA Station (2.2 miles).  A short segment (.7 miles) connects the west side line to the Atlanta Streetcar line at Centennial Park.  Here, the specifics of these two projects, complete with breathless bureaucratic prose:

TIA-AT-004

The red line is the Beltline right of way, the yellow line is the connector line to the Atlanta Streetcar project.  Here’s the pitch from the promoters:

This project will improve rail transit access to multiple regional employment and activity centers, including downtown Atlanta, by extending the TIGER II‐funded streetcar to the northeast Atlanta BeltLine corridor. The project includes the construction of a streetcar line with stations approximately every ½ mile and 10 years of operations and maintenance funding. It also includes upgrades to the TIGER II‐funded streetcar light maintenance facility at Edgewood Avenue and I‐75/85 as necessary to support a larger vehicle fleet. This project is included in the Atlanta BeltLine Redevelopment Plan, Connect Atlanta Plan, and PLAN 2040. The project begins at the eastern terminus of the TIGER II‐funded streetcar and proceeds through the King Historic District to join the BeltLine corridor at Edgewood Avenue or Irwin Street. The alignment follows the Atlanta BeltLine corridor across North Highland Avenue, SR 10 (Freedom Parkway), North Avenue and US 78/278 (Ponce De Leon Avenue). It terminates north of the intersection of 10th Street and Monroe Drive, which is the southeast corner of Piedmont Park. The project connects Centennial Olympic Park, Downtown Atlanta, Georgia State University, Inman Park Village, Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, Peachtree Center MARTA Station, Piedmont Park, Ponce City Market (AKA City Hall East), The Carter Center, and Woodruff Park.

The observant will notice that they’ve squeezed in some money for the Atlanta Streetcar Project in the form of improvements for the yet-to-be built service facility which will be located under the Downtown Connector.  In any case, the hard numbers: $173,941,758.

  •  Total Mileage: 2.6 miles
  • Cost per mile: $66,644,351.

TIA-AT-007

The red line is the Beltline right of way itself, the green line is the necessary connection to the balance of the streetcar system, which will be a revenue generating route.  The yellow line is the connector line to the Atlanta Streetcar project.  And, the breathless prose:

This project will improve rail transit access to multiple regional employment and activity centers, including downtown and midtown Atlanta, by extending the TIGER II‐funded funded streetcar to the southwest Atlanta BeltLine corridor. The project includes the construction of a streetcar line with stations approximately every ½ mile, an infill station on the MARTA Green Line and 10 years of operations and maintenance funding. It also includes upgrades to the TIGER II‐funded streetcar light maintenance facility at Edgewood Avenue and I‐75/85 as necessary to support a larger vehicle fleet or a new light maintenance facility on the west side of Atlanta. This project is included in the Atlanta BeltLine Redevelopment Plan, Connect Atlanta Plan, and PLAN 2040. The alignment begins at the intersection of SR 139 (Ralph David Abernathy) and Cascade Avenue and follows the Atlanta BeltLine corridor north across I‐20, Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and Joseph E. Boone Boulevard. At US 78/278 (Donald L. Hollowell Parkway), the alignment transitions to the street and follows US 78/278 (Donald L. Hollowell Parkway, Northside Drive and North Avenue) east to Luckie Street. At this point, the line splits with one branch turning south on Luckie Street to connect to the TIGER II‐funded streetcar at Centennial Olympic Park and the other branch continuing east on US 78/278 (North Avenue) to the North Avenue MARTA Station. The project includes an infill station on the MARTA Green Line at Joseph E. Boone Boulevard. The project connects Centennial Olympic Park, Downtown Atlanta, Georgia Aquarium, Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, Historic West End, Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, Midtown Atlanta, Peachtree Center MARTA Station, the Coca‐Cola Company headquarters, Washington Park, Woodruff Park and the World of Coca‐Cola.

The cost, tag, tax and dealer prep:  $427,950,719.

  • Total mileage: about 5.4
  • Cost per mile: $80,283,673.

The cost per mile for this project is higher because of all the street trackage.  One interesting addition is the “ infill station on the MARTA Green Line at Joseph E. Boone Boulevard.”  At this location, the Beltline right of way is occupied by the underutilized MARTA Green Line, so they’ll have to have parallel trackage because the Beltline cars and the MARTA cars are not compatible.  Since there will be track work built in close proximity to the MARTA line, they might as well build a station there.  Of course, it’s only 3/4 of a mile down the track to the Bankhead station on both lines, so you wonder why they’re building this.

As I said at the outset, my sentiments are toward the construction of a longer segment somewhere, rather than a series of shorter disjointed segments everywhere.  But that’s not the way the politics plays out.  And this is all about politics.  Also, there’s a lot of dewy-eyed optimism here, especially for the North Avenue to Bankhead Station segment.  You can just hear the promoters sighing “If you Build it, They Will Come“.  This quote comes from Field of Dreams, and it is helpful to remember that the movie was a work of fiction that centers on the absolute improbability of the events shown in it.  Say what you will, the political process that accompanies this vote, however messy, at least exposes proposed projects to the scrutiny of those who will be paying for it.

The bigger questions remain unanswered.  What is the intent of the Transportation Investment Act?  Does the Beltline fit into this intent?  How long will it take for the Beltline projects to have an effect upon Atlanta traffic?

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A couple days ago, there were two op-ed pieces in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, which I covered, here.  The subject centered on the Atlanta Beltline, which has a decided interest in the money collected by the proposed sales tax for the Atlanta region.  In one corner, mayor of the City of Atlanta Kasim Reed; in the other corner, mayor of the City of Sandy Springs, Eva Galambos.  In her op-ed piece, Galambos stated:

A close examination of the Beltline website maps reveals an astounding fact: Not a single segment of the proposed Beltline intersects the MARTA system at MARTA stations.

As it turns out, that wasn’t exactly right.  In today’s AJC, Thomas Weyandt, Jr., Senior Policy Adviser For Transportation in Mr. Reed’s office, called her on that statement.  As it turns out, there are now three proposed connections to MARTA.  They are, according to Mr. Weyandt, located at North Avenue station, Peachtree Center station and Joseph E. Boone Boulevard.  By the way, I had to look it up, but Joseph E. Boone Boulevard used to be called Simpson Road.  I’m not sure where the MARTA connection is on Boone Boulevard; it is possible that Mr. Weyandt is thinking of the MARTA Green Line station on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway.  (If you’re curious, that used to be Bankhead Highway…).

In any case, Ms. Galambos’ confusion is understandable.  I took the very interesting Beltline tour a couple years ago and at that point there was only one planned MARTA interface, at the Lindbergh Station complex.  During the tour, it became apparent that there were several other interesting problems that the designers were still wrestling with.  For example, there is no clear route between DeKalb Avenue and Memorial Drive due to the substantial presence of a railroad yard.  Another example is the stretch between the Water Works and Lindbergh Station.  Likewise, the Beltline will be operating near but not connected to at least two MARTA stations, one at West End and at Ashby.

Also apparent at that time was the fact that the Beltline system designers were dead-set against street running; that is, they did not want the Beltline’s cars going down city streets.  There’s a reason why:

In subsequent months, things have changed somewhat, but there has been precious little publicity of the changes.  Likewise, there are still issues.  Take a look at the maps for the Beltline, recently downloaded from the web site.

  • The orange lines are the Beltline Corridor
  • The yellow lines are MARTA heavy rail track
  •  The blue lines are the route of the Beltline driving tour
  • Black lines are walking and bicycling paths
  •  The gray line inside the orange line is the likely rail right of way

Consider these issues:

Inman Park / Reynoldstown Station

The presence of the CSX Intermodal Container Freight yard is an intimidating problem.  Only the famous Krog Street tunnel goes underneath the main body of the yard.  In looking at recent Beltline maps on their website, it appears that some of the problems are being addressed.  Note, below, that the Beltline Corridor, but not the track, has been extended up to the Reynoldstown side of the MARTA station.

Corridor Connection to Inman Park/Reynoldstown

At the same time, the exact routing of the Beltline right of way in this area is still not established.  And is unlikely to be established any time soon.

West End Station

So, too, the Beltline right of way goes near, but does not connect to the MARTA station at West End:

West End

Ashby Station

Continuing northward from the West End neighborhood, the Beltline misses Ashby Station, too:

Ashby Station

So, what about Mr. Weyandt’s statement that the Beltline connects to MARTA at Joseph E. Boone Boulevard?  Here’s the map of the locality:

Bankhead Station

Note that while the Beltline Corridor bicycle path connects Bankhead Station to the Westside Reservoir Park, the actual rail component of the Beltline is several blocks away from the Bankhead MARTA station.  Also, substantial bridge and street work is already being performed at the corner of Marietta Boulevard and D. L. Hollowell.  Presumably the Beltline right of way has been incorporated into the design.

[Note:  Subsequently, I discovered that there is a station planned for the intersection of the Beltline and the MARTA Green Line at Boone Boulevard.  At that point, the Green Line occupies the Beltline right of way, which means that the Beltline will have a new parallel right of way at that location.  So, they have planned to build a station at this location which will interface with MARTA.  The larger question is ignored, however.  The 1.5 mile long stand-alone section of the Green Line will have three stations located within .75 miles of each other.  This is a service density worthy of downtown, serving 50-storey buildings, not a residential neighborhood such as the area that the Green Line serves.  RO’C]

And, what about the connections at North Avenue station and Peachtree Center station?  The Peachtree Center Station connection is actually part of the new streetcar line from Centennial Park to the King Memorial Center, discussed here.  And the North Avenue Station?  It is miles from the Beltline corridor.

North Avenue Station (Center)

There is a semantic issue here.  Does having the Beltline Corridor constitute a connection to MARTA even though the Beltline cars will not stop at the MARTA stations?  While Ms. Galambos might be wrong about the Beltline’s connections to MARTA, she does point to another interesting issue.  Just what, exactly, is the Beltline project?  Is it transportation or is it urban renewal?

In an AJC Article, Reed hits back at Beltline critics, there is this statement:

But ridership and traffic mitigation were never touted as the main goals of the Beltline, Reed said. Instead, they were job creation, economic development and quality of life. The project is intended to make pedestrian lifestyles in the corridor more feasible and attractive, and thus attract denser growth like condos and office buildings to increase economic development. Reed noted that supporting economic growth was established as a primary goal for project selection, as approved by the roundtable, and that the Beltline was approved as an eligible project.

The proposed sales tax is supposed to enable the Transportation Investment Act.  How much of what we call the Beltline is actually transportation?

In the next few days, a closer look at the two Beltline components of the proposed tax.

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The City of Atlanta has always been rather proud of itself.  Tall buildings, a big airport on the south side of town, arts, entertainment and cuisine.  In so many ways, Atlanta offers a dose of sin for those deprived individuals who are not fortunate enough to call the City of Atlanta as home.  The City even promotes itself that way, “The ATL” and all that.  It’s like we’re a giant Stuckeys on the Interstate of Life.  “See the Two-Headed Calf!  The ATL Only 20 Miles”.  “Chenille Bedspreads.  The ATL Only 15 Miles”.  You get the picture.

Needless to say, this high opinion is not always shared by everybody, and there’s more than a little resentment from those outside of The ATL.  And, in some cases, the City of Atlanta serves as a cautionary tale who view us as a second-rate Gomorrah.  They’ve got due cause; consider that in the 1960’s the suburbanites would drive into town with their kids to stare at the hippies collected at 10th & Peachtree.

[Photo courtesy: Boyd Lewis]

So, in a few words, the City of Atlanta is both a source of entertainment and a source of irritation, all at once.  But, our view of the world is a bit shaded, like the “Map of New York”:

And Atlanta’s not even on their map.

So, the City of Atlanta’s view of the world can be pretty self-centered.  For example, consider today’s editorial page of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, in which the current mayor, Mr. Kasim Reed, avers that the Atlanta Beltline project is a regional transportation project and worthy of receiving funding from the proposed regional transportation tax.  To wit:

The Atlanta Beltline, with its direct routes into the heart of the city, provides critical last-mile connectivity to major activity and employment destinations in the downtown and Midtown business districts such as Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, CNN, the Georgia World Congress Center and Piedmont Park. There are more than 100,000 jobs within a quarter mile of these transit routes. In combination with other critical investments on the list, Atlanta’s transit project will strengthen the region’s core.

Key to this statement is the unspoken assumption that the MARTA heavy-rail system is a regional transportation system.  Which it currently is not.  Because of a variety of issues, MARTA remains a city system that might one day become a regional system.  It is not there yet.  Consider this statement from “Sales Tax Boosters Press for Transit Overhaul” (Atlanta Business Chronicle, September 16-22, 2011, page 2A):

Supporters of a 1-cent regional transportation sales tax are betting that downplaying the role a polarizing MARTA plays in Atlanta transit will convince voters to pass the tax referendum.

I’m a fan of the Beltline, if for no other reason than it was the project that actually got average people to seriously think about transit solutions to Atlanta’s traffic problems.  But the Beltline’s fortunes are inevitably connected to the fortunes of the MARTA heavy rail system.  And to call the Beltline a “regional solution” flies in the face of the realities.  A “regional” belt line railway solution would go from Marietta to Douglasville to Fairburn, to Jonesboro, to Conyers, to Snellville, to Lawrenceville, to Roswell and back.  Now, that’s a belt line.

Needless to say, not everybody in the 11-County regional transportation voting district are as breathless as Mayor Reed.  Consider the words of Eva Galambos, mayor of the just-slightly suburban City of Sandy Springs, who points out an inconvenient truth:

A close examination of the Beltline website maps reveals an astounding fact: Not a single segment of the proposed Beltline intersects the MARTA system at MARTA stations.

In other words, folks who will be riding whatever transit system the Beltline might eventually adopt (possibly streetcars) will not be able to get off those conveyances to transfer to MARTA trains at the MARTA stations.

Actually, the Beltline will interface with MARTA at the Lindbergh Station complex, but, overall, it’s not like we haven’t been here before.  The City of Atlanta is already enamored with another streetcar project that will do nothing to solve the Atlanta region’s traffic problems; please see here.  However good and potentially useful the Beltline project might be, it is beginning to look like just another ego-centric City of Atlanta project to the other voters for the transportation tax.

And it points to the larger fact that we as a region are being asked to vote for a lot of projects that are not in our immediate area of life.  There’s nothing right now but a lot of seemingly unrelated projects that just sort dab small solutions here and there that serve the special interests of one area or another.  As of this writing, there is no common thread that everybody in the region can fix their hopes on.    What we seek is a plan for a comprehensive solution for our region’s traffic problems.

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