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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Half-Measures: The Transportation Investment Act

Yesterday was World Town Planning Day. Last night, I attended a symposium in observance of the event, organized by the Georgia Tech Student Planning Association.

The symposium focused on a new mechanism for funding transportation projects in Georgia. Here's how the organizers set it up on the event website:
In 2012, the 10-county Atlanta region (Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton,Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale) will vote on whether to pass a 1% sales tax. The revenue generated by this tax will be used to fund a list of transportation projects, ranging from transit, roads, safety, pedestrian and bike improvements, and technology updates.

This year, the annual World Town Planning Day Symposium at Georgia Tech, entitled CENTS & SENSIBILITY: Atlanta's Transportation Vision, will focus on how the final list of proposed transportation projects, to be funded by the Transportation Investment Act (TIA) if passed, can support planning goals for the environment, economic development, and regional equity.
The Atlanta Regional Commission website provides more background on the TIA:

The Transportation Investment Act was signed into law in June 2010, putting the future of Georgia's transportation in the voters’ hands. Elected officials in each of the state's 12 regions will develop a list of projects to be funded by a one percent sales tax. Georgians will vote on the tax in the 2012 primary elections.

Should the tax pass in a region, all revenue collected there would stay in that region. Local governments would share 15 percent of the revenues to be spent on any projects they choose. The other 85 percent will be used to fund the list of projects created by each region's transportation roundtable.
. . . as well as more on the roundtable process:
The Transportation Investment Act required each of the regions to have a roundtable of elected officials that will develop a project list that will be available to voters before they go to the polls. The roundtables include the chairperson of each county commission in the region and one mayor from each county in the region.
The project list for the Atlanta region was finalized some weeks ago, with various projects - road and intersection improvements, transit maintenance and expansion, bicycle and pedestrian improvements - totaling $6.1 billion over the next ten years.

There are any number of questions that could be raised about the project list for the Atlanta region, including questions about the legitimacy and transparency of the process.

The Atlanta regional roundtable was made up of two elected officials from each county, plus the Mayor of Atlanta, so less populous counties had the same representation as more populous counties. Now that the list is complete, voters have a simple choice: accept the whole thing as it is, which would lock in a particular set of projects for the next ten years, or reject the whole thing, and perhaps miss out entirely on the chance to raise new revenue for transportation. It is my understanding, from last night's discussion, that if voters reject a project list, nothing more can happen for at least two years, and there would be another chance at creating and voting on project list only if the legislature passes additional legislation. In short, as Mayor Reed of Atlanta is reported to have said, there is no Plan B.

I would now focus instead on another observation from last night, which is evidence that transportation planning in Atlanta presents a set of wicked problems. In particular, how one goes about addressing transportation issues and, more concretely, what one thinks of the Atlanta regional project list, is sensitive to how one formulates the problem in the first place.

I was helped to this observation by the set-up of the symposium.  The organizers brought together three panelists, each of whom would speak to one, distinct dimension of the issue: economic development, environment, and regional distribution of resources. It's not really surprising that what emerged from their presentations and from the ensuing discussion were (at least) three distinct ways of framing the problem of transportation.

For Bucky Johnson, Mayor of Norcross and Chair of the Atlanta Regional Roundtable, the problem is one of providing better access to the main centers of economic activity in the region, regardless of mode: Downtown, Emory/CDC, Perimeter, and Cumberland. He was satisfied that final project list would go a long way toward facilitating further economic development, and was especially enthusiastic about improvements to the highway interchange where I-285 intersects Ga. 400.

For Tom Weyandt, Senior Policy Advisor for Transportation to the Mayor of Atlanta, the problem is one of ensuring more equitable access to resources in the region, which is in part a matter of making sure transit systems (and transit riders) get due consideration. He was more apt to characterize the project list as "imperfect", but seemed gratified that funds would be included for portions of the Atlanta BeltLine project, and for critical maintenance on parts of the MARTA rail system.

For Colleen Kiernan, Chapter Director of the Georgia Sierra Club, the problem is one of reducing automobile use, reining in sprawl, and improving environmental quality, especially air quality. From her point of view, the project list is just business as usual: it will not contribute to the goal of reducing vehicle miles traveled in the region. She also pointed out that, by dividing the state into 12 regions, the TIA all but guarantees there will be no funding for commuter rail, as the proposed commuter rail lines (e.g., Atlanta-Macon) cross regional boundaries.

Kiernan's comments highlighted the degree to which the entire roundtable process is constrained by the broader political context. In Georgia, a provision in the state constitution precludes the use of gasoline tax revenue - the main source of funding for transportation projects - for anything other than roads and bridges. It is also widely understood that current revenues from gasoline taxes fall short of what is needed even for those purposes.

Johnson seemed most sanguine about these constraints: while the list is not perfect, the process was as legitimate and transparent as he and his collaborators could make it, and the resulting list provides funds for a wide range of very useful projects. Weyandt, for his part, was more emphatic about the imperfections of the process and the results - he actually used the phrase "the art of the possible" - but seemed to accept that this is the best that can be done under the circumstances; one has to start somewhere. Kiernan was bluntly dismissive of the process and of the project list, questioning the legitimacy of the whole enterprise, and suggesting a more radical approach: raising gasoline taxes while removing the constitutional restriction on the use of the revenue, allowing for a more comprehensive approach to transportation planning, and possibly for a more radical reconfiguration of the built environment.

As I was listening to the exchange last night, an image came into my mind of a 12-ounce plastic bottle with 6 ounces of water in it. One declares the bottle to be half full, another declares it to be half empty, and a third insists that bottled water is unsustainable, and points out that there's a drinking fountain right over there . . .

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