T-SPLOST Debate: Should we plan for 5 years or 50 years?

29 Jul

A couple of weeks back, WABE held a T-SPLOST debate.  I watched it a few times, typed up a rough response, basically just to air out much of the bias and misinformation given by the anti-SPLOST representative.  I wasn’t sure whether or not this was worthy of a post, but after watching a couple more times, I figured, why not.  

Click HERE to View the T-SPLOST debate hosted by WABE.

The video above is a debate hosted by WABE on the upcoming July 31st T-SPLOST vote.  If you are unfamiliar with the T-SPLOST vote and live in the metropolitan Atlanta area, please read up a bit on it as this upcoming vote could have a dramatic impact on the future of our region.  www.atlantaregionalroundtable.com is a good starting place.

This debate is moderated by Charles Edwards of WABE and the topic is whether to vote YES or NO on July 31.

My point-by-point breakdown of this debate:  All of my comments are shown in green.

Opening Statements:

Dickerson, 2:27 – Transportation is the biggest impediment to growth in metro Atlanta.

Brown, 4:20  –  The chosen list of projects is a problem. The list does not relieve traffic congestion. Transit is not economical and not fully funded.  Operations and maintenance are not covered. We should come back in two years and build a better list.

Having lived in Georgia for my entire life and in Atlanta for the last 11 years, I can tell you that there is no way that we are coming back in two years to create a new list of projects.  And even if by some miracle we did reconvene in two years, the project list would be basically the same.   This list represents a compromise from representatives of all ten affected counties.  If any more transit was involved, the more rural and suburban areas would balk, and if there was any less transit, the city folk wouldn’t go for it.  So this is the list; there will likely be no second time around.  At least not for many years.  

End of Opening Statements, Begin Questions:

Question, 15:00 – Do corporations consider traffic when they think of moving their businesses here?

Dickerson – Yes, we’ve lost hundreds of jobs.  I really wish Mr. Dickerson had provided a concrete list of companies that chose not to come to Atlanta because of transportation infrastructure.  It would have given his argument more strength.  

Brown – Yes. We need to improve our road network instead of wasting money on transit with its low and declining ridership.  OK, transit ridership is low.  Guess what, we have very limited transit infrastructure.  We only have two real rail lines, North/South and East/West, plus a couple of small offshoots.  How can people use something that barely exists?  Arguing that few people use transit when the opportunity to use transit is so very low does not make sense.  On his statement that transit ridership decreasing, I have three thoughts:  1)  Ridership has decreased as service is cut back.  MARTA offers fewer routes and less frequent buses and voila, ridership goes down.  That is not a shock.  2) Transit ridership nationally is up, especially among young people under 35 years of age.  If you want to attract young people to your city, you better get with the program; and 3)  Guess what else is down; automobile use.  It’s the economy, stupid.  Automobile use is down, yet I don’t hear anyone clamoring to cut the highway budget.

Brown continues – People are moving to the suburbs to avoid traffic. Water is more important than traffic, so we should try to fix the water situation. Schools are bad in the city, so fix those before worrying about transportation.  Also, quality of life is bad in the city.  This is the reason that one company from China chose to build a plant in Peachtree City, GA instead of San Francisco, CA.  Quality of life is higher in Peachtree City, GA than San Francisco despite San Francisco having BART.  OK – where do I begin? First of all, I agree that the source of future water is a problem and the schools can be bad (Although to say that all in-town schools are bad is a blatant lie.)  What does water have to do with this?  Saying we shouldn’t fix the transportation situation because there is a water problem is like saying I didn’t go to the doctor about that rash because I had a toothache.  They are both problems that need addressing separately.  By the way, do you know where school funding comes from?  Property tax.  Do you know what raises property values?  Available transit.  It’s like a win-win.   

Now onto this manufacturing company that chose to move to Peachtree City over San Francisco.  First off, I have to assume that the company wasn’t actually considering downtown San Francisco because there just isn’t any room there for large manufacturing plants.  Also, BART doesn’t serve most of San Francisco.  San Francisco is served by the Muni and BART serves the Bay Area (hence Bay Area Rapid Transit).  So if the company was considering one of the outlying areas, you should say that.  Then we can compare apples to apples.  Also, using one company as anecdotal evidence proves nothing.  Look at the GDP of San Francisco and the per capita GDP of the Bay Area.  They kick our butt.  So don’t act like we are better for business because we don’t have transit.

Brown – People don’t want to live in the city because the schools are bad and quality of life is low.

Dickerson’s response –  Actually the city is growing at  a faster rate than the suburbs.  People want the transportation options provided by the city and want to avoid the suburban gridlock.  Transit ridership of 16-34 year olds increased 40% over the past 8 years. We are building for future generations, not just for the current users.  Also, transit makes Atlanta’s vast hospitality and convention industry possible.    Well actually, ridership didn’t increase 40%; the total number of miles traveled increased by 40%.  Still a very impressive increase, though.

Question, 23:37  – What specific projects would not help Atlanta?

Brown – Economic development projects, especially the Beltline. The Beltline is about rehabilitating 42 in-town neighborhoods.  It’s all about future development and future transit.  The Beltline does not help relieve congestion. Does he not think building 42 new neighborhoods that are independent of cars will help ease congestion?

Brown continues – We need population density for transit to work, and Atlanta doesn’t have it. I totally agree; however, areas of downtown and midtown are approaching that density.  If you want fewer people sitting in their cars in front of you on the interstate, build transit in town and attract people back into the city.  That is EXACTLY what the Beltline is.  His arguments make no sense to me.  He says we should cut projects that increase density because there isn’t enough density.  How?…what?…huh?  I don’t get it.  It seems to me that Brown is not about improving Atlanta, he is about attracting people into the suburbs, specifically his suburb.  He promotes this despite the fact that more people commuting from Peachtree City will only lead to more congestion.  He certainly doesn’t seem to care about creating a long-term solution to Atlanta’s transportation problem.

Brown, 26:10 – only 1.8% of Atlanta commuters use transit at a cost of $90K per passenger. Once again, people cannot ride something that doesn’t exist.   Also, he does a little math here, which Dickerson can’t keep up with because he goes too fast. (This is a nice trick in a live debate but doesn’t hold up when you have time to sit down and count it out.)  He says that the cost per commuter will be ($3.2Billion/74,8000 boardings)*2 boardings/passenger = $85,600 per commuter.  He then rounds that up to $90K per passenger.  Two things here.  1)  This would assume that the trains are only going to run for one day.  I wonder how much the roads would cost per user if the roads were forced to pay for themselves in one day.  Trains are much more cost-effective over the long run, so this number is irrelevant.  Also, I would have to guess that these numbers are considering the current layout of Atlanta, but I am only assuming this because there wasn’t a good source here on how the 74,800 boardings number was calculated.  The projects that are funded by the T-SPLOST seek to increase density and increase ridership, which makes these values obsolete.  These numbers exist in a vacuum.  

One more thing here.  Don’t laugh at the guy’s name at 26:oo.  It’s not his fault that you can’t pronounce it.  Sorry, I digress.

Dickerson – Those numbers are stuck in time.  We are planning for the future, we can’t look at what we’ve built and make assumptions based on future behavior from it.  Young people want to live in walkable cities, if we want to attract them, we have to build for them.   Yes!   I want to drive less and I want the city to be walkable, and I am an educated young person with a choice in where I will live.  Also, I am a lifelong Georgian, which means I don’t want to see my city left behind.  Mr. Brown seems to enjoy anecdotal evidence so here is some: I have a BS and MS from Georgia Tech. Of the dozens of close friends that I have from Georgia Tech. Guess how many stayed in Atlanta after graduation… One!  And he was born and raised in Georgia. The reason that my friends all fled? Better jobs and better quality of life in other cities.  We want to live in vibrant walkable cities.  I also want to live in Atlanta.  I want to raise a family in Atlanta.  Mr. Brown says you have to move to the suburbs to have a family; well, that is not acceptable to me.  I want to make Atlanta an attractive place for families.

Hayse, 28:10 – The ARC has performed extensive economic analysis of all the projects.  Hayse Anger Translator:  Don’t call our numbers BS, your numbers are BS.  

Brown, 29:53 – ARC models are bad.  200,000 jobs won’t be created.  It’s job-years that are created.  The 4 to 1 economic benefit is not accurate because the operations and maintenance cost are not considered beyond ten years.  OK, this sounds like a legitimate gripe, but the numbers still look pretty good to me.  

Brown continues – How are we going to pay for the projects?  MARTA can’t even afford to pay for itself now.  Well, that is because MARTA is not allowed to touch literally half of its tax revenue for operations and management.  The state added an amendment at MARTA’s inception, even though the money doesn’t come from the state, to force MARTA to spend half of its money on new capital investments.  The bottom line is that MARTA would work much better if they were actually allowed to use 100% of their money.   Who will pay for operations and management of these transit projects ten years from now?  This is a real concern that will have to be answered.  I personally hope that the projects are successful enough that an expanded tax base, due to an influx of city residents and increased property values, will help cover the cost.   I wonder how others cities do it.   We should look into that; surely we aren’t the first city to try implementing transit.  Also isn’t this a problem for the roads as well?  Why not raise a flag there?

Dickerson, 33:25 –  If we don’t support this tax, we won’t have any leverage to ask for federal dollars. We have to do work for ourselves before others can be expected to help us out.

Brown, 35:00 – The federal government cannot be counted on for financial help. If it wasn’t for China, the federal government and United States would no longer exist.  Seriously, dude?  Federal government should not be looked at as a life preserver.  Well, it isn’t. Federal money is MY tax money meant to be spent on highways, transit, and other regional projects. Unlike these anti-government folks, I do expect my tax money to return to my region. But it won’t if we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot by not helping ourselves.

Brown continues – MARTA cannot support its own operations.  He keeps harping on this and I’ll rebut the same way.  They aren’t allowed to spend their own money.  They are the largest system in the USA, by ridership, to receive zero state funding, yet the state withholds literally half of their money from them.  By the way, this is the real reason this T-SPLOST was created. It was a way for the state to continue denying money to its orphaned transit system and push that responsibility onto the region.

Dickerson, 36:43 –  I’m sorry that we didn’t built a forever tax here. All SPLOSTS work this way. When we build a new school with a SPLOST, we always have to worry about funding the school once the tax is up.

Question, 38:49  – How can we be sure the project list won’t change?

Hayse – It is illegal to change the list. Also the list does include maintenance for ten years.

Question to Brown, 40:00 – Would you agree that adding/expanding roads is only a short term congestion solution?

Brown – We need to look at something else, BRT is a viable option if we have dedicated lanes.   Yes! I’m on board with this. I don’t think we need rail going all the way into the suburbs. Then he goes off topic saying MARTA is always over budget (unsubstantiated) and that we should close the GA-400 tolls. Not so coincidentally, this has since been scheduled. 

Question to Brown, 41:50 – What is your alternative?

Brown – Telecommuting.  <sarcasm> Yes, because when I think about awesome cities and communities, I think telecommuting.  Boy, I love Houston, the telecommuting scene there is outta sight!  </sarcasm> Ok, so telecommuting actually is a good idea, but what is stopping people from telecommuting now?  In addition to telecommuting, flexible work hours.  Sure, this is a good idea, but why haven’t people done this yet?  If flexible work hours is going to solve all of our problems, why hasn’t it happened yet?  Also tolls.  We should put in tolls to pay for roads.  I agree tolls are a great way of directly taxing the users of a system.  But didn’t this guy, literally two minutes ago, advocate removing the GA-400 toll?  I can’t follow his logic.  

Question to Dickerson, 44:00 – Why has the 400 toll not come down and why should we expect this tax to stop as expected?

Dickerson – That toll was put into place without a popular vote. People got no direct say in its existence. This law gives the power to the people and in ten years, we can vote to remove/change the projects if we see fit.

Brown, 47:30 –  Most of the road projects in the T-SPLOST are already on the list for funding by the GDOT, eventually.  What happens to the funds that were originally slated to build the projects?  They are going to go to a giant slush fund for pork projects, that’s what.  This dude has no faith in government, and with leaders like him, I can see why.  The truth is there are way more projects that need to be funded than there actually is funding.  The GDOT money should go to many of those projects that didn’t make the TSPLOST cut.   Get someone on that.  I can’t believe he is actually wanting us to vote against the SPLOST because it will cause too many projects to be built.

Dickerson rebuttal, 48:40 – If there are problems with government, you fix them. You don’t shut down the government.  Brown really seems to have a problem with any type of government at any level.

Question, 49:50 –  How will these projects keep people off the interstates? Give a concrete example.

Hayse – ARC, analysis shows, through travel demand modeling, a 24-25% decrease in delay, on average, in 2025 on the roads that have made improvements.

Brown, 51:30 –  Transit has dropped 1/3 in usage since 1982 (Despite $750B in subsidy).  During this same time period much more money has been poured into expanding roads and promoting sprawl.  Cities have been redesigned around the car; urban flight has run rampant.  Transit decline did not occur in a bubble. This trend is changing, however.  If you look at transit use since 1990, it is up 17%.  Since the end of 1995, it is up 35%.  It’s funny how that year of 1982 seems so randomly chosen, damned statistics.   The recent increases in ridership is partly because young people don’t stigmatize transit the way older generations do.  Access to cool bus tracking and train tracking apps make systems much easier to use.  Also, my generation is one that grew up with sprawl.  Some of us are damn sick of it.  When you build a new rail line, people come from buses and not from cars. Also completely false, but don’t take my word for it – click here to see the raw numbers per mode each quarter since 1990.  

Dickerson, 53:30 – Transportation is long term. People don’t use transit now because it doesn’t exist in most places. The desire of the next generation is to live in town and have options.  Yes, options, that is what I’m about.  Options! I’m not forcing you to take transit; don’t force me to drive.

Closing arguments:

Brown, 55:35 – Transit is too expensive. It’s a losing entity. We should use private alternatives, e.g. Megabus.  Megabus takes people all across the region for just $2.50. Well, that is completely not true and he knows it. The $2.50 number is a loss leader for that company. Most tickets are significantly higher than that – $20 or more. I know because I have bought them. It is still a very good deal mind you, but he shouldn’t pretend like the bus is full of people paying $2.50; that is a lie.  I too, would love to have a private company come in and provide rail; no one is doing it. Also, no one is doing it for roads. Roads do not make money and the gas tax does not support roads. They are heavily subsided at the expense of both road users and non-road users.

Dickerson, 57:20 Reagan was a fiscal conservative and doubled the federal gas tax. He invested in transportation for the future. We should follow the Reagan model.  Referencing Reagan to appease the conservatives is a little obvious, but a true statement nonetheless.

My Summary

Since this is my blog, I get to say whatever I think.  No one has to listen (no one does), but I get to say it.  I think these two men are trying to reach different objectives. At no point did they list what the hell they want. Dickerson seems to want a walkable downtown; he wants a city that will attract young, educated people and promote future business growth. He wants a city that is suitable for raising families.  He believes that the city is good but can be made better if we invest in it.

Brown wants wider roads and for more people to move into the suburbs.  He is scared of the city and believes that it is an irredeemably bad place.  He believes if anyone wants to not be shot or have ignorant children they will have to move to the suburbs and there is no point in even trying to improve the city itself. He does not care about Atlanta or the region as a whole. He is only concerned with maintining the status quo in his small area at the expense of the city.

Brown turned the debate from “should we vote YES or NO on this bill” to “should we ever invest in transit”.  Brown is saying we should NEVER invest in transit for Atlanta and we should stick to building more and bigger highways.  I’m sorry, but just building more roads isn’t going to work. Expanding roads to fix congestion is like an obese person trying to lose weight by buying a bigger belt.  How many lanes will it take to end traffic congestion?  We already have 15, so 20? 30? 50 lanes? Maybe we can just pave over the entire metro area and when you get in your car, you will simply point towards your destination and drive in a straight line towards it. Even then, there will be people who are in each other’s way.

What we need are options. Stop trying to force everyone to live the suburban lifestyle and drive everywhere. The Beltline is exciting because it opens up more intown neighborhoods with affordable housing. It is currently very expensive to live near transit in Atlanta.  This is because the supply of housing in these areas is very low. If we increase the supply of areas near transit to come closer to demand, we can have more people living near transit and consequently much higher transit use. You cannot half-ass transit and then wonder why no one uses it. Hell, if our road system only consisted of 2 roads that meet at Five Points, but we had tens of thousands of transit lines, guess what mode most people would use.  Many people want to live near transit. Many people want to be able to walk more. This is proven by the higher real estate prices of locations that are near transit. Get people walking, get people out of there cars and traffic will be reduced for the rest of you. I’m not saying everyone has to live in an urban, walkable area. But if everyone who wanted to could, there would be fewer cars on the road.  But let’s not forget, despite the tone of this debate, that half of this money is going towards road improvements.  It seems a good compromise to me and one that will benefit the entire region.  


One Response to “T-SPLOST Debate: Should we plan for 5 years or 50 years?”

  1. hoogator July 30, 2012 at 6:43 pm #

    There was an interesting debate that was going on in Victoria in 2010 regarding heavy vehicle safety and average road users. A “shock jock” on Melbourne radio was bringing transit experts on his show and ripping them to shreds, making little more than appeals to the fears of his listeners. No matter what scientific or quantitative (read: rational) arguments the experts would make, this DJ had them.

    The moral of the story for us and our research group was this: the numbers never speak for themselves. If you want to inform policy and inform the public, you have to employ the same weapons as your adversaries.

    Mr. Brown might be illogical, irrational, and irritating, but he’s not alone.

    Thanks for the

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