It is difficult to separate good transportation policy from bad politics. Ideally logical transportation projects are also politically supported projects. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they are not. And sometimes it gets ugly.
Enter what is possibly the worst transit project of all time—the Atlanta Beltline. The Beltline according to the city of Atlanta, “Is a unique opportunity to bring together neighborhood revitalization, new development and workforce housing organized around a 22-mile corridor of transit, trails, open space, historic resources, and public art.” I will focus on the transit part of the BeltLine.
HOW DID THIS BECOME A PRIORITY
Who thought up the BeltLine? Ryan Gravel who was an architecture student at Georgia Tech envisioned the BeltLine. The transit component was a one-way loop. Under current plans, the loop will run in both directions. Gravel with Mark Arnold and Sarah Edgens mailed copies of the BeltLine to 24 city leaders. District two representative and then City Council President Cathy Woolard, Gravel, Arnold, and Edgens spent the next several months selling the beltline to neighborhood groups, politicians, and business leaders. The idea quickly grew and Woolard brought the BeltLine to the attention of the Atlanta Development Authority (ADA) chaired by Brian Gowen. Encouraged by Woolard the ADA created Atlanta Beltline Inc. to manage and implement the beltline.
WHAT DO THE EXPERTS SAY
Several years ago, the BeltLine hired a group of transportation experts, many of who live in Atlanta and are familiar with the BeltLine to complete a study of the transit potential. The BeltLine panel was composed of transportation experts including Dr. Michael Meyer former Director of Transportation Planning for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation under Governor Michael Dukakis, Dr. Catherine Ross an advisor to the White House Counil of Urban Affairs, Professor Michael Dobbins former Director of Planning for the city of Atlanta, Tim Jackson former President of Glatting Jackson and current Vice President of Planning of AECOM, and William Millar President of the American Public Transportation Association. Clearly these are not pro-highway anti-transit people. These are people who tend to favor transit over roads.
Below are the highlights of the study. For the full study go to The Atlanta Beltline: Transit Feasibility White Paper
• There are very few locations along the BeltLine where large and dense concentrations of jobs are expected – these are mostly projected for the Lindbergh area, already served by Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transit Authority—the operator of bus and rail in Fulton and Dekalb counties (MARTA) bus and rail service.
• The highest numbers and concentrations of jobs in the city (and the region for that matter) are in Downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead, none of which would be directly served by the BeltLine. The transportation system must connect the study area to these locations. (No connections are planned as part of the Beltline)
• Some balance and direct linkage between where people live and work, especially in dense concentrations, have proven most propitious for viable transit, yet the projected BeltLine development appears to be mostly residential with some community supportive commercial, not the characteristic mix for generating large numbers of trips.
• The BeltLine proposal as a concept envisions a circumferential transit service around the central city core. Based on development potential and market feasibility, it seems likely that the eastern and perhaps southeastern portion of this belt would provide the best potential for transit ridership. The other segments will not likely generate as significant a level of trips.
• A circumferential BeltLine transit investment would seem to improve the connectivity to the MARTA network and would thus provide enhanced mobility for residents and visitors to the corridor. This in itself could generate new transit trips. However, it will take a long time before enough development is in place to result in significant internal-to-internal transit trips in the corridor.
• The circumferential BeltLine project in its entirety will not likely generate sufficient transit ridership in the corridor to satisfy the criteria for federal New Start transit investment. However, some project segments and indeed other potential alignments in the study area may, in fact, satisfy such criteria.
Suggesting how the BeltLine is a political project and not a transportation project the panel continues
“The paucity of ridership estimates for different transit options in the BeltLine corridor (especially given how far the BeltLine concept has come in the City’s policy agenda) is surprising. In some cases, individual projects have had ridership forecasts prepared, but it does not appear that credible ridership determinations have been made that consider the network effect of other transit projects that are being seriously considered. The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) which is the Atlanta region’s metropolitan planning organization (MPO) prioritization of transit projects, for example, relied on individual sponsors of projects to submit ridership forecasts subject to consistency guidelines for the modeling. The ARC itself did not undertake transit network modeling during the recent update of the regional plan to determine project priorities. MARTA is currently conducting an Alternatives Analysis of different transit concepts that should provide better information on expected ridership. The implication of this to the Panel’s deliberations was that there were no credible ridership estimates for its consideration.”
So we have a transit project that transit friendly members of the Atlanta community believe lacks accurate ridership numbers. And if it had accurate ridership numbers no public agency would ever give a dime to the project. the beltline is set-up to benefit politically connected neighborhoods.
THE TRANSPORTATION COMPONENT DOES NOT WORK—GET A LOBBYIST
Perhaps it was time to consider a cheaper technology like bus-rapid-transit. Wrong. The Sierra Club wanted rail. First the group partnered with other organizations to create a Tax Allocation District (TAD). The TAD allows a certain amount of funding to be redirected to the beltline. The small amount of funding is not enough and the TAD takes funding from area schools. In order to build the project, the BeltLine decided to partner with MARTA to physically construct the project. According to the Sierra Club website…
To apply for federal matching funds, MARTA had to identify a "locally preferred alternative" as to the mode of transit and exact route (the) BeltLine would take. The powerful Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce promoted Bus Rapid Transit as the "best" (i.e., cheapest) mode for the BeltLine, even though all along it had been presented to the public as rail-based transit. As well, two of the four routes MARTA proposed omitted a full quarter of the BeltLine loop.
The Sierra Club had built up a large network of grassroots activists in 2005. Now it turned out those people to speak up at MARTA's public meetings. Each of the four meetings was packed, and Club volunteers handed out stickers reading, "Keep the BeltLine on TRACKs!" For its part, MARTA handed out a technical report ranking Bus Rapid Transit as the best mode, with no mention of rail alternatives.
"The public was having none of it," (Sierra) club organizer Anna Cherry says. "Comment after comment was in favor of rail-based transit and a full loop for BeltLine."
MARTA Board Chairman Ed Wall attended all four meetings, and each time asked for a show of hands favoring rail or bus transit. Nearly all raised their hands for rail, prompting Wall to announce to a supportive crowd, "Well, there's your locally preferred alternative!"
On January 8, 2007, the full MARTA board voted to recommend rail-based transit and a full loop around the city as the locally preferred alternative for the BeltLine. "This could define inner-city Atlanta for the next century at least," says Friedman.
The Sierra Club framed the issue so the public wanted rail. They showed beautiful pictures of rail trains and ugly pictures of buses. The costs were never considered an issue.
For the past six years, Beltline proponents have tried to find a way to fund their project. They considered submitting it for stimulus funding. While the stimulus funded many questionable transit projects, they all were substantially better than the BeltLine. BeltLine officials have failed until now to find a funding source.
WHAT IS HAPPENING NOW
Under new legislation passed by the state of Georgia, counties are able to band together to ask voters for a one-cent sales tax increase to fund infrastructure projects. The Atlanta region has approved a proposal to be voted on in 2012. Approximately $6.14 billion of the referendum is to be spent on jurisdictional projects. The beltline receives $601 million or ten percent of that total. There are several conditions for any projects wishing to be selected. The project must be regional in scope and be completed before the tax expires.
While the BeltLine was funded other cheaper and more effective transit programs were not. These include commuter rail to Henry County and Athens, a rail link from Lindbergh to Emory and numerous bus and bus-rapid transit projects to areas of the region with no transit service.
Which brings us to the frustrating part of the story. This is a transportation tax that many groups across the political spectrum like. It is a sales tax that the whole region must agree to accept before it becomes law. The list offers a mix of projects, and everyone agrees the region needs to do something about its sorry infrastructure. But funding the BeltLine should be a non-starter for any tax.
Regarding the tax itself, there is much to consider before asking taxpayers to increase the sales tax. Is the region using existing funds on the highest priorities? Are projects being completed as efficiently as possible? Are there fairer and more reasonable ways to pay for infrastructure like user fees, tolls etc. A local option gas tax would be better than a sales tax--at least it is an indirect user fee. The starting point should never be "let's just raise taxes."
There are several other questionable transit projects on the list but the BeltLine generates the most opposition. The economy is poor, Atlanta’s unemployment rate is over ten percent, and citizens are justifiably upset with government spending money on bad projects. Polling shows opinion is mixed at best. If the vote were held today it would fail. The vote is currently scheduled for the summer of 2012.
I will end will one of my favorite quotes from a beltline transit proponent. CEO of the beltline and architect but not transportation specialist Brian Leary tells Maria Saporta of the Saporta report “The Atlanta Beltline has the opportunity to be our next ‘Olympic Moment’.” Is he comparing a bad transit project with a worldwide event held every four years? It sounds crazy but when bad transportation projects become intertwined with politics, crazy tends to happen.