Tuesday, May 22, 2012

T-SPLOST is coming!

What the heck is that?  Transportation - Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.  A penny sales tax for regional transportation project over the next 10 years.  Our region includes most of the Metro Atlanta counties.

What did Gwinnett County sign up for?  Here's most of it.
  • Four improved roads to and across the Chattahoochee - $30-50M each
  • Six interchanges to replace at-grade crossings of 316 around Lawrenceville at $20-60M each
  • Improved at grade 78/124 intersection - $10M
  • Four-lane of FFT from Oak Road to Killian Hill. - $10M
  • Improved Buford Highway - 3 sections - $10-40M each
  • Sugarload Hwy extension wrapping around Lawrenceville on old "Northern Arc" alignment to I-85 - $300M
  • Two improved interchanges on I-85. - $10M each
  • Continued Gwinnett County transit local and Express bus funding - $40M
  • Improvements on US29 through Lilburn - $2M

Here are the projects on a map: Gwinnett project map
Here are the project descriptions: fact sheets (The Gwinnett ones are about 2/3 of the way down.)

Some of the other big Regional projects:

  • Re-do I-285/GA400 interchange - $450M
  • Belt Line - light rail around Atlanta on existing rail right of way - $700M
  • Clifton Corridor transit - $700M
  • Transit of some sort up I-75 in Cobb - $695M
  • Transit of some sort to I-20 east - Stonecrest Mall - $225M
  • Continued Xpress bus funding - $128M
Plus, lots and lots and lots of other little road projects around the region, plus a bunch of money to study some more things, like $95M to study transit on the I-85 corridor in Gwinnett County.

Some of it is money that properly should be coming out of existing sources, in my opinion.
  • State and US Highway project money?  Federal and State fuel tax.  
  • Local roads?  Property tax.  
  • Replacement express bus money?  State general fund.  
However, we've had a long run with a legislature that either won't make the current taxes fit the need for transportation or won't re-allocate existing taxes to cover the need.  They are too scared to raise any taxes and unwilling to gore another ox to feed this one.

So, they leave it to us to vote for our own tax increase...so we won't blame them.  Brilliant.

I'm for the T-SPLOST, but I am very skeptical of much of project list. Here's why.

It's Crap.  Sort of.

Okay.  So a lot of this is crap.  Expensive crap.  $10 million to four lane one small chunk of Five Forks Trickum Road?  This road is useful to, maybe, 20,000 residents of the county.   That's a $500 per user investment.  Not cheap!

Some of it is just a land development play.  The Sugarloaf Parkway extension is very pricey.  More than a half a billion for a suburban connector road - $460 for every man, woman and child that lives in the county.  We pay and the land owners along the route get a windfall.  Then, the road fills up with traffic, anyway.

...or is it?

Will these projects REDUCE congestion.  NO! Don't kid yourself.  That never happens anywhere, ever.  Road projects have a long history of filling up with NEW traffic as fast as you can add capacity.  They just open up more land for development, typically.  But, land development is economic growth, so it isn't all bad.  The projects just don't do much for "fixing" congestion.

Will they reduce the RATE of increase of congestion?  YES!  How?  The highway interchange projects will remove bottlenecks and increase the capacity of existing roads, somewhat.  But, one has to remember that increased highway capacity always winds up inducing more traffic.  The transit projects, particularly the rail projects, while poorly aimed at existing congestion should accelerate the trend toward urban, transit oriented living.  That will mean the area can grow faster within it's existing footprint and the rate of exurban sprawl will be slowed.  It is happening already.  If you haven't been through Midtown Atlanta lately, take a look.  There are several new, residential, high rise buildings going up right now...along the path of MARTA.

The Belt Line is largely a high density development play.  It will do very little to to reduce traffic in existing highway lanes, but it will allow the region to grow at it's core.  It is similar to the Sugarloaf Highway extension in that we pay and developers get rich, but the difference is the Belt Line will have multiple times the capacity of a road and will connect with regional transit where existing capacity already exists.  It's a much longer-lived strategy for growth.

If you don't think that the Xpress bus system is worth spending money on, think about this.  There are 19  buses operating from Gwinnett County down I-85 each hour with 35-55 people on each  That's nearly 900 people an hour on 20 vehicles.  A lane of highway can carry 1900 vehicle an hour, when flowing freely, so those buses are worth nearly 1/2 a lane of highway capacity.  Given that I-85 often has more than capacity traffic and jams up, think what dumping those 900 extra vehicles an hour on I-85 would do.  Even worse, think about what it would cost to add a lane on I-85 the length of the county?  A couple BILLION would be a good guess.  Which would you rather pay?  A billion dollars now for a lane of highway or spending $20M now for some buses plus an additional $10M per year to run them? You don't have to be an accountant to figure this one out.

What's almost entirely missing from the project list is commuter rail.  The cheapest, most cost effective way to make a impact on congestion where it currently exists.  You just add commuter trains to existing, private freight railway routes.  Not cheap and somewhat difficult to negotiate, but very good cost/benefit ratio versus the alternatives.  A plan developed about 15 years ago had a $2B price tag for eight commuter rail lines radiating out from downtown Atlanta.  In terms of bang for the buck, the WORST of these has limited continued development in T-SPLOST - the Griffin line.  The BEST one - the one through Gwinnett County to Lawrenceville, and perhaps, Athens - gets nothing. Another good one also runs through Gwinnett thru Norcross, Duluth and Buford and on to Gainesville.

I have no idea if there is any flexibility at all on the project list if the T-SPLOST is passed.  One can only hope.

What's the alternative?  

"Do nothing" is the most likely to occur.  That would be bad.  We've just been through nearly a decade of "do nothing" and Atlanta is not recovering from the recession as fast as some other regions plus Georgia has double the national average of minimum wage jobs (just heard this one today!).  These are likely related facts.

In 1965, there was little difference between Atlanta, Birmingham and Charlotte.  All were similar medium sized cities.  All were on major Interstate highway crossroads. All had good freight rail transportation network access.  All equally good for business in "right to work" states. There was little to cause one to grow faster than the other. But it didn't play out that way. Atlanta didn't get where it is by "doing nothing." The two big public works projects propelled Atlanta ahead of Charlotte and Birmingham were the new airport and MARTA.  These were huge.  Atlanta grew like a weed.  The other two cities trailed.

Now, growth in Atlanta has stagnated largely because the transportation network has no capacity for growth.  Capacity needs to be added now.  It can't wait any longer.

My fear is that if T-SPLOST is defeated, there is no "Plan B" and given the state government's ability to get ANYTHING AT ALL done for transportation in Metro Atlanta, what we have is what we'll have for quite a while.  In fact, just this Spring, they completely failed at a relatively simple task of figuring out a sensible, oversight arrangement for regional transit.  What they are very good at it is studying things to death, ignoring the results and then jumping on the band wagon to study some other "new" thing.  It's the illusion of progress, but nothing good ever happens.

Defeat T-SPLOST, bad as it is, and Metro Atlanta is "dead man walking", at least for another decade.

Atlanta - "Gate City of the South", or "Capital of the New South" or "World's Next Great City".  All things Altantans like to believe about their city.


"Atlanta - Detroit of the south?"  The future?

We get to chose.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

"Next stop, Duluth Georgia!"

The Crescent, a historic train.

Its schedule and stops were based on post WWII population and travel patterns.

Between WWII and 1970, the interstate highway system was built out, Atlanta grew rapidly in response, but the Cresecent's schedule was virtually unchanged.

In the 40 years since then, Altanta has become virtually unrecognizable, tripling in size to over 5 million people.  However, the Crescent is virtually unchanged today!

Same stops.  Same running time.  Same schedule.

Atlanta.  What was just one of several southern cities on the route, is now the number one city in the southeast outside of Florida. Number 9 in the whole country. Good for the Crescent?  It should be, but it's not.

Atlanta has grown.  Has the ridership?  No.  In 1971, the train consistently operated 12-16 cars.  Now, it runs with 9 or 10 with the total available space roughly equal.

Well, then, has the profitability of the train grown?  No. It consistantly ranks near the bottom of Amtrak's long distance trains in their monthly reports.

Why? It doesn't stop where the people live.

How many people live in Metro Atlanta?  Take a look:

Atlanta MSA
yearpopulationchangegrowth rate per decade

Where do they live?  They are sprawled out, north, south, east and west, but more so on the north side.

(scale on map below:  The distance from Atlanta proper to Gainesville - in the upper RH corner is 50 miles)
2010 Census by zip code

There are over 3 million new people in the area since Amtrak started running the Crescent in 1980.  Many of them moved into new suburbs to the north of the city proper.  The Crescent's route runs right through one of these northern suburbs, Gwinnett County.  Here is the population for Gwinnett County over the same time period.

year population change growth rate % of Metro Region
1970 72,349 4%
1980 166,815 94,466 131% 7%
1990 352,910 186,095 112% 11%
2000 588,448 235,538 67% 14%
2010 805,321 216,873 37% 15%

The Crescent's currently makes one stop in Atlanta.  The population in the surrounding area is a bit less than a half million people.
463,000 people in shaded area that included Downtown, Midtown and Buckhead

The next stop to the north, after passing through the whole length of Gwinnett County is Gainesville.  A small, rural city centered around feed mills.  The population of the surrounding area is less than 60,000.
59,000 people in shaded area around Gainesville

 Duluth Georgia is about in the middle of the western edge of Gwinnett County, adjacent to the large, affluent suburbs of Alpharetta and Roswell in North Fulton County. The population of the immediate surrounding area is over a half million people.  It is about 20 miles from the Atlanta stop and 30 miles from the Gainesville stop by rail.
535,000 people in shaded area around Duluth

 Should these people want to ride the Crescent, they have to drive to Atlanta - with the potential for some serious traffic along the way - nominally a 40 minute trip.  Or, they can drive up to Gainesville - an easy drive - about 40 minutes the other way.

Some personal observation at Gainesville leads me to believe than many, if not most of the riders who get on there are coming from the Gwinnett/North Fulton area.

Would these people want to ride the Crescent?  It does go useful places at useful times of day.  It's a day trip to Birmingham and New Orleans in each direction including a stop in the college town of Tuscaloosa.  Its an evening trip up into the Carolinas, hitting the college town of Clemson and making a late night stop in Charlotte.  It's an overnight train to Charlottesville, DC, Philadelphia and New York.  Certainly, there are suburban Altlantans who would use the train if only they knew about it and it was convenient.

So, why doesn't train stop in Duluth?  Tradition forbids it?  Never thought of it?  Nobody ever asked?

Amtrak loses nearly 30 cents per passenger mile running the Crescent.  A lot of that is the fixed cost and overhead involved in running a train.  It would seem that Amtrak would be hungry for every incremental dollar of revenue that they can get their hands on.  There is more to marketing than setting fare levels and having a nice web site.  Stopping where the potential riders are should always be the first consideration.

It is clear that Amtrak should create a stop in Duluth - and should have done it a couple decades ago.

How hard would it be to do that?  Pretty easy.  The current site of the Southeastern Railway Museum is in a nearly ideal spot and their management is open to the idea.  It has really good highway access being adjacent to two major arterial roads.  All that's needed is a platform a few hundred feet long made of timber and asphalt and a short, wooden high level platform for handicap access, and some street lamps and you're in business.

Build it, tell people about it and watch the ridership climb.

So, how about it, Amtrak?