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Sunday Morning Meditation: Transportation planners focus on doing more with less

Annexation, new cities D'ish Metro ATL

Sunday Morning Meditation: Transportation planners focus on doing more with less

People attending a "pop-up" meeting in Decatur on Jan. 11, 2014 got to see what changes are proposed for the Atlanta Regional Commission's Plan 2040. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

People attending a “pop-up” meeting in Decatur on Jan. 11, 2014 got to see what changes are proposed for the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Plan 2040. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

Metro Atlanta transportation planners say future road and rail improvements will require working with whatever funding they’ve got.

That won’t be a much more than what the metro area receives now, unless funding priorities change. Declining gas tax revenues, flat federal funding and an inability to agree on a solution to pay for anything the planners have envisioned is making the Atlanta Regional Commission reassess its long-term transportation goals.

Downtown Decatur on Saturday, Jan. 11, played host to the first information session about updating the ARC’s Regional Transportation Plan. It was a “pop-up” meeting, where residents could wander in and out as they looked at information on poster boards. Some even brought their dogs. It was chatty and casual.

The language of transportation planning tends to be more formal and serious. There are real challenges in store as the ARC reevaluates transportation goals for the next 26 years as part of Plan 2040.

The update will reconcile the transportation plan with some of the changes in state, federal and local funding since the plan was first adopted in 2011. ARC anticipates $59 billion in funding through 2040, the bulk of which will go toward upkeep of what the region has already.

A funding breakdown for Plan 2040, provided by the Atlanta Regional Commission.

A funding breakdown for Plan 2040, provided by the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Is the $15 billion left over for expanding the metro area’s infrastructure enough to make any difference?

“Most people think, ‘no,’ it’s not enough,” said John Orr, Manager of the ARC’s Transportation, Access, & Mobility Division. Orr said there are some MARTA-related projects on the horizon that will benefit people in Decatur and its surrounding communities:

–   A proposed light rail connection between the Lindbergh MARTA station and Emory University.

–   Extending the I-20 East heavy rail line from Indian Creek Station to Wesley Chapel Road.

–   Service improvements that increase the frequency of MARTA trips from 15 minutes to 10 minutes.

To see all the proposed additions and deletions on the Plan 2040 transportation list, click here.

“There are some good things happening,” Orr said.

There are also good things that aren’t happening. Political gridlock and a crippling recession kept many projects out of ARC’s long term plans.

You had your chance (kinda)

Even when voters in the area had the chance to raise money for transportation, it still wouldn’t have been sufficient to address the region’s needs, according to planning records.

Voters in the metro area in 2012 rejected a proposed sales tax that would’ve provided $8.5 billion for expanding the current system. The project list for that money was finalized after the Atlanta Regional Roundtable prioritized an “unconstrained” list estimated to cost $22.9 billion.

According to figures presented to the Roundtable, if there was funding available for the unconstrained list, it would’ve decreased congestion by 12 percent and supported an additional 24,000 jobs by 2025.

Fast forward to 2014, and the expectations for the future are lower and more in line with the current cash flow.

Funding the future

DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader attended the meeting in Decatur. He said the lack of money for transportation improvements in the region will likely benefit the city.

DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader attended an Atlanta Regional Commission open house in Decatur on Jan. 11, 2014. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader attended an Atlanta Regional Commission open house in Decatur on Jan. 11, 2014. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

“People are going to have to live their lives in a smaller, more contained area, if your time is worth anything,” Rader said.

The development trend is moving in that direction. A study of Walkable Urban Places by George Washington University found that since 2009, 60 percent of Atlanta’s real estate investments went toward denser and pedestrian friendly communities like Decatur. The study concluded that the momentum is shifting away from suburban sprawl and toward urban renewal.

That means more reliance on transit, but funding for transit in the metro area is notoriously unreliable.

According to the ARC documents, the Atlanta region has the 7th worst traffic congestion in America. The region will add 3 million more people by the year 2040.

There simply isn’t enough money to keep up with it. Instead, the 2040 update is going to encourage transit use, even as MARTA deals with its own funding issues.

According to ARC:

–  MARTA had 14.6 percent less funding in 2013 than 2000. It collected $252 million in sales taxes in 2013 compared with nearly $300 million in 2000.

–  No state gas tax money can be used for transit. This affects MARTA on two levels, because it also means less money from the U.S. Department of Transportation. U.S. DOT “requires a commitment for operating support from state, regional or local governments” before spending federal money on transit projects.

–  Only the city of Atlanta, Fulton County and DeKalb County pay the 1 percent sales tax levy that keeps MARTA afloat.

–  The state requires that MARTA spend 50 percent of its sales tax revenue on capital improvements and the other half on operating, meaning it has no flexibility to move funds around as needed.

MARTA is expected to receive $12.7 billion dollars from the sales tax, and $2.8 billion in fares through 2040, which is enough to cover projects in the proposed transit plan update.

The state is also projected to collect more in fuel taxes, according to the proposal.

There’s $804 million in budgeted state gas tax money, which exceeds what was collected in before the beginning of the recession in 2007.

Running out of gas

Here’s the thing with fuel taxes, though. The state fuel tax is 7.5 cents per gallon and hasn’t changed since 1971. There’s also a prepaid tax of 4 percent, and one percent of that goes to the general fund. State per gallon gas tax collections have declined over the last 10 years, as this chart shows:


Source: Atlanta Regional Commission

If there’s no stomach for approving sales taxes in the region, there’s even less of it for tinkering with the gas tax formula.

Jack Gruendler, an East Atlanta resident with an engineering background, attended the meeting in Decatur. He said the $59 billion in funding for the next 26 years is “not even slightly” enough to deal with the region’s transportation problems.

“It is ridiculous that we have allowed the gas tax revenues to decline to the point that they have,” he said.

Everybody’s got problems

Much of our highway money comes from federal sources. MAP-21, a transportation funding and authorization bill that somehow managed to get passed by the U.S. Congress in 2012, sets an anemic annual growth rate of 1.4 percent. That rate could change, but for now that’s what planners have to assume will be the case for foreseeable future.

While the Plan 2040 update ads some MARTA improvements, it also puts some other ideas from hold. The Clifton Corridor project is eventually supposed to connect from Emory to the Avondale MARTA station.

The proposed update moves connection to Avondale to its “aspirations” list. That makes it more of a long term goal than an eventuality.

But if having your favorite project on the aspirations list bums you out, here’s some perspective. DeKalb County has a backlog of $120 million worth of resurfacing projects, according to Cristina Pastore with county consultant Kimley-Horn and Associates.

In 2013, DeKalb received $6 million in Homestead Option Sales Tax money for capital improvements, according to an article by Reporter Newspapers. (Full disclosure: my former employer.) Most of that gets used on paving. Pastore, who attended the meeting in Decatur, said if the proposed new cities of Briarcliff, Lakeside or Tucker incorporate, the county could see its host taxes dwindle to $1 million to $2 million a year, Pastore said.

Pastore said transportation planners spend much of their time squeezing more mileage out of their increasingly limited tax dollars.

“It’s probably safe to say there’s never enough money, which is why the planning process is so important to us,” she said.