Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dedicate Gwinnett I-85 HOT tolls to fund commuter rail

The inability of the Georgia Department of Transportation to think beyond the highway is mind-boggling.

Now, let me be clear. I am in no way against High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes as a way of raising revenue; a HOT lane is a special lane that is either open free of charge to people in high occupancy vehicles (in this case I believe 3 or more people); I believe these lanes usually have their special status only during peak hours of use.

Why am I not against it? First of all, it is a progressive use fee (tax, if you wish) in two different ways. First of all, in general, lower-earning workers are already far more likely to be carpooling to work. In Gwinnett, according to American Community Survey Estimates over 2006-2008, 18% of workers in the lower third or so of income ( less than $25000 a year) carpooled, while 12% of workers in the middle third of income and 7% of workers in the top third or so of income (more than $50000 a year) did.

Now, admittedly, while there is a major gap between percentage of workers in the lower third (68.1%) and middle third (81.9%) driving to work alone, the gap between the middle third and the upper third (82.8%) is small. This is largely due to the fact that only 79.2% of those making over $75000 drove to work alone. This is due to several factors, the largest being that those people are far more likely to work at home. Additionally, they are slightly more likely to (because they can more easily afford it) live close enough to work to walk or bicycle and may have the time to do so as well. Finally, the way public transportation is structured in Gwinnett County (quite little of it in-county, but with express buses to the big office towers in Atlanta) means that a little bit more of this group actually commutes by public transit than the public at large.

Second of all, it is a tax on unnecessary energy use (single-person commuting), which is good for the environment and for a sound energy policy. So yes, I have no issue with the tax, as it will be a tax primarily on the rich, and of course the state does need money it can get.

What is mind-boggling to me is the way Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) spokespeople answered the final question posed to them by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Q: Is this just another tax?

A: No, it’s optional, Barron said. Besides, with limited road funds, the state is running out of options, Rabun said. "Twenty years into the future traffic is going to be 50 percent more. We cannot put enough lanes out there to handle that traffic. What do you want me to do?"

This is a rather silly defense of the HOT lane. Making a HOV lane into a HOT lane is unlikely to take cars off the road, since carpooling's benefits were already increased by the existence of the HOV lane. It will move some cars to the HOT lane, and perhaps with the capacity they have, the increased carpooling from having the high occupancy lane and getting some rich people off of the rest of the road is the best private-vehicle way to reduce congestion.

But there are other options, and the Georgia Department of Transportation knows it. Look at this picture of proposed commuter rail lines that dates from July 2002.

How much has been done on this? Less than has been done on the BeltLine, for which MARTA still has not submitted anything to the Federal Transit Administration (but that is another story).

Seriously, though. Commuter rail today does not make sense only in New York, any more than any form of rail transit makes sense only in New York. 12 of the 16 metropolitan areas with over three million people have commuter rail (assuming the lines from California's Inland Empire to (largely) allow people to commute to Los Angeles counts), of which 7, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington DC, Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco have at least three lines to augment their good (well, Los Angeles does not really qualify as 'good', per se, but it is surprisingly extensive these days, and gets more trips on heavy and light rail combined than MARTA does, even though 15 years ago it only got about 1/3 the riders combined and even though the Atlanta area has grown much much faster in the intervening period).

In the South and West, Atlanta is one of the few large metropolitan areas to have done absolutely nothing to upgrade its rail transit system in the last 10 years, since the extensions to North Springs and Sandy Springs were finished (seeing as nothing "serious" has been done with plans, and seeing as the stripped-down Peachtree Streetcar seems like a tourist attraction more than something to really help transportation and will, I suspect, not get full funding).

Systems have seen and/or are in progress to see significant expansions in Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland, Portland, San Jose, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Denver, Dallas, Sacramento, Miami

and began and are expanding in Albuquerque, Seattle, Houston, Charlotte, Austin, Phoenix, Nashville, with Norfolk/Virginia Beach/Newport News and Orlando to see openings soon.

This is not to say, of course, that we haven't seen extensions in some of the other metropolitan areas in that time period (New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and especially Minneapolis, which just started its system in the last 10 years, now has one light rail line, one commuter rail line, is in progress on an east-west line between Minneapolis and St. Paul and about to submit to the FTA on a southwestern line, and Pittsburgh is still in progress on its Bore to the Shore, which is not insignificant because it makes further extensions a lot cheaper).

The point is that Atlanta is missing the boat.

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