Saturday, August 04, 2012

T-SPLOST Follow-Up

As Richard Layman points out, the Washington-based Center for Transportation Excellence monitors transit ballot initiatives across the country and found a 79% success rate in 2011 (77% in 2010).  Despite this promising track record, metro Atlanta's recent T-SPLOST initiative was roundly defeated during July 31's state primary election.  Why did this initiative in this gridlocked region fall into the 21-23% failure rate and not the nearly 4-out-of-5 success rate?

Mr. Layman surmises that one of the reasons for T-SPLOST's failure was that it was a referendum on funding for a hybrid of highway and transit measures, and as such did not have enough transit projects (and too many highway projects) to garner support of the pro-transit enthusiasts.  Indeed, both the Sierra Club and the NAACP came out against the T-SPLOST measure for this very reason.  On the other hand, the initiative still contained too much transit and not enough roadways for the anti-transit faction.  In other words, both sides found something to dislike in the measure.  Add to that the current Tea Party enthusiasm for opposing any new tax, and you have a sure-fire recipe for failure here in Georgia.

There's also a darker reason for T-SPLOST's failure (unfortunate pun not intended).  Many white voters in Georgia view public transit not as an urban amenity but as assistance to the poor who can't afford an automobile, insurance, fuel, and/or upkeep.  After all, why would anyone take a bus or a train if they could drive their own car instead?  This perception is exacerbated by the history of transit in Atlanta.  When MARTA was first constructed, the East-West line was built first, before the subsequent North-South line. As the East-West line connected primarily black communities and neighborhoods to downtown and as "white flight" to the suburbs was largely completed by the time the North-South line was constructed, the view of many white suburbanites was that MARTA existed solely for the sake of the black, urban poor.  

This same story is playing out over again on the new Atlanta Streetcar project, which was initially conceived as part of former Mayor Shirley Franklin's Peachtree Corridor vision to run north-south along the length of Peachtree Street, but due to a lack of funding has been reduced to its sole east-west segment, connecting Downtown's Georgia Aquarium with the Martin Luther King Center.  Enthusiasm for the streetcar project has been significantly reduced in my north-central Peachtree Street neighborhood following this announcement, and the project is viewed by many as just another handout by the largely black city administration to the predominantly black downtown community in the vicinity of the streetcar's limited route.  

This view not only borders on racism, but also misses the point and benefit of the proposed Streetcar.  It might surprise some people, but members of the black community do not spend a lot of time shuttling back and forth between the aquarium and the King Center.  However, if you go downtown on almost any given day of the week, you'll see scores of tourists walking around CNN Center, Phillips Arena, and the Georgia Aquarium, trying to navigate their way along the unforgiving city streets and avoid getting hit by cars.  This area is the closest thing Atlanta has to a tourist district, and it is not well served by public transit.  A streetcar that can bring the tourists from this area across town to the historical King Center, a National Park Service site, would not only serve the tourists better but also expand the tourism industry in Atlanta and provide opportunities for more hotels, restaurants, and retail (you know, jobs).  If popular, it may also whet the appetite for expansion of the system to run up Peachtree as originally intended.

But anyway, back to T-SPLOST.  Just to create the referendum, which allowed individual zones in the state to separately vote on transit and transportation initiatives in their own parts of the state, took years of legislative action. Now, the opponents of the T-SPLOST want to repeal the legislation to make sure the initiatives never come up for a vote again. In other words, before the planners and bureaucrats have a chance to come up with an improved, more palatable proposal, they want to take away the region's right to ever vote on local projects again.  Before the legislation, any initiatives for transit in Atlanta had to be voted on at the State level, and rural politicians could always assure their re-election by rallying their constituents against the Big City.  This tactic was most recently manifested by proposals banning inter-basin transfers of water, designed to forbid by law the City of Atlanta from utilizing any surface- or groundwater resources outside of the Chattahoochee River basin, despite the availability of such resources, financial considerations, etc. Given this provincial mentality, repealing the legislation that allowed T-SPLOST would be highly effective in ensuring that no new transit initiatives are ever approved in the future.

This adamant opposition to transit solutions in traffic-clogged Atlanta, at a time when most transit initiatives are approved nation-wide, is either symptomatic of a fundamental flaw in T-SPLOST itself, or something else.  In this former Confederate state, that "something else" is usually racism.


Steve Reed said...

My experience when I was living in the South was that it was very difficult to pass an added sales tax for most purposes. I think the "Tea Party" mentality is just too strong in that part of the country. There's a cynical belief that contributing more money won't really solve the problem -- that it will just give bureaucrats more filthy lucre to waste and steal. I don't discount that racism is a factor too, though.

Shokai said...

I agree on the trust issue. See my follow-up of August 5.