The Livable Communities Coalition

Working to improve Atlanta's quality of life through smart growth

Monthly Archives: May 2011

Podcast 4: Atlanta BeltLine builds connections

Like everyone else, the Atlanta BeltLine is trying to read the tea leaves.

Will metro Atlanta defy the model that made it an economic powerhouse in the Southeast and embrace transit?

If you spend a few minutes with Atlanta Beltline president and CEO Brian Leary, you start to believe it could happen.

According to Leary, “There are places in Atlanta right now that have transit demand, a mobility demand that cannot be met by the current road network.”

“What is the next idea that brings us all together to raise the level of quality of life?” Leary asks. “The more time I spend on this amazing project, the more I think the Atlanta BeltLine is it.

The unique thing [about Atlanta BeltLine] is that it will be city-serving and city-shaping.”

As part of the process mandated by the Transportation Investment Act, the City of Atlanta included Beltline projects in their transportation wish list. If the one-cent sales tax referendum passes in summer 2012 and the BeltLine projects are included in the final transportation list, the BeltLine will deliver a project that has failed to materialize to date: the BeltLine will create a rail transit connection between the City of Atlanta and Cobb Co.

“I am hard-pressed to find anywhere inside the core of the region where you can significantly add mobility capacity by building or extending roads,” Leary notes. “If we are real thoughtful about our transportation investments and economic development decisions, we will be much more sustainable and livable going forward.”

Podcast 3: Simple investments add great value

Sometimes it is the simple things that make all the difference.

In today’s podcast, the Livable Communities Coalition talks to Pedestrians Educating Drivers on Safety president Sally Flocks and Atlanta Bicycle Coalition executive director Rebecca Serna.

As the region works towards identifying projects that will help improve mobility, advocates maintain that a “fix-it-first” policy is needed to enhance existing infrastructure, improve safety and get Atlanta moving.

According to Flocks, the region must make a significant investment in improving sidewalks and crosswalks.

“Right now we have system that is very unsafe for its users because you can’t use transit without at least crossing the street once,” Flocks notes. “Over half of pedestrian accidents occur within 300 feet of transit stops.

“If you can get more people using more transit – which safe access will do – it’s going to be a very positive thing for the financial health of our transit system.”

If the 2012 transportation tax referendum, passes experts estimate the tax will generate approximately $8 billion to fund transportation improvements throughout the region over the course of the ten-year life of one-cent sales tax.

Referendum guidelines suggest that 1 – 5 percent be spent on pedestrian and bike improvements.  Advocates like Flocks and Serna are adamant that the number needs to be 5 percent.

Josh Roseman: A modern-day commuter’s story

EAST COBB – Josh Roseman’s nights are fragmented, restless.

Despite the lingering effects of the Great Recession, he has seen traffic over the past year go from bad to worse.

His version of the American dream has left him little time for his family.

Figuratively-speaking, his commute is killing him.

The 33-year-old lives in East Cobb and commutes to Midtown.

“All I want is to not have to waste two hours every day,” Roseman says. “There are many things I like and prefer about living in East Cobb, but I’m seriously considering a move to DeKalb for a very simple reason: they have train stations.”

The most recent census shows that metro Atlanta’s suburbs added 1 million new residents since 2000. The Atlanta Regional Commission projects that metro Atlanta will have another 3 million new residents by 2040.

The region’s transportation infrastructure strains under this load.

“It’s not just the interstate, either,” Roseman explains. “Afternoon traffic on Sandy Plains Road northbound frequently stretches almost a mile for no reason other than volume.

“There’s no construction, no lane shifts, no merges. Just too many people on the road, by themselves.”

There are few options for Roseman. His employer permits him three telecommuting days per month, which helps.

If he chooses public transportation, Roseman’s commute becomes more complex; it even becomes more expensive.

“I have a 2007 Prius, and a round-trip costs about $3.75 in gas. MARTA would require me to drive 12-15 miles (North Springs or Sandy Springs), pay a $4 round-trip, ride the train to 10th Street, and then walk to the Techwood area. It was slightly more sensible when I worked at CNN Center, but even then, it was $8 to drive to MARTA and then ride, as opposed to $4 to just drive.”

He has tried carpooling, and Roseman has a willing partner in his neighbor. But he has found it difficult to coordinate.

“The problem is that both he and I have kids, and our kids (and wives) are on different schedules,” Roseman shares. “We can carpool maybe twice a week, and mostly we spend it sitting in traffic, complaining about how much time we’re wasting.”

Recent polls, surveys and focus groups show metro Atlanta residents have started to embrace transit because presumably they share Josh Roseman’s frustrations. They show that they may even be willing to pay for transportation improvements that include transit.

The Livable Communities Coalition conducted its own poll in May 2010, which showed similar sentiments.

Significantly, the Livable Communities Coalition poll surveyed metro residents shortly after passage of the Transportation Investment Act. The act enables the region to impose a one-cent sales tax that would go towards transportation improvements throughout the region.

For that to occur, two things must happen first.

For one, the region must identify which projects are needed to significantly enhance mobility in the region.

Cities and counties have submitted transportation project wish lists to the Georgia Department of Transportation, which will provide input to a board of regional decision-makers – the Atlanta Roundtable – who will then develop a final project list. The Roundtable must develop that list by Oct. 15.

Second, the region will vote in a region wide referendum currently scheduled for summer 2012. The referendum will ask voters whether they are willing to pay a one-cent sales tax over the course of ten years to pay for the projects identified by the Roundtable.

Roseman supports the idea, especially if it will enhance and expand transit alternatives in his part of metro Atlanta.

“I spend a lot time thinking about what I could do with an extra two hours in my day,” Roseman says. “I imagine a life that allows me to work a full day, get home in time to cook dinner for my family, and spend quality time with my daughter, plus have a little extra time to exercise, or write, or just relax before I have to start all over again at 6 a.m. the next day.”

Shifting attitudes support a Fair Share

Metro Atlanta may have a more robust transportation future if polls are any indication.

The Livable Communities Coalition conducted a poll last May to see how residents of metro Atlanta felt about transportation and what was needed to improve the area’s transportation infrastructure.

In the second podcast of our Fair Share for Transit podcast series, Livable Communities Coalition communications director interviews the Ray Christman, the Coalition’s executive director, and Citizens for Progressive Transit president Ashley Robbins about the area’s shifting attitudes towards transit.

Christman notes that poll results generally show that residents feel that roads are not the solution to improving traffic; rather, residents acknowledge that other options like transit are needed.

Citizens for Progressive Transit spearheaded an effort last fall in Clayton Co. to generate support for a non-binding referendum that would help restore transit in the county.  Robbins shares her observations from that experience and how they generally apply to the metro area.

Visit The Atlanta-Journal Constitution has provided ongoing coverage of the transportation referendum process.

Urbanizing suburbs need a Fair Share

Like others I was stunned when I saw the census figures for the City of Atlanta. Atlanta only added 1,000 new residents between 2000 and 2010?

According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, both City of Atlanta and Fulton County used flawed methodologies to estimate population growth over the last decade. Whatever the cause, estimates of the city’s population had grown to 541,000 by the end of the last decade. The official 2010 census, on the other hand, put the city’s population at 420,000.

City and county officials are understandably scrambling to determine what this population shortfall may mean for them and whether there are any avenues available to appeal.

The flip side of the news generated by the census is that metro Atlanta continued to grow, adding over 1 million new residents since the 2000 census.

Some observers, notably Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin, have leapt on this news to make a point about housing preferences – primarily that consumers prefer the suburbs. While the co-written article by Cox and Kotkin has generated a lot of buzz in the world of planning and economic development, I tend to focus less on the issue of suburbia versus cities; instead I make the argument that our suburban communities are urbanizing, creating new pressures on the region.

There is yet something else alarming from the census report: Despite metro Atlanta’s population growth – concentrated in its suburban ring – that growth did not generate a proportional number of new jobs even though metro Atlanta grew at the greatest numerical rate in the country.

Accordingly, there are two tasks before us as a region.

For one, the way we grow matters. The Atlanta Regional Commission forecasts the region will add yet another 3 million new residents by 2040. Traffic is already bad, and it is only going to get worse unless the region acts proactively to deliver transportation solutions.

We need to make appropriate investments in our transportation network to not only help people move freely through the region but also to facilitate commerce.

Secondly, we need to focus on the region’s competitiveness by making the right transportation investments.

As I have noted before in posts to this blog, other Sunbelt cities have taken the plunge and started building new transit systems to compete economically. That trend has only intensified as communities throughout the country compete for federal transit dollars.

Significantly, the City of Atlanta has secured one of those grants to build a streetcar line from Centennial Olympic Park to the Carter Presidential Library. On its own, however, the streetcar project will do little to solve our transportation problem unless we do more to coordinate as a region to make new assets like the streetcar work within the context of other proposed transportation solutions.

With strategic improvements to our existing transportation network and with expanded investments in our regional transit network and our network of safe routes to transit (pedestrian walkways and bike routes), we can help metro Atlanta get back to work. With a Fair Share for transit and safe routes to transit, next year’s proposed one-cent sales tax can go a long way to achieving that vision.

Coalition launches first podcast; talks transit

 

Livable Communities Coalition communications director talks transit with Environment Georgia policy coordinator Jennette Gayer and Mothers & Others for Clean Air director Rebecca Watts Hull. 

Highlights include information about polls that suggest metro Atlanta desires more transit, discussion about the actual impact of ozone and decreasing reliance on foreign sources for fossil fuels. 

To share your input with members of the Regional Transportation Roundtable, visit the Atlanta Regional Roundtable online.  The website provides information about the members of the Roundtable and whom you should contact as your local representative.

The Atlanta Regional Commission has also made an online survey available, allowing residents to provide input on the proposed projects for their communities.

Is there a silver bullet train solution?

Livable Communities Coalition executive director Ray Christman

There are no silver bullets; nor are there silver bullet trains. 

That is the crux of a recent Economist blog that responded to a Businessweek article about the emergence of Megabus service. Businessweek suggested Megabus may be a free market response to limited long-distance travel options that will revolutionize the industry and undermine the President’s ambitious plans to develop a high-speed rail network. 

As The Economist blog notes, government subsidizes many of forms of transportation and has most notably subsidized air and ground travel at far greater rates than rail service. 

Much has been made ofFlorida’s rejection of federal money to jump-start high-speed rail in the state.  In the final analysis, it may very well not make the most sense to try to subsidize high-speed rail inFloridawhen other travel corridors in the Northeast, theMidwestor even other part of the Southeast have a more pronounced need. 

Both the article and the blog look dubiously at the proposedTampatoOrlandoproject. 

The lesson in this media tit-for-tat is that government does play an important role in identifying transportation priorities that help keepAmericaon the move.  The key is for government to take a balanced approach based upon what meets the greatest need in particular corridor.  Most likely, a blend of approaches will be needed. 

While high-speed rail has generated a lot of headlines nationally, metroAtlantais having its own conversation about its transportation future. 

My organization, the Livable Communities Coalition, has launched its Fair Share for Transit initiative to help prepare metroAtlantafor the looming transportation vote. 

The referendum, scheduled for summer 2012, will ask voters whether they wish to use a one-penny ten-year sales tax to fund transportation improvements throughout the region – or not. 

We feel there is a general consensus in the region that we can no longer afford to move about the region on our existing transportation network. 

Moreover, our own poll conducted in 2010 shows there is support for an appropriate blend of transportation solutions. 

Our Fair Share for Transit is focused on ensuring that transit would receive significant financial support in the event the referendum passes. In our view, a Fair Share for Transit means anywhere from 40 to 60 percent.  Improving areas around transit centers by making those areas more walkable should also be included in that 40 to 60 percent.

This process brings to mind the Dyson vacuum cleaner commercials in which the company’s found James Dyson articulates quite brilliantly his company’s mission: “Solve the obvious problems others seem to ignore.”   

There are a lot of obvious problems in our current transportation network. Delivering a more sophisticated transit system to the area is one obvious problem we can address, so let’s chip away at the obvious problems in order to make metro Atlanta greater.

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