The Livable Communities Coalition

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

New year begins amid uncertainty about region’s future, transportation


A statement on transit governance

Livable Communities Coalition interim executive director Jim Stokes recently directed the following comments on transit governance to members of the Transit Governance Task Force.

I am Jim Stokes, the interim executive director of the Livable Communities Coalition of Metro Atlanta.  Our Fair Share for Transit Initiative has been the champion for transit in the metroAtlantaregion.  Our 86 member organizations working together had a critical role in having 52%, or $3.2 billion, of the regional project list allocated to transit.

Now that we have the regional project list, we believe that having the right transit governance structure is essential to passage of the transportation sales tax referendum next July.  Because the region’s sales taxpayers will be the source of funds raised under the referendum, we are convinced that our region’s voters will vote favorably on the referendum if they know that the entity overseeing the region’s combined transit systems is accountable to their locally elected officials.  And it just makes sense to have representatives of the jurisdictions providing the funds have decision-making power over the region’s transit systems’ utilization of the funds approved by the referendum.

We urge this Task Force to develop legislation providing for a regional transit entity with a majority of its board members being appointed by local elected officials.  We would prefer that this be a new entity.  However, it could be an existing entity if that entity is restructured to make it a metro region entity with a majority of board members appointed by the region’s elected officials.

This is not to say that the regional entity’s board should not have state representatives appointed by the Governor or the legislature.  In fact, we think that state participation is important and hope that this participation would eventually lead to some level of state funding of metroAtlantaregion’s transit systems.

We also believe that regional board members’ votes should have some appropriate relationship to the population that each board member represents and the financial contribution that each member government or transit agency makes to the regional transit entity.  We are confident that a formula could be developed to provide for such appropriate proportional representation.

We also recommend that that serious consideration be given to having one or more transit operators on the regional board.

Finally, we believe that a regional transit agency should have as part of its mission – not only transit service responsibilities – but also the explicit responsibility for integrating future transit investments with development patterns.

The Livable Communities Coalition stands ready to assist this task force, and others, to address the important issue of transit governance for the metro Atlantaregion.

Thank you for the opportunity to present these remarks.  I would be pleased to answer any questions.

Anti-transit myth #11: No one uses transit

Excerpted from Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation by Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind.

Myth 11: On average, most of the seats on a bus or train are empty.

The anti-transit troubadours usually sing this line only in passing, as a quick reference to “empty buses” or “empty trains.”

And how many seats are occupied in the average automobile? Even in rush hour, the answer is usually one, out of four or five. During the same rush-hour, if you look at the average bus or rail car, all the seats are taken and some passengers may be standing.

Transit systems must be designed to handle rush-hour volumes of people. They can and do adjust to some extent to non-rush-hours, by running fewer buses or trains and perhaps shorter trains as well. But their ability to adjust is limited. A bus or rail car has a fixed number of seats. Shortening or lengthening trains several times a day can cost more than is saved by running shorter trains. In most cities, bus drivers and train operators are paid for an eight-hour shift, whether they are working or not. And off-peak service must be provided, for commuters who have to get home early, people who work non-standard hours and the wide variety of non-commuting transit trips.

If total ridership is averaged over the number of hours transit is provided, the average may appear low – even though the trains and buses are full to bursting during the morning and afternoon rushes. But even if we compare averages, transit still comes out ahead – dramatically so, if we look at passenger miles per vehicle mile. Both heavy and light rail fill double the percentage of seats that automobiles used in commuting fill, and generate 20 times as many passenger miles per vehicle mile.

Anti-transit myth #10: The free market prevails

Excerpted from Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation by Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind

Myth 10: Free Market Competition and Privately Operated Transit Is Better

Where the free market and private enterprise can be introduced to public transit, the public – riders and taxpayers – are likely to benefit.

However, as any free market economist will tell you, a free market demands a level playing field. If we want fair competition between transit and private automobiles, we would first have to level a playing field that, at present, is all hills and valleys.

Public transit is subsidized. According to the APTA 2000 “Public Transportation Fact Book,” in 1998, 65.7 percent of the expense of public transit – operating and capital costs – came from the taxpayer. The rest was from fares and other earnings. In dollars, the taxpayers’ annual contribution was $17.12 billion.

But what about highways? In 1994, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) estimated that total social costs for motor vehicle users range from $2,155 billion to $2,937 billion, with user fees covering $1,716 billion to $1,930 billion. That means highways received an annual subsidy of between $439 billion and $1,007 billion – the latter figure being more than a trillion dollars.

If we were to make transit and cars compete fairly, each would have to get the same subsidy or no subsidy. In addition, the price paid directly by the automobile driver and the transit rider would have to be paid the same way, so the payer could compare costs. It is not a level playing field, if for example, the fare every light rail rider pays on boarding the train includes the capital cost for the train itself, but the car owner only faces a similar capital cost when he buys a new car. Minds working the way they do, the car owner is not likely to remember that capital cost when he gets the car out of his garage. Driving will seem cheaper than taking transit.

If there were a practical way to create a level playing field between transit and automobiles, we’d be all for doing so and letting the best mode win. But so far no one has found the magical mechanism – magical because it would have to be retroactive, all the way back to the early 1920s, to make up for all those years when government-subsidized highways were destroying privately owned rail transit systems. In the world as it is, with automobiles receiving heavy subsidies in a myriad of ways, transit, to compete will have to be subsidized as well.

Anti-transit myth #9: Most light rail riders are former bus riders

Excerpted from Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation by Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind

Myth 9: Most light rail riders are former bus riders.

The fact of the matter is that light rail has been highly successful in drawing people out of their cars and onto transit. We already noted St. Louis MetroLink light rail as one example: a 1995 passenger survey found that 85 percent of rail riders had not previously used the bus. In fact, bus patronage in St. Louis rose rather than fell when the light rail line opened. According to a Denver survey of light rail passengers, dated December 8, 2000, “For 50 percent of all Southwest Light Rail passengers surveyed, light rail was replacing trips they would have made, at least partially, by driving alone.”

Another way to look at this myth is by comparing bus ridership with light rail ridership in the same transit corridor. If most light rail riders come from buses, then ridership should not increase much when rail is substituted. But in fact, it usually does. San Diego offers two good illustrations. On the corridor now served by the San Diego Trolley Orange Line, bus ridership was just over 3,000 per weekday before rail was introduced. Now, on light rail, ridership in the same corridor is 18,000. Similarly, in the Blue Line corridor, bus ridership was 400 peak hour passengers; with rail, it is 1,800. Those bus riders would have to clone themselves in multiples to make up a majority of the people who now ride the trains!

So the transit critics not only have their facts wrong, they have turned them upside down!

Light rail’s proven ability to draw riders from choice, people who would otherwise have driven, usually alone, is important because it directly affects traffic congestion. Riders from choice represent cars removed from traffic, usually in rush hours, on almost a one-to-one basis.

But we should remember that offering rail transit to former bus passengers also has its benefits. Because rail transit represents high-quality transit, those former bus passengers are less likely to leave transit and start driving if they get a car. Buses also clog up roads in rush hour, so substituting rail for bus helps reduce traffic congestion. And since, one a nationwide basis, light rail costs less to operate than buses, getting people off buses and onto rail transit reduces the expense of transit to the taxpayer.

Anti-transit myth #8: Transit increases crime

Excerpted from Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation by Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind.

Myth 8: Transit brings crime into a community.

Quite rightly, Americans fear crime and want to do everything they can to keep it away from their families, homes and neighborhoods. Needless to say, the danger of crime is too good a theme for transit critics to ignore. But this myth is a bit different from the others, because it is local people who usually raise the issue. They do so honestly, because they are scared.

A 1997 Transportation Research Board study, “Improving Transit Security,” states, “The dimensions of transit crime in the United States are not currently subject to reliable assessment…Only recently have efforts begun to compile a national database.”

However, the data on crime on transit is better, so let’s take a look at it first. The TRB study, “Improving Transit Security,” goes on to say that:

Data that are available, using Uniform Crime Report (UCR) classifications, suggest that transit crime is of a less serious nature although serious crime does occur regularly. Disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, fare evasion, theft,, and simple assaults appear to be the five most frequently occurring offenses…As would be expected, serious and violent crime is more characteristic of larger transit systems, measured both by statistical incidence and crime per passenger trip.

Both of these basic facts given here are almost certainly relevant to the rail transit line proposed for your community. First, serious and violent crime is less likely than statistical averages might suggest, because most of that kind of crime occurs in the biggest cities.

Second, most of the crime your system may face will be of a “less serious nature.” What, exactly, does that mean? Another study, the “Transit Security Handbook,” dated 1998, gives a detailed answer. That study states, “Quality-of-life and property crimes account for 93 percent of all crimes on [rail transit systems]. Violent crime occurs relatively infrequently, accounting for only 6.6 percent of all [rail system] crime.”

In 1993, a survey of San Diego Trolley riders found an interesting difference between the perceptions of those who actually use the trolley and those who do not.

This suggests that, at least in San Diego, the issue of crime on board light rail is a problem of perception rather than a reality. In summary, serious crime on rail transit systems is uncommon. This is true even on light rail systems such as Los Angeles’ Blue Line, which goes through several neighborhoods with high crime rates.

What about our second question? Does rail transit bring crime into a community? Here, unfortunately, the data situation is worse. We know of no studies done on a nationwide basis.

The transit authority responsible for the light rail line in San Jose, California, [however] noted in a short study that:

Records compiled by Valley Transportation Authority pertaining to light rail accidents and crime statistics support the conclusion that safety and security in neighborhoods are not significantly affected by implementation.

What can we conclude from all this? In our view, the conclusion is clear: Rail transit can create a crime problem, both on-board and in neighboring communities, but it need not do so.

Unfortunately, in today’s America, any new development can bring crime. It should not surprise that rail transit can do so. A carefully designed program to stop crime before it starts should be part of the planning for the rail line itself.

We have devoted considerable length to the question of rail transit bring crime because, as conservatives, we take crime seriously. We would oppose any development in our neighborhoods that would bring more crime, and we would expect you to do the same.  Rail transit need not, if planning includes security issues from the outset.

Anti-transit myth #7: Rail transit does not spur economic development

Myth 7: Rail transit does not spur economic development.

It is rail transit, not bus service, that spurs economic development. The reason is simple. Bus service can change overnight. A bus route can be discontinued or
rerouted easily. No developer can invest on the basis of something so ephemeral. A rail line, in contrast, is a fixed, high-value asset. It cannot get up and move, and the amount of capital invested in it makes service discontinuance highly unlikely.

And the asset of rail transit service is very real. In one city after another, rail transit – heavy rail, light rail or commuter rail – has brought increased investment, higher property values, higher rents and more customers.

In our first study, “Conservatives and Mass Transit: Is It Time for a New Look?,” we offered the Washington D.C. Metrorail system as an example of rail transit spurring economic development.

Washington’s Metrorail system is a heavy rail system; what of the effect of light rail on development? St. Louis and Dallas offer examples, and both point to the same conclusion: Light rail can have a strong and positive impact on development.

If light rail was going to fail anywhere, Dallas would have seemed the place. After all, Texans were wedded to their cars, and only the poorest used public transit.

Since DART opened in 1996 – on time and within budget – it has carried more riders than projected: 42,000 per weekday by the latest count. And it has had an immediate and positive effect on development. DART Board Chairman Jesse D. Oliver recently wrote:

Developers are building on the success of DART’s $860-million light rail system with more than $800 million in ongoing or planned projects near the stations – those already built, and those opening in the near future. That’s almost a dollar-for-dollar return on this public investment in just four years. I know of no other transit system in America that has generated so much economic activity so quickly.

Rail transit benefits individual homeowners, not just developers and businessmen, by raising the value of existing homes.

Edward A. Reusing, president of Downtown St. Louis, Inc., summed it up best. Having seen for just two years what light rail did for that city, he said in January 1995, “Extending MetroLink and the bus system which feeds it is the smartest economic development step St. Louis can take.” When the anti-transit troubadours sing that rail transit has no effect on economic development, it’s time to start heaving old shoes.

Anti-transit myth #6: Rail transit only serves cities

Excerpted from Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation by Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind.

Myth 6: Rail transit can only serve city centers, but most new jobs are in the suburbs.

This anti-transit myth is a bit different from the others, because the problem itself is not a myth. The myth is that the problem has no solution.

Downtowns remain important centers of employment in most regions, and even Wendell Cox admits that transit serves downtowns well. But it is also true that much job growth is in the suburbs.

There are solutions, and rail transit has an important role to play in them.

One solution stems from the nature of much suburban job development. It is not always spread out evenly across the map. Rather, it often follows certain corridors – corridors that can be served effectively by rail.

Rail transit can do more than serve corridors where job growth is concentrated. It can also help create such corridors.

A major reason why rail transit has difficulty serving suburban growth in many American cities is that there just isn’t enough of it. A single light rail line can only serve a limited area. But if a rail system is large enough, it serves much more than downtown. Washington’s Metrorail is an example: This five-line, 103-mile system serves not only downtown Washington, D.C., but also such major employment centers as Crystal City; the Pentagon; Rosslyn, Virginia; and Bethesda and Silver Spring, Maryland.

Serving suburban job destinations requires not fewer rail lines, but more.

Roundtable completes its task; it’s now up to voters

A message from Livable Communities Coalition executive director Ray Christman:

To Fair Share for Transit partners:

We’re pleased to announce that our efforts to create more transit options in the Atlanta area have paid off.

Livable Communities Coalition executive director Ray Christman

As you all probably know, the Metro Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable last week approved a project list allocating 52.4 percent of the anticipated $6.14 billion revenue from a proposed 1-cent sales tax to transit projects.

Last week’s vote was transformative and set a new direction for the region’s transportation priorities.  It signaled that the region’s view of transportation has  shifted from a  focus on roads to a more balanced policy that includes transit as an equally important component.

What does this mean for the region?

It means that the region will see more than four out of every 10 dollars collected  through the proposed tax being spent to develop new rail options in Cobb County, in the Clifton Corridor, and along the Beltline, which are expected to serve in aggregate nearly 65,000 riders a day. That number doesn’t include the 500,000 riders now served by MARTA, which will receive an infusion of $600 million to maintain its lines and equipment.

It means that an estimated 41,300 commuters will find new or enhanced bus routes that will reduce their traveling time and make their rides more efficient.

It means that the region will see a decrease in road congestion as well as enhanced transportation options that will spur development.

But it also means much more beyond those numbers.

To begin, it means that many residents will no longer be stranded in their homes on weekends due to the absence of transit options. It means that it will be easier and quicker to get to work each day. It means that the disparity between the halves with a car and the have-nots without one will shrink.

At its final meeting, Roundtable members pointed to the spirit of regional cooperation that ultimately led to agreement on the final project list.  Metro Atlanta residents can only hope this spirit will continue. It will take increased cooperation to ensure that the 10-county area continues to grow and provide a high quality-of-life.  And, with the approval of this project list, elected officials around the region signaled they are prepared to do just that.

But first we need to pass the referendum, scheduled for July 29, 2012.  While a recent AJC poll found that 51 percent of likely voters would pass the referendum if it were held today, that margin is very thin. The debate is really just beginning, and the issue will face intense scrutiny from voters.

A major campaign will soon be launched by private business leaders to educate voters about the importance of the referendum.  This campaign will need to engage people from all segments of our community if it is to be successful, and the Livable Communities Coalition hopes – with your help – to play an important role in making this effort a success.

In the meantime, I think all transit advocates should feel gratified by the success of the Fair Share for Transit Initiative.  It played a key role in making the case that a majority of citizens in the region want more transit and that investment in public transportation options will generate substantial economic and quality of life benefits.

We look forward to staying in touch.

Regionalism makes a comeback at Oct. 11 roundtable meeting

All 21 members of the RegionalTransportation Roundtable today completed their review of four contentious amendments to their project list, a prerequisite before the 10-county Atlanta region can vote next summer on a penny tax to finance a host of transit and transportation projects.

Today’s meeting addressed last week’s most contentious amendments. As roundtable chairman Bucky Johnson noted near the end of today’s meeting, it is clear many of the roundtable members used the weekend to drive resolution on the amendments that threatened to weaken the final project list.

Norcross Mayor and roundtable chairman Bucky Johnson thanks the 21-member roundtable for its hard work over the last several days, which helped end Tuesday's meeting on a positive note.

“I appreciate folks for working diligently since our last meeting to try to deal with this,” Johnson said. “Let me thank you on behalf of all the citizens and all the roundtable for what you did to get us over this hump.”

Key among the contested amendments was a proposal to siphon money from MARTA’s funding to bankroll continuing service of several key GRTA Xpress bus routes. Today, the board approved its original 10-year $95 million allocation for GRTA, stipulating that the money be used primarily for operations, with some for capital spending. An accompanying resolution suggested that the state should provide capital funding to fill the equipment gap over the next decade.

An amendment to provide funding to study the potential of a commuter rail line in Rockland County was withdrawn, as was an amendment accompanying the request for greater GRTA financing. Another amendment — to fully fund a MARTA light rail line along I-20 — failed to get a second to bring the issue to a vote.

The issues, which seemed so contentious last week, were resolved in a series of meetings between Roundtable members determined to build a consensus around the project list. The list will go before the roundtable Thursday at 9 am at the Loudermilk Center in downtown Atlanta for a final vote before being delivered to the state by Oct. 15. The issue is scheduled to go before voters July 31.

Douglas County Commission Chairman Tom Worthan.

“It shows what counties and cities sitting down together and working together, listening to each other,” Douglas County Commission Chairman Tom Worthan added. “It shows what we can accomplish.”