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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Sierra Club: One year after TSPLOST's defeat, there has been progress

No funding for penny farthing lanes!
Last April, the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club surprised some members by opposing the T-SPLOST, the transportation sales tax that voters ultimately rejected exactly one year ago. Following the ballot measure's defeat, the environmental group proposed general ideas for improving transit. Today, in a column adapted from an article that will appear in the Sierra Club's upcoming newsletter, its Regional Action to Improve Livability Committee - or RAIL - writes that there has been progress on that front.

One year has passed since the July 2012 election in which voters weighed in on series of 12 regional transportation sales tax referenda - known commonly as the T-SPLOST - voting down the proposal in nine of the state's twelve regions, including metro Atlanta.

The Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club made a difficult decision to oppose the referendum, determining that, despite some merits, it was ultimately not in the best interest of sustainable transportation policy in Georgia. While not all of our members agreed with the Chapter's T-SPLOST position, we all share a common interest in moving forward on the larger issue of sustainable transportation policy.

Thankfully, the potential for such progress is still very real. We tend to view the failure of the T-SPLOST not as a blanket rejection of new transportation investment in general, but rather as a rejection of an institutional status quo that was increasingly seen as ineffective by the voting public, and as an opportunity to chart a new course forward based on improved accountability and responsiveness to our actual 21st-century transportation needs. Following the July election, the Chapter promoted a framework for transportation progress centered on three major themes:

* "Put the House in Order." Ensure an equitable, accountable, and trustworthy transportation governance framework prior to investing billions of new taxpayer dollars.
* "Pursue Funding that Makes Sense." Focus on maintaining and effectively utilizing our existing revenue streams and assets. Tie new transportation funding sources to use and travel behavior to the greatest extent possible.
* "Give Georgians Transportation Choices for the 21st Century." Focus on natural, results-oriented progress that responds to the needs and desires of Georgians rather than a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach.

Fortunately, there has been significant activity on all of these fronts in the year since the referendum. Below, we discuss some of the highlights from these eventful past twelve months.

A New Day at MARTA

As the largest transit provider in the state by far, MARTA has a critical role to play in the local transportation framework, but going into the election it was also one of the agencies most in need of reform. Over the past decade or so, a troubling culture had emerged at MARTA headquarters, characterized by an increased tendency toward service cuts and fare hikes in lieu of other cost-saving methods; stubborn resistance to the national trend toward greater openness, transparency, and information-sharing; and a series of chief executives who rarely rode the system and were increasingly detached from the day-to-day rider experience. While the Chapter is supportive of MARTA and increased transit funding in general, there was some concern that an infusion of revenue without addressing the agency's longstanding institutional challenges would not ultimately be in the best interest of MARTA or its riders.

Since last July we have seen a new way of thinking emerge at MARTA. Just two months after the election, MARTA, which previously held the dubious distinction of being the largest transit agency in the country not to release its data to third-party developers, reversed course and joined the open data revolution, releasing both schedule data and real-time location feeds to the public. That move allows Atlanta to join the thriving culture of open-source transit rider app development, a trend that has made transit more usable and accessible in cities around the country. The data release also served as a catalyst for the Chapter-sponsored TransportationCamp South event in February, a gathering of over 200 transportation activists and innovators focused on new solutions for our transportation challenges.

Later in 2012, MARTA saw an even bigger shift with the hiring of Keith Parker as the agency's new General Manager. It was a bold choice for MARTA's board of directors, who bucked much of the local political establishment in selecting Parker, a young, reform-minded leader, over a status-quo internal candidate. Under his leadership, the agency has prepared and approved an ambitious 5-year strategic plan and budget that, for the first time in recent memory, would actually restore service rather than eliminate it. And perhaps most encouraging of all, Parker has established himself as the first GM in over a decade to ride the system on a regular basis.

MARTA no doubt still faces major challenges, and we have much work to do before we can truly call it a world-class transit system. But there is no question that the agency is in a much stronger position than it was a year ago, and the progress made since last July provides an excellent foundation for continued reform and improved effectiveness.

An Exciting Opportunity for Transit in Clayton (and beyond)

One point that the Chapter stressed during last year's debate was that other opportunities for transportation funding exist beside the T-SPLOST. One such mechanism is the potential expansion of MARTA beyond Fulton and DeKalb Counties. Under existing state law, MARTA is already authorized to serve an additional three counties: Clayton, Cobb, and Gwinnett - which happen to be the three counties with the greatest need for improved transit service. Particularly when combined with the move toward institutional reform and accountability that is happening under Keith Parker, the expansion of MARTA beyond its existing two-county service area is more plausible than it has been in decades.

Of the three potential MARTA expansion counties, Clayton is the logical place to start. Unlike Cobb and Gwinnett, which at least have basic bus systems in place, Clayton has been without any public transit service since the elimination of the C-Tran service in 2010. Clayton joining MARTA would not only mean the return of bus service to the county, but would also clear the way for progress on the long-awaited first segment of the proposed regional commuter rail system, the Lovejoy Line, which is located primarily in Clayton County. Public support for transit is quite high in the county; in 2010 a non-binding ballot question on joining MARTA passed with nearly 70 percent support.

The Georgia Chapter is taking a lead role in the Clayton transit campaign, with an eye toward a potential binding referendum in the November 2014 election; organizing is underway and initial meetings with local leaders have been encouraging. Watch this space for more news on this promising opportunity.

State Funding for Transit a Historic First

Among the transit items on the Atlanta regional T-SPLOST list was ten years' worth of operating support for Xpress, the regional commuter bus service in the Atlanta area. (The T-SPLOST's enabling legislation explicitly forbade the use of its revenues to operate existing MARTA service, but other transit providers were free of such restrictions.)

The Xpress service was established in the mid-2000s by the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA), a state agency, to provide commuter bus service from suburban park-and-ride lots throughout greater Atlanta to major employment centers in the core of the region. The service has proved popular with riders, currently handling about 7500 daily boardings on routes spanning 12 metro area counties. While passage of the T-SPLOST would have ensured the bus system's survival for another 10 years, it would have effectively amounted to the full regional assumption of funding responsibility for a service that was created by and is still operated by the State of Georgia.

While the failure of the referendum was followed by a period of initial uncertainty for Xpress, the end result is perhaps the best possible outcome both for Xpress riders and the state's long-term transit policy. During the 2013 legislative session, full operational funding for Xpress was included in Governor's annual budget, an important milestone for a state government that had never before made such a commitment to mass transit. (The state had previously provided one-off infusions of cash to Xpress through supplemental allocations, but had never included funding in the annual budget.) While transit advocates would like to see much more from the state in terms of support for public transportation - it still provides no ongoing assistance to MARTA, for instance - the funding of Xpress is an important step in that direction.

Atlanta Forges Ahead on Complete Streets Infrastructure

While the T-SPLOST failed in all 10 metro Atlanta counties, one place where an outright majority of voters did approve the referendum was the City of Atlanta - which, as it happens, was the one jurisdiction whose projects overwhelmingly focused on sustainable transportation priorities such as improved transit and better walking and biking infrastructure. The merits of the larger T-SPLOST package notwithstanding, many in the City of Atlanta were disappointed at the failure to secure additional revenue for popular complete streets projects.

The good news is that the popular momentum behind improved livable streets infrastructure is pushing forward an aggressive package of bicycle and pedestrian projects in the City of Atlanta even without T-SPLOST funding. Over the next two years, the City of Atlanta will be building 50 miles of high-quality bike facilities, including new bike lanes on signature thoroughfares such as Peachtree Street and Ponce de Leon Avenue, the city's first "cycle track" (a buffered, dedicated on-street bikeway), and a variety of other projects intended to improve conditions for walkers and cyclists. In addition, the City is also moving forward with plans for a 500-bike bicycle share system, an initiative that the Georgia Chapter has helped promote.

And of course, at the forefront of the city's transportation renaissance is the Atlanta BeltLine, the 22-mile loop of historic railroad corridors that is envisioned as a comprehensive network of transit, trail, and park infrastructure. Long before the project was a household name in the city, the Georgia Chapter was among its most active supporters, helping lead the grassroots campaign for the BeltLine's inclusion in official transportation plans as well as the establishment of the project's primary funding source, the BeltLine Tax Allocation District (TAD). And last fall, the BeltLine saw its biggest triumph to date with the opening of the hugely popular Eastside Trail between Midtown and Inman Park. Despite the T-SPLOST's failure, support for the BeltLine among city residents remains as enthusiastic as ever, and the Sierra Club will continue to help push the vision forward as it has since the project's earliest days.

Making the Most of Our Existing Transit Infrastructure

Part of "putting the house in order" is ensuring that our existing transportation investments are being protected and used to their full potential. This extends to all aspects of the transportation network; on the road side, it means keeping our existing infrastructure fully maintained before embarking on major expansion programs. And on the transit side, it means making sure that we are maximizing our investment though appropriate development around key public transportation facilities.

Atlanta has traditionally done a poor job of utilizing the land around its transit hubs. Many of our MARTA stations remain surrounded by acres of surface parking and other inappropriate uses. Even during the height of the T-SPLOST campaign, developers were pressing ahead with plans for a large suburban retail center, to be anchored by a Wal-Mart store and the attendant sea of surface parking, on a key piece of property on Piedmont Road - right across the street from the Lindbergh MARTA Station. That proposal was thankfully defeated by neighborhood groups who are committed to a walkable, mixed-use vision for the Lindbergh area. But it illustrates the disconnect that often exists between transportation and land use policy; in fact, many of the same city officials who supported the T-SPLOST - which would have created a major rail transit hub at Lindbergh - simultaneously backed the Lindbergh Wal-Mart proposal, which would have immediately squandered the sustainable development potential that any new rail investment might have created there.

Today, with a heightened appreciation for how valuable our major transit infrastructure is, we are seeing a renewed focus on appropriate development around transit stations. Since last summer, MARTA and several of its supporting jurisdictions have moved ahead with a major transit-oriented development push; expect to see activity at several key sites (including our home station of Avondale) in the coming year. And even in areas where transit is still only in the planning stages, efforts are underway to ensure that any new development respects the transit-friendly vision for these areas. In Southeast Atlanta, neighborhoods along the Southeast BeltLine Corridor have banded together to fight another proposed Wal-Mart-anchored big-box development, this one on Glenwood Avenue immediately adjacent to the BeltLine alignment - a proposal wildly out of line with the BeltLine Framework Plan that neighbors spent years working on. The Georgia Chapter is providing assistance to this effort, and thus far it has been successful in preventing city approval of the project.

Bloated Road Proposals Being Brought Under Control

For whatever merits the transit component of the T-SPLOST may have offered, it is impossible to escape the fact that passage would have also unleashed a torrent of new spending on roadway expansion. In the Atlanta region alone, roughly $4 billion of new road spending would have been added, with the vast majority of that focused on new construction and widening projects; more justifiable operations and maintenance projects generally took a back seat. It should come as no surprise that the list of financial supporters of the pro-T-SPLOST campaign was dominated by road builders and suburban real estate developers.

One consequence of the T-SPLOST's failure is that jurisdictions are being forced to be more strategic about road funding decisions, and many of the larger expansion projects are either being scaled back or are not proceeding at all. Some of the most objectionable road expansion projects - the "Sugarloaf Parkway Extension," for instance, which would build a new interstate-style highway on right-of-way originally preserved for the Outer Perimeter - now face a much more challenging path forward as local jurisdictions must prioritize more pressing (and generally more reasonable) roadway needs.

Plan B is Happening!

A frequent refrain during the T-SPLOST campaign was that "there is no Plan B" for moving forward on transportation if the referendum did not pass. We rejected this notion, arguing instead that a "Plan B" was not only possible but necessary. And we are pleased to report that much of what we envisioned as components of that plan - from improved transparency and openness to state funding for transit to more targeted and strategic funding of local transportation needs - is now beginning to happen.

The Georgia Chapter is excited by the progress that has been made this past year, and is optimistic for the future of sustainable transportation in Georgia.

If you are interested in becoming more involved with the Sierra Club's work on these issues, the Chapter's Regional Action to Improve Livability, or RAIL committee, meets monthly and always welcomes new participants. The next meeting will be held on Monday, August 26th, at 7 p.m. at our Chapter Office located at 743 E. College Ave., Suite B, Decatur, GA 30030 next to the Avondale MARTA station.

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