“Why should we believe you people?”

It’s been interesting to watch the transportation sales tax initiative play out. A few items hit the news last week that I found significant. The first was this article in the AJC about north Fulton mayors and their strategy. Pay careful attention to Johns Creek mayor Mike Bodker. He’s politically positioning himself in the forefront of this issue. I believe Mayor Bodker sincerely wants transit in north Fulton. And like the rest of his peers, I believe he has a vendetta against the current MARTA leadership. I think his involvement in the transportation tax is a way to force himself into a position of authority on metro Atlanta transit. That’s good, except that if Bodker had his way we’d have expensive rail all over the place.

But back to the article. What’s significant about this story is that Bodker is backtracking on commuter rail. The ten year timeframe isn’t long enough to get plans off the ground. And since rail is so darned expensive, it would chew up most of the bond money. The mayors are starting to be more pragmatic, favoring roads over rail. I did a little cheer when I first read this.

The second story to note comes from the Alpharetta Patch and their coverage of a transportation town hall. This was a phone-in event with officials (including Bodker) answering questions. The article lifts up a caller who said, “Why should we believe you people?” The GA-400 toll and MARTA sales tax seem to be immortal despite promises to the contrary. It should come as no surprise that north Fulton taxpayers might feel this way. Will that translate into no votes for the sales tax? I predict a fierce battle between tax party activists and well-funded CID groups.

Downtown’s Parking Deck

And finally, in a somewhat unrelated story… Alpharetta recently hosted its first of four town hall meetings on the new downtown plans. I found it interesting that not one, not two but three different articles on the event all focused on one issue… the parking deck. Seems that this is drawing most of the negative criticism. I’d imagine city staff might be behind this parking deck idea yet it isn’t popular with the rank and file.

Parking decks are an urban feature, not something most suburbanites consider desirable. Off the top of my head I can only think of two parking decks in the city that are open to the public; Dillard’s at the mall and the Northside Hospital office buildings on Old Milton. The rest belong to cubicle dwellers in the office parks. I believe residents’ displeasure with public parking decks is a symptom of an overall opposition to urbanization.

11 Responses to ““Why should we believe you people?””

  1. Greg June 28, 2011 at 10:26 pm #

    The continuation of the 400 toll is criminal – essentially taxation without representation. I personally hope that it ends up being the downfall of this new transportation sales tax.

    I wasn’t aware, however, that the Marta sales tax was ever supposed to be temporary.

  2. Tom Miller June 29, 2011 at 9:11 am #

    If the free market won’t support an idea, liberals (and crony conservatives) just get government to pay for it.

    Lee gave us two examples. Mass transit takes a tremendous subsidy because it is so inefficient. Mass transit fares typically cover only 30% of the cost of each trip. Who pays the other 70%? Taxpayers pay for it. The more folks ride mass transit, the more YOU pay.

    Then we have the gigantic $9 million, 450-car parking deck proposed for Alpharetta’s downtown. It would create more greenspace, but at what cost?

    Most of my employers have charged me for parking, either to pay for upkeep or to encourage non-car commuting. Here is rough cost of each space in that deck:

    Capital cost per space is $20,000

    At a 10% return, the City would have to charge employees $2,000 per year, or $167 per month to park. Even if the City only charged employees the City bond’s 3% interest cost, the interest cost alone would be $600 per year or $50 per month, and that doesn’t count actually paying for the parking deck. The 3% is like an “interest only” loan.

    I am not suggesting that we start charging our City employees $50 or $167 per month to park, but in a time when money is tight, people are out of work and underemployed, it hardly seems like the time to build a costly parking deck.

    Downtown businesses would do better with small parking lots and on-street parking on connecting roads. Mayberry didn’t have a parking deck and I would rather that Alpharetta be Mayberry than Midtown Atlanta.

  3. Greg June 29, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    Tom, I’m a staunch conservative, but I would point out that roads (as an alternative to mass transit) are almost 100% paid for by taxpayers.

  4. Tom Miller June 29, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    Greg, you’re right that roads are paid by taxes, but it is almost all fuel taxes which are paid by those who use the roads.

    The government now allocates 20% of the Federal gas tax revenues to mass transit, even though the mass transit users don’t pay any gas tax. Equally important, mass transit only accounts for fewer than 1% of the trips nationally, yet they get 20% of the gas tax money. Why should 1% of the trips get 20% of the money? The mass transit lobby wants an even greater share of the Federal gas tax in the upcoming reallocation. In Georgia, the mass transit lobby is always wanting a share of the State gas tax revenue which can only be used for roads and bridges. The funding issues for mass transit are a clue as to how inefficient it is.

    To me, roads are better public policy because they are self-funding through gas taxes and are used for 98% of the trips. Mass transit advocates will readily say that they cannot survive without a large subsidy.

  5. Greg June 29, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    Tom, where do you get your numbers? I’m definitely not an expert, but from what I’ve read, gas taxes only pay about 30% of road costs.

  6. Tom Miller June 30, 2011 at 1:19 pm #

    Greg, I thought that gas taxes paid for almost all road costs, but you are correct that user fees (gas taxes and tolls) cover 57% of the highway costs when construction and maintenance are included. General taxes, bond issues and other receipts cover the other 43%.

    Local governments use general taxes to fund their share of construction and maintenance costs, since local governments don’t usually have a fuel tax. As construction and maintenance costs have increased over the years without an increase in the gas tax, general taxes like property tax have been used for funding.

    Here is a link to a report about the funding and spending for roads by Federal, State and Local governments.

    http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2007/hf10.cfm

  7. mattg July 1, 2011 at 11:36 am #

    I would actually welcome a GA400 toll increase from 50 cents to 75 cents or even $1 IF additional lanes were added between McFarland and the river and a solution constructed for the NB 285/400 intersection bottleneck. We need 2 additional southbound and 1 additional general purpose northbound lanes – not bus or HOV lanes. In May, my average morning commute time between exit 11 and the lenox buckhead exit was 50 minutes+ (excluding Fridays). 50 minutes to go 18 miles is 21.6 MPH… It is very hard to believe that construction of additional lanes is not being considered within the transportation “wish list” recently publicized.

  8. Tom Miller July 1, 2011 at 11:35 pm #

    GA 400 should be widened. It is the #1 bottleneck. GA 400 is a major driver of our economic success and quality of life in North Fulton.

    Two years ago during the public meetings for the North Fulton Comprehensive Transportation Plan, the consultants (transit advocates) opened the meeting with a Photoshopped picture of GA 400 with 20 lanes, and said that we cannot build enough lanes. They promoted mass transit in their PowerPoint, and then they asked the public for our input. Hmmm.

    Only government would respond to a demand for roads by adding inefficient buses and trains that already have excess capacity.

    I think we should use existing taxes before we jump to adding tolls:

    1. The Atlanta Metro area is a “donor” region for gas taxes to other parts of Georgia. Georgia is a “donor” state for gas taxes to the federal government. The gas tax revenues are sent elsewhere to widen roads in rural areas. Those roads don’t have tolls. We should keep the tax revenues here to solve traffic congestion.
    2. Fulton and Dekalb pay 1% sales tax to MARTA, which originally was passed by a narrow vote. Since then, MARTA lobbies the Fulton and Dekalb County Commissions and the Atlanta City Council to pass an extension of the tax. If two of the three agree, then we get taxed. MARTA’s 1% is extended until 2047 and another 0.5% until 2057. Why can’t we have a vote to end that tax or at least use some of it for roads?
    3. The 2012 vote for a 10-year, 1% Transportation tax could build many roads, but a big share will be allocated to mass transit, not because it will carry a great share of the trips, but because it is so inefficient.

    Why should our existing transportation taxes go to other areas when we need roads here?

  9. matt g July 2, 2011 at 9:59 am #

    Tom, Ideally, you are exactly right – 400 should be widened with existing tax base revenue. Practically and politically, I do not see this happening anytime soon, so I would absolutely support funding the acceleration of 400′s expansion with additional toll fees. I would NOT support a congestion based toll escalator similar to i-85, but I would support a flat 25 or 50 cent toll increase. Here’s why:

    A toll increase to fund 400 lane expansion will actually save commuters money. Here’s my experience:

    Because school is out, the 400 commute is much faster. My average speed has almost doubled, and with that, my gas mileage has improved by about 5 MPG. I drive 180 miles per week on 400. A 5 MPG improvement allows me to save about 2 gallons, or $8 per week. I would gladly spend $4 more in tolls to save $8 per week in gas and get several hours of my life back.

    North Fulton community leaders underestimate the negative impact of the 400 bottleneck – probably because they don’t deal with it every day. I recently had friends who relocated to Atlanta and loved the Alpharetta area. They ultimately decided to buy in Buckhead, because they could not deal with the prospect of spending over two hours per day commuting into work. If the 18 mile commute to Buckhead took 25 minutes, my friends would have bought in Windward.

    What troubles me the most is that 400 lane expansion is not even on the table at this point. We can debate the funding mechanism, but I think we all agree that widening and expanding 400 should be top priority. Right now, it is not..

  10. Tom Miller July 2, 2011 at 11:30 pm #

    Matt, I agree with you. Some folks would call it an IQ test that our “leaders” did not put GA 400 widening in the North Fulton Comprehensive Transportation Plan (2008), and that no City Council, no GDOT, no staff, no one who has input into the 2012 1% Transportation Sales Tax referendum has included any GA 400 widening.

    We need new blood who represent regular folks. We need good candidates who have plenty of time and money to run who will represent the citizens. Most incumbents in local elections run unopposed. And if they have opposition, other elected officials and business leaders just endorse and donate to the incumbent to help him win.

    Another thing I want to mention about the tolls is that millions in revenue goes to collections and administration. That overhead includes the TV ads to get people to use Cruise Cards, and the studies to expand tolls throughout Atlanta.

    The GDOT is pushing a plan to have “managed lanes” all over Atlanta, based on congestion tolls. If the road is busy, we pay more. It sounds like a way to add even more administration and government control. See the GDOT “Managed Lanes” (a.k.a. toll roads) at:
    http://www.dot.ga.gov/informationcenter/programs/studies/managedlanes/Documents/FINALREPORT.pdf

    I heard that the bridges would need rebuilding in order to widen GA 400. Fine, then let’s get on with it.

    The free market would see traffic and respond by building roads, meeting the demand. Government sees traffic and says that if we build more roads, we will just have more traffic. Supply and demand doesn’t work that way. When there is a shortage of roads, the marketplace is saying to build roads. Politicians can talk about “jobs, jobs, jobs”, but we need roads to attract high quality, high paying jobs to North Fulton.

  11. Kim July 3, 2011 at 1:16 am #

    Fascinating discussion.

    Matt, I understand your point about your willingness to pay more, and I would agree if I thought the money was being managed well. It’s not. They need to manage their money they way households do. They don’t.

    You raise an interesting question too. It would be interesting to know the daily travel routines of those on all the North Fulton City Councils. How often do they fight 400 traffic?

    Tom, I didn’t have the patience to wade through the minutiae of that document. I think I understand the theory but I don’t understand how it works in practice.

    Is there a maximum cap on the HOT lane tolls or does it keep rising to keep a constant 45mph in those lanes? I would like to understand the engineering of how that works.

    I’ve been listening to too much Levin… This insanity at all levels has to stop.

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