So what is our “Plan B”? Well, that answer supposedly comes from a $1.6 million “Alternatives Analysis” study, which will likely not be complete until February 2013 — and thus doesn’t make sense either simply because the TSPLOST and its project lists will be approved or rejected six months prior to completion of this study.
Now, what happens if TSPLOST just happens to pass, and the taxpayer funded Alternatives study says — as it should — that light rail headed south from Cumberland is flat out wrong? Will the vocal backers of the Cumberland light rail concept suddenly support the Alternatives study recommendations? Not likely. Is there then some sort of time consuming, political “reconciliation” to blend TSPLOST light rail with other concepts suggested by the study? Is that how this million-dollar-plus study would be justified?
If so, then after all this additional time spent talking and reconciling, would we be any closer to solving the traffic management issues we have already studied to death and which have hamstrung Cobb commuters for decades? Nope. We’d still have “The Process”, but no progress.
Keep this in mind: The current light rail plan requires federal taxpayer dollars which are at least ten years away, and likely more, due to the existing queue for federal transit monies requested by other cities. (Presently, there are about 1500 miles of transit line looking for taxpayer cash, of which about 30 miles receive funding each year. Therefore, all we have in this scenario is 10-plus years of bureaucratic job security and ZERO years of actual working solutions. Does anybody see any progress yet?
For the past 25 years, we have been perpetually enabling process and little else; certainly no real progress. We do studies, we make ridiculous projections, we assume funds will be available and costs will remain static, and we stay busy, looking like we are actually working toward a deployable goal.
In fact, however, real progress is being held captive by process. This is unacceptable. Even worse is the fact that the process is flawed. Specifically, many of the assumptions used to support a TSPLOST light rail plan, as well as estimates given, cannot be justified.
With no federal funding available until well after the TSPLOST (supposedly) ends, over $850 million for construction (less likely wasted engineering and environmental study costs) will be waiting around until federal money arrives; waiting around for over a decade while we continue to suffer some of the worst commuting conditions in the country. This is inane at best. Serious leadership? I think not.
As for required operating subsidies, assuming inflation does not exist, more than $3.50 per ride at a minimum will be needed in perpetuity to keep this line functioning. Now assume a realistic ridership of perhaps 23,000 rides per day — an optimistic figure for the chosen route. The math goes like this: 23k times 365 days times $3.50 per ride (higher for fewer riders) equals over $29 million per year in subsidies or roughly $120 for every household in Cobb annually, in addition to the TSPLOST tax cost AND the fare. And all this for the privilege of having one mile of trolley line in Cobb with the rest in Fulton, connecting with the failing hub-and-spoke MARTA system. Gosh! Where do I sign up? (Note that projecting ridership for a system with an undefined completion date at least a decade out is a stretch in its own right.)
So connecting the dots, TSPLOST supporters say traffic congestion will be quickly solved by adopting the tax. Exactly when will that happen? They say the Cumberland-to-MARTA rail will be in service by 2021, but federal funds to complete the build won’t be available until after that. And there is no source of funding identified for the $29 million-plus required for the operating subsidy. Sounds like an eventual unfunded mandate to me, something we already have an excess of.
The conclusion is clear: TSPLOST in its current form, with light rail included, must be stopped. A full rethinking is necessary with a privately funded transit alternative leading the way. It’s time for real progress … not just “The Process.”
Tom LaBarge of Marietta has a master’s degree in marketing from the University of Chicago and is a licensed real estate agent.