Often referred to by an alphabet soup of letters, TSPLOST, the TIA, or the RTR, each name used has a different meaning and connotation. It makes me wonder whether that is by design. The proper name for it is the “Transportation Investment Act” or TIA. The rest of the monikers simply confuse voters and cloud what seems to me to be emerging as the true aim of the act.
Initially we were told the intent was to relieve traffic congestion in metro Atlanta. It was said that taking a regional approach to traffic issues would permit the pooling of resources and make larger projects affordable.
Yet, as the process has moved along, even supporters of the TIA and its proposed list of projects have admitted that it will not significantly improve traffic congestion. Even so, they say, it’s worth it because it’s “also” about jobs.
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor show that at 9.2 percent, Atlanta’s unemployment rate is less than Charlotte (9.5 percent) and more than Portland (7.7 percent) and Phoenix (7.2 percent).
We’re told companies considering locating here go instead to places like Charlotte, Portland or Phoenix because those communities have less traffic, thanks to their new transit systems. That must mean the TIA is actually about economic development — a classic tale of, “if you build it they will come.”
Yet, if businesses locate in those cities, they’re not gaining much, traffic-wise. The Travel Time to Work table, compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau, shows that 79 percent of Atlantans get to work in 30 to 34 minutes. That compares with the exact same percentage in Phoenix, and 82 and 83 percent in Portland and Charlotte, respectively. If the TIA is about attracting businesses as its supporters say, $8 billion is a hefty expenditure for a four-percentage-point improvement against the communities touted as our top competitors.
We are told we need light rail, the beltline or even bus rapid transit (BRT) so that higher density development will follow. But, doesn’t increased density often bring more traffic with it? Many of us moved to Atlanta to escape dense communities like New York City or Los Angeles. We moved here because the Atlanta region was already a great place to live. If the intent of the TIA was to relieve congestion, why does the project list propose more density and potentially rail into Cobb?
So, by looking behind the rhetoric it becomes clear that the TIA is not really about traffic relief, jobs, or even economic development. What, then, is it about? Plain and simple, it’s about money.
The pro-TIA forces launched an $8 million advertising campaign to generate $8 billion in revenue from the sales tax. That is a substantial return on investment. It’s like spending $5 to advertise your lemonade stand to get $5,000 in return. When you think of it that way, it is not hard to see why so many engineering, design and construction companies are lining up to contribute. It’s clearly about money. Rather than truly solving congestion problems, it simply uses public dollars as one more stimulus package.
Aside from the regional, big-ticket items, the TIA also includes local projects. Yet the project Cobb needs most — to address traffic congestion at I-75, I-285 and Windy Hill — has only $47 million allocated of the $77 million needed to complete the project. In addition, the project isn’t even considered until eight years into the process. How’s that for providing the basis for an argument for another 10-year tax when this one is over?
It’s like calling a plumber to fix a leaky faucet and he proposes building a new kitchen, because that’s what they do in Charlotte and Phoenix. And when he completes building the kitchen, it will cost extra to fix the leak.
Do we need relief from the congestion on our highways? Absolutely, however, this is the wrong list and it hijacks the original intent of the TIA. By their own admission, this will not reduce our commute times or our traffic congestion.
If the TIA is defeated today, instead of a “Plan B,” the legislature should allow Cobb to collaborate with its neighboring counties, Cherokee, Paulding and Douglas, to develop a joint plan to deal with collective traffic issues. After all, these counties are our “region.”
One final thought to consider: Section 3 of the TIA allows for a vote on MARTA in Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton, effectively moving transit decisions and control to the MARTA board. Think about that! Yet another 1 percent.
Bob Ott is a pilot for Delta Airlines and represents southeast Cobb on the Cobb Commission.