The Georgia Department of Transportation recently approved $102 million in projects to improve the state’s infrastructure. The department gave the go ahead on these projects as the state is in the midst of a debate over a new proposed one percent sales tax to help fund infrastructure.
Highway supporters often argue that fuel taxes fund road construction and maintenance, but this is simply not the case, leading to the need for other dedicated transportation funding, like the Georgia sales tax. Improvements slated to benefit from the new fund include highways, bridges, and public transit. Metropolitan Planning Organization Coordinator Corey Hull said, “We … want them to know this is our only option right now. The state does not have a plan B for funding transportation and infrastructure.”
Clearly, the fuel tax is not meeting the funding requirements for the states’ drivers, so the funding is being drawn from the wider state population, including non-drivers. Currently, this may be a small distinction in Georgia, though, where only 2.7% of residents take public transportation to work. Like road improvements, public transportation projects in Georgia are funded by the broader tax base rather than the constituents that actually rely on the service.
Perhaps the number of Georgians who take public transportation to work will grow with the proposed expansions to Atlanta’s light rail. However, it’s hard to imagine that such marginal improvements to public transit will create meaningful change to transportation in a city like Atlanta, which was was largely designed around the highway system.
As a result of low demand for transit in Atlanta, the city hopes to cover only 20 percent of the operating costs of a new streetcar system with fares. Rail has many clear advantages over buses — these systems are typically faster and easier for riders to navigate. However, in a large, low-density city like Atlanta, geography simply does not allow many people to use a reasonably sized rail system. Without major reforms to density and parking regulations, Atlanta’s light rail is likely to largely run empty.
Rather than attempting to force a Smart Growth vision on their residents, Atlanta policy makers should take a step back and allow the market to guide transportation resources. In a city built around highways and cars, buses and bus rapid transit make much more sense for environmentally friendly, cost-saving public transit. They have a shot at paying for themselves, or at least necessitating fewer tax dollars than street cars, particularly if the state does not continue policies that subsidize driving. Light rail should not be built without the repeal of anti-density policies.