Grinding Axes Won’t Fix Traffic

image courtesy of MARTA

By Charlie Harper, Executive Director, PolicyBEST

It’s a tried and true axiom.  Never let a crisis go to waste.

No sooner than had a section of I-85 collapsed due to a freak yet apparently quite preventable incident last Thursday evening than opportunists seeking a vehicle for their agenda poured into social media to grind their quite familiar axes.  Traditional media poured on as well with their follow on takes.

A friend of mine took to Facebook to lament that the leadership of Kasim Reed and Tim Lee spending money on stadiums left us deficient in infrastructure.  There’s just a small problem with this logic.  Even if a rumored federal trillion-dollar infrastructure program had suddenly appeared, there’s no way any of that money would have been allocated to rebuilding a perfectly good section of interstate 85.

If he was talking about expanding transit, his logic continues to fail.  Voters in the City of Atlanta have already approved an additional sales tax to expand MARTA within the City’s footprint. Transit infrastructure is being expanded, and under Mayor Reed’s leadership.

On Saturday, I got a request from an Atlanta media outlet to discuss the consequences of past votes to deny transportation infrastructure funding.  Well, the state legislature passed a bill in 2015 that added almost $1 Billion of additional annual transportation funding, about half of which has been dedicated to repaving roads and rebuilding bridges.

I’m quite familiar with that one.  I worked on it with many others for about two years.

We rolled out the public initiative in January of 2014 to get Georgians talking about common ground solutions for real transportation problems.  Amazingly, during our press conference, it began to snow.  The result was the storm now known affectionately as “snowmageddon”, when some spent the night stuck in traffic on I-75.  The next day, the entire country was talking about Atlanta’s traffic.

I got a lot of press inquiries during the next couple of weeks.  I said the same thing then as I say now.  Public policy that involves 50 year solutions should not be made in an emergency.  Snow melts, and so does heightened public opinion and awareness.  Rather than rush a Band-Aid solution built around our coalition’s meager stated goals, it required discipline and patience to build public opinion around a much larger, more comprehensive solution.

We had to resist the urge for a quick fix in 2014, in order to get a real fix a year later.  It was imperative that the public back a measure when the temps outside were 70 degrees and sunny, not just affected by snow and cabin fever.

My favorite ax ground thus far has come from New York Magazine, where writer Ed Kilgore blames Atlanta’s bridge collapse and resulting traffic issues on…the county unit system.  Even though Kilgore admits the system was abolished in 1963, he still believes that the fact that Georgia hasn’t consolidated down from 159 counties is the root cause of attitudes and politics that haven’t implemented a comprehensive regional transit system. It’s ironic that a New York writer openly sneers at Republicans and their transit views having a “bad, socialist aroma” when quite literally painting all Republicans as blocking transit to uphold Jim Crow.

A few things Mr. Kilgore should understand.  The five MARTA eligible counties (Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Cobb and Gwinnett) have about one third of the state’s population.  Literally no one is suggesting these counties consolidate.  If he believes consolidating Quittman County (population 2,335) and Clay County (population 2,030) in Southwest Georgia will somehow free up the tens of billions needed for fully comprehensive metro Atlanta transit system, or change the political barriers opposing it, then I have a still smoldering section of I-85 to sell him.

Mr. Kilgore may also want to understand that the 2015 transportation act of 2015 added state funding for transit for the first time.  He should probably know that the Speaker of the House from rural Fannin County has become one of the biggest proponents of expansion of MARTA.  Somehow, he was re-elected again in 2016 from his base of apparent Jim Crow-clinging, transit hating conservatives.

Consolidating Counties won’t change the majority opinions of anyone. Time and economic data are required to do that.  The 2015 transportation act opened the door.  Attitudes are in fact changing with every announcement that a company relocates to be near MARTA rail. Gwinnett will likely hold a MARTA referendum in the next 24 months.  Cobb is even, if somewhat reluctantly, beginning to kick the tires on commuter rail.

What is the biggest barrier to this happening at the moment?  It’s smug, in-town liberals and their friends in national media that see the opportunity for a drive-by hit to scream racism.  This doesn’t help win hearts and minds. Just like a January snowfall, it freezes them.

The challenges of how to deploy transit, and bigger question of how to pay for it will take time to unpack.  We’ll still be debating this long after traffic is flowing freely again on I-85.