Clayton’s march to MARTA

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Clayton County’s chairman remains steadfast in his optimism that voters in November will approve a sales-tax increase to bring MARTA service south, in what would be a historic expansion for the transit agency. I talked with him about the opposition he still anticipates as we get closer to election day. In our second column, a conservative commentator writes about the “expensive and generally useless over-regulation of transit” that federal and state authorities apply.

Moderating is open.

Chairman confident MARTA coming

By Tom Sabulis

Jeffrey Turner expects opposition to MARTA’s expansion into Clayton County to surface in the months before November’s sales-tax referendum, but he isn’t aware of any right now.

Still, he waits. “They (opponents) might be circling the wagons,” the Clayton County commission chairman told me last week, adding that “I fully expect” critics and anti-tax crusaders to be heard from.

He doesn’t seem worried.

Last month, minutes after Clayton commissioners voted 3-1 to let residents vote on a one-cent sales tax increase that would raise nearly $50 million annually and bring MARTA to Clayton, Turner predicted the measure would pass with 75 to 80 percent of the vote. That’s a pretty big number. But seven weeks later, Turner sticks to it. He remains that confident.

“Absolutely,” he says, sitting in his office one recent morning. “The citizens have been very supportive since that time. A lot of them have come to me and actually thanked me and those of us on the board who voted for the measure to get it on the ballot, for giving them the opportunity to vote for transit.”

Turner says he heard from seniors who couldn’t get to doctors’ appointments and hospitals once the county shut down its C-TRAN bus system in 2010 (before Turner was elected). He heard from students who couldn’t get to Clayton State University. He heard from workers who could no longer get to work at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

“We have one of the highest unemployment rates in the state in Clayton County,” Turner says. “Now you ask yourself, with Clayton County having the airport in our county with thousands of jobs, why is our unemployment rate so high? One of the reasons is because we can’t get our citizens to the airport to get the jobs. Many of them are not blessed enough to have cars. There’s no transit system.”

A former Clayton County police chief, Turner ran for chairman on a platform that included the return of transit. Now that the ballot is primed to allow that to happen, he’s not taking any chances. He’s talked with organizations — Partnership for Southern Equity, Friends of Clayton County Transit, the Sierra Club — that want to educate voters on the benefits of transit, including enchanced mobility and economic development.

“We all know that in Clayton County, we have been underdeveloped over the years,” Turner says.” “This is a great opportunity for us to bring in new development. We have a great county here. It’s a county of opportunity. We have space to grow.”

He doesn’t take an impending sales-tax hike lightly, though. “We’re going to be at 8 cents, the equivalent of what the city of Atlanta is. That is high. But for growth and prosperity’s sake, sometimes you have to make an investment. I think a lot of the citizens get it; we have to reinvest. There are 45 counties in the state that are at 8 percent. And if we make that jump, let’s make sure we invest our money in Clayton County.”

Turner says he has not heard much from MARTA at this point. The transit agency, he says, is interested in holding job fairs to find potential employees needed for the expansion and other positions. And they have had preliminary conversations about locations for MARTA facilities in Clayton (police precincts, etc.), if the referendum is approved.

“They really don’t want to get the cart before the horse,” Turner says.

With voter approval, the watch will be on for whether MARTA can find a way to bring heavy rail to Clayton, or make do with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The county’s contract with MARTA doesn’t guarantee rail, a fact that Commissioner Michael Edmondson cited when he cast the lone dissenting vote against the referendum. (Edmondson declined to comment for this article.)

But rail is the dream for pro-transit Claytonians.

“The contract doesn’t guarantee (rail),” Turner says, “but there are some risks in everything that you do. It’s not a wasted risk in my opinion, because if we can’t absolutely get rail, then we have the other option, BRT or light rail. At some point, we’re going to have something more than just buses. We want rail. We’ll fight for rail, but … we’re addressing the needs of our citizens at the outset with buses. Our citizens are crying out now for a transit system; they want some buses rolling. When they vote for it, it’s going to happen.”

Jeffrey Turner is chairman of the Clayton County Commission.

 Regulations, ADA burden public transportation

By William Lind

A recent story in Bacon’s Rebellion discussed a speech by Andres Duany, the founder of New Urbanism, calling for a “lean urbanism.” Duany noticed that in parts of Detroit, renewal is taking place not because of government, but because there is less government.

Speaking to the 22nd Congress on the New Urbanism in June (I have attended the CNU off and on since CNU III), Duany said, “When Detroit went bankrupt, they couldn’t maintain the regulators.” Freed of endless, stifling regulations and red tape — all of it expensive and time-consuming — people simply went ahead and began to rebuild. The lesson Duany drew is that we need “to strip away all but the most essential regulations to encourage more urban re-development.”

Duany is correct. We need “lean urbanism” that can produce and protect urban communities with less resources. Nothing soaks up resources faster or more uselessly than over-regulation, which is endemic in cities. But much of that over-regulation does not originate in cities themselves; it starts at the federal and state levels.

One of the regulatory burdens Duany referenced was the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. According to Bacon, “the last building he designed was so festooned with regulations, he (Duany) said he had to hire a consultant who specialized in handicap-accessibility code. That one set of requirements contains as many rules and specifications as the entire development code when he got started!”

Here we begin to see a tie-in with transit. The ADA has proven the single most expensive, least useful mandate ever leveled on public transit. Serving a small number of disabled people takes a large chunk of transit systems’ budgets, both capital and operating. Many of the special facilities the ADA demands of transit systems are seldom, if ever, used. If something intended to serve the disabled is frequently used, including by people who are not disabled but nonetheless find it helpful, I’m all for it. But millions have been spent uselessly.

The ADA is only the beginning of expensive and generally useless over-regulation of transit. One environmental review of a proposed project makes sense, but often multiple such reviews are required. The Federal Railroad Administration’s outdated buffer strength requirements have greatly increased the cost of rail transit equipment, with no benefit. A single commuter train accident in California led Congress to mandate positive transit control for all railroads, at a cost in billions and with no technology yet available to do the job. The list is endless.

To succeed, new urbanism requires rail transit. Streetcars are essential to cities. It is not coincidental that America’s cities began to decline about the time streetcar lines were being abandoned. Because no one likes riding a bus, substituting buses for streetcars made more people drive, which, in turn, led them to live and shop in distant suburbs rather than downtown.

In turn, lean urbanism requires lean rail transit. We need to be able to build streetcar and light rail lines much more cheaply if cities are to afford them. The problem is not technical; the technologies of 100 years ago worked fine, and were not expensive. Successful streetcar lines such as New Orleans’ St. Charles Avenue line and San Francisco’s F Market line still use standard streetcars of yesteryear, carrying respectively 15,000 and 20,000 people each workday.

Lean rail transit, like lean urbanism, requires deregulation, and it also requires an end to fascination with complex, expensive technology that is not needed. The goal should be streetcar lines built for not more than $10 million per mile and light rail built for not more than $20 million per mile.

At those prices, what might be possible for Detroit and other cities trying to recover their past greatness? Now, they struggle to fund lines only a couple of miles in length. At affordable prices, they could rebuild the extensive streetcar systems they once had, systems to serve the whole city, some of it surface-separated and reasonably fast.

A marriage of lean urbanism and lean rail transit could do wonders. Can we get anyone in government to think about either?

William Lind is director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation in Washington, D.C. This column first appeared on the center’s website.

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