EDITORIAL: Not much to chew on

Traffic savings generated by Atlanta tax lacks luster

Blog Entry June 07, 2012
Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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You had to have a bag of Goldfish crackers or Oreo cookies in order to be eligible to vote. I had neither.

So I took a backseat to this booster-seat debate over what to rename the Kane County Cougars—a Class A baseball team nestled in Geneva, Ill. My son and four of his kindergarten colleagues were suddenly determined to put a little more flash in the title as they nibbled over lunch during a parent-chaperoned field trip. I was a mere spectator to this playschool political process, yet was keenly interested in the final outcome. Just what kind of creative genius would be squeezed out of this juice-box mentality? The finalists were the “Kane County Kobras” and the “Kane County Kings.” OK, the K in “Kobras” is my idea, but I did not dare share it with a group that passes around viruses at such an alarming rate. When it came to a final vote, most shouted in approval for both. The creative intelligence was certainly up to snuff, but the diplomacy was tainted in sugary enthusiasm.

I am convinced the vote in the Atlanta region later this summer will be more clear-cut, but the numbers lawmakers are throwing out to convince their following will only make eyes pop to those who still carry a cartoon-covered lunch box to work every day.

On July 31 voters will either breathe life into a sales-tax referendum or knock the wind out of it. If approved, the measure would generate $6.14 billion over 10 years, and the cash would be spread over 10 counties for congestion-relief projects already chosen by a select group of local politicians. However, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) is not supplying a whole lot of enriched oxygen to the purpose. According to its very own traffic-simulation computers, metro drivers will save a grand total of 128,000 traffic-snarl hours in 2025 if the 10 for 10 is approved. Now, to your average 5-year-old that is worth a lot of “whoa!” To your average commuter, it generates a “what?” Despite the savings, the peach pit of U.S. traffic would still generate 1.8 million hours of congestion a day.

The ARC wiz machine also spit out the following stat: Atlanta motorists able to reach their job in less than 45 minutes would increase 6% by car if the $6.14 billion becomes reality, and that number increases to 20% for the travelers by bus or train. Those living in areas experiencing the transportation projects first-hand will receive first-rate benefits. For example, the Cumberland district in southern Cobb County, where several road and transit projects are slated to take place, would see an 18% improvement in the 45-and-under trip.

Congestion experts in the area claim the results are worthy of the wow factor, or in this case, the whoa effect. ARC Director Doug Hooker said it moves the needle in the right direction.

My question is this: Do these computer calculations take the projected increase in future traffic into effect? The number of motorists is expected to nearly double in the next 20 years in most areas, and are they being heard here? Even if they are, projections, especially when you are talking about traffic, usually come in well under the real numbers. Furthermore, a big chunk of the $6.14 billion will be thrown at other modes of transportation, like light rail. So now you are resting the hopes of future congestion relief on proactive people, ones that will make the complete conversion from car to rail. Of course, a continued struggling economy also would be credited with an assist here, but let’s all hope by 2025 the landscape is looking positive.

As it stands, I do not think the measure has a chance of passing, and that is not even factoring in my opinion about officials hand-picking the projects. ARC’s attempt at voter motivation is worth a bag of yawns. That is not going to sway the swells of tough cookies out there. R&B

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