That’s the problem

Last Thursday I attended the Evening to Support Transit Expansion With Senator Brandon Beach in Alpharetta hosted by the organization Advance ATL. It was a friendly and informal event held to support Alpharetta State Senator Brandon Beach’s proposed legislation which will permit Fulton County to increase the current MARTA sales tax by 50%. The additional $130 million a year would fund the expansion of MARTA’s heavy rail trains as far as Windward Parkway in Alpharetta.

Most of the people who attended were affiliated with Advance Atl but there were also representatives of the Sierra Club, the Council for Quality Growth and the Atlanta Regional Commission among others. There was even a state legislative candidate from Gwinnett County advocating better transit access for the impoverished immigrants in the district she would like to represent.

Of the 35-40 people attending I only spotted 5 people who live in Alpharetta: Senator Brandon Beach and his lovely wife, Alpharetta City Councilman Jason Binder, one person who identified himself as an Alpharetta resident and me. Suffice it to say that for an event to support a transit tax hike that will have an enormous impact on the people of Alpharetta the crowd was overwhelmingly composed of millennials who drove from inside the perimeter.

The casual environment of the event provided an excellent opportunity to discuss transportation, taxes and transit with people who are actively lobbying to pass Senator Beach’s tax hike. I found my conversations with a gentlemen who is a Transit Coordinator for the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) and a woman who is a transit advocate for the Sierra Club especially enlightening.

The Transit coordinator for ARC actually made the most thought provoking comment of the evening to me. He and I had a great discussion about heavy rail, my reasons for believing heavy rail would be the absolute worst possible transit option for Alpharetta and why based on those reasons I believe Senator Beach’s tax increase would have a devastating impact on the future of Alpharetta and North Fulton County.

We discussed the point that heavy rail was too expensive for the small number of people it would serve. We discussed how heavy rail was too inflexible to justify the exorbitant expense at a time when the future of transportation will be determined in large part by innovations like self driving automobiles and more flexible work environments. We even discussed how heavy rail would create worse rush hour traffic in North Fulton because it would concentrate heavier automobile traffic on the arterial roads as the majority of train riders would have to drive from other areas during the times our roads are already the most congested.

Then I mentioned that heavy rail was also the worst possible solution because it would never serve more than 7% of the surrounding population and would therefore never be feasible given the residential densities which foster the quality of life people here desire. His candid response was,”Well… that’s the problem.

That’s when I realized that to a transit coordinator from the Atlanta Regional Commission the problem is that the people of Alpharetta reject the dense, urban environment needed to justify exorbitantly expensive and inflexible trains which would only make our traffic worse. Which is very different than the problem from the perspective of people who live in Alpharetta, prefer our green spaces, great schools and low crime rates but don’t want to be stuck in traffic on their way to work or back home to the lifestyle they love.

On one hand you have rail advocates who want suburban Alpharetta to become a dense, urban environment to support the lifestyle and transportation mode they prefer. But on the other hand you have people who enjoy a quality of life that can’t exist in an urban environment and simply want a cost effective mode of transportation to support their lifestyle. So when we get right down to it that is the problem: as a region we haven’t agreed on the problem we are trying to solve and if we can’t agree on the problem we will never agree on the solution.

North Fulton is a pretty affluent area. If most residents in Alpharetta or Johns Creek or Milton wanted to live in Sandy Springs or Buckhead they could… but they don’t. They prefer exceptional school districts, lower crime rates, and single family homes with yards for children and pets to play in. That is why they live here and they expect their elected officials to provide transportation solutions which support that quality of life.

I ran for office because I love Alpharetta. I love living in a city full of diverse people from all over the world who have chosen to make Alpharetta their home because they believe it is the best place in Georgia to raise a family and do business. I love my single family house on a 1/3 of an acre with grass and oak trees on a cul de sac lot. I love coming home to deer and chipmunks in my front yard and the occasional hawk or owl perched on my son’s basketball goal. I believe Alpharetta is a special place and so do thousands of other people who invest their time and money in this community to keep it that way.

And yet my neighbors and I are not so arrogant as to believe everyone should share our preferences. I have never heard a neighbor criticize people who live in Buckhead or Kirkwood for choosing to live in areas with higher crime and poor schools because they prefer urban environments with easier access to heavy rail. I have also never heard any of my neighbors advocate for higher taxes on those people who don’t choose our lifestyle to subsidize our preferences.

Different people have different priorities and should have the freedom to live as they choose as long as it doesn’t negatively impact other people’s rights. Fortunately events like the one Advance ATL hosted allow people with different backgrounds and perspectives to share their views face to face.

Because until we agree on the problem we can’t hope to find a solution… that’s the problem.

Atlanta Regional Commission disproportionately represents seniors

Today’s Atlanta Journal has an article that reminds me of something most people don’t realize: the Atlanta Regional Commission disproportionately represents seniors in the metro Atlanta community.

The article is Metro Atlanta getting older quickly and it is about the aging of the suburban population in Atlanta. It is a good article and I recommend you read the whole thing. As you do, also keep in mind that control of local issues like zoning and transportation are being systematically regionalized to an organization primarily responsible for providing services to the elderly, the Atlanta Regional Commission. Below is a graph of the ARC’s revenue sources and you can see that about one third of their money, more than 20 million dollars, comes from federal grants to serve Atlanta’s aging population.

ARC Revenue

The reason I point this out is that the AJC article makes it seem as though Atlanta is overwhelmed by an elderly population that it estimates to be 472,000 when in fact that is less than 10% of the metro area’s total population. Our aging population is certainly an important part of Atlanta’s community and future but it is still a relatively small percentage of our overall population.

And yet ARC, the organization which is increasingly responsible for the economic future of our entire state, is primarily an organization responsible for services catering to less than 1/10th of our population. Regardless of how you feel about government involvement in these kind of social programs it seems obvious that such a distortion is not in the best interest of our region.

Alpharetta Neighbor: “Alpharetta sends comprehensive plan draft to ARC”

Here is the article by Rachel Kellogg at the Neighbor.

Alpharetta City Councilman curiously contorts the definition of approval:

Though council voted unanimously in favor of the resolution, Councilman Chris Owens explained that the approval allows the draft to be reviewed to move the process of adopting the plan along.

“This is not an endorsement or approval of any sort,” he said.

“It’s just a point on the time line that we must meet to stay on schedule.”

So the Alpharetta City Council unanimously voted yes to submit their draft of the new land use plan to the Atlanta Regional Commission… but they don’t approve of it?

Bill Clinton would be so proud.

Alpharetta City Council’s Wish List for a Tax Increase

Tonight the Alpharetta City Council is slated to vote on the list of projects to include on the transportation tax referendum next year. Proponents hope that a list of possible projects will entice voters into voting for higher taxes on themselves. You can see the list of projects on the city website here.

I also suggest you read this article about the transportation tax issue in today’s Atlanta Journal Constitution. The AJC article doesn’t do a very good job of summarizing the list being presented to Alpharetta City Council tonight but it does give a valuable overview of the process. Below are a few random thoughts on the transportation tax proposal:

1. I don’t trust the state of Georgia to live up to their end of the bargain. After the DOT and State Roadway and Toll Authority arbitrarily extended the GA 400 tolls I came up with a phrase to express my thoughts on the matter: “Once you vote to give the government your money they will do with it what they damn well please.”

2. Supporters of the tax increase include most of Georgia’s business and political establishment who try to portray the issue as just another penny for a great cause. It is important that taxpayers realize all those pennies add up to 8 Billion Dollars. That works out to about $3,300 the average family of four in Georgia will no longer have to buy gas, food or anything else they need.

3. Supporters of the plan point out that the tax is only authorized for ten years. Let’s be realistic, there isn’t a chance in hell that the tax will ever go away. If you doubt me look at what Cobb County did to push through the SPLOST tax extension.

4. The business and political establishment in metro Atlanta are determined to expand inefficient and expensive train service. One way they hope to achieve this goal is by rebranding MARTA as a shiny new regional transportation authority run by GRTA. Somehow they think that will make it more palatable to suburban taxpayers. This recent front page article in the Alpharetta Revue illustrates what I mean. While the article uses the transit authority in Chicago as an example it failed to also mention that census numbers show people are fleeing the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois is on the verge of bankruptcy and the Chicago Regional Transit Authority will cost taxpayers about 1.4 Billion Dollars this year.

5. Land development companies and speculators will reap billions of dollars in profits while shouldering none of the burden for the transportation improvements which increase their property values. That is why local Chambers of Commerce and Community Improvement Districts will invest millions of dollars to promote the new tax on consumers.

6. There is still no relief in the proposal for taxpayers in Fulton and Dekalb Counties who already pay a one cent transportation tax for MARTA that costs us about $350,000,000 a year. Last year North Fulton mayors threatened to withhold support for the proposed tax increase if it continued to unfairly punish their constituents but the resulting political backlash left them noticeably silent since then.

There is no doubt that the state of Georgia has neglected our road infrastructure as tax revenues boomed over the past few decades. I just think it is a horrible idea to make up for that mistake by raising taxes now that people are struggling with high unemployment, rampant inflation and declining property values. The state’s political and business community disagree.

It will be interesting to see what the people of Georgia decide when the issue reaches the ballot box.

GA 400: Atlanta’s Information Highway

Yesterday I wrote about the distribution of Atlanta’s high wage workers and low wage workers as reported by the Atlanta Regional Commission. Not surprisingly the maps showed that the overwhelming majority of high wage earners in the metropolitan area live in the wedge formed between I75 and I85 on the North side of Atlanta.

That was interesting but not surprising. What I found more interesting and definitely more surprising was that is a big difference in the types of high wage earners that reside inside the perimeter (ITP) and those that live outside the perimeter (OTP). And counterintuitively I found that the higher earning professionals were actually more concentrated OTP.

As you can see on the map below the vast majority of people described as professional, scientific and technical workers live ITP in Buckhead or Dunwoody. According to the report this would include lawyers, accountants, architects and presumably doctors since the area includes Pill Hill where many of Atlanta’s hospitals are concentrated. Just like the location of high earners in general I found that interesting but not surprising.

What I found surprising was that the overwhelming majority of so-called “information” workers actually live outside the perimeter in North Fulton and South Forsyth county. The information workers are described as internet, telecommunications and data processing professoinals and according to the chart they average almost 20% higher monthly salaries ($6900 mo./ $5800 mo.) than the more traditional professionals who choose to live inside the perimeter.

It’s widely known that Alpharetta has many computer, telecommunications and data companies located here but I was really surprised to see that so few of these professionals choose to live downtown. Maybe they got tired of paying the tolls?

Perhaps we should change GA 400’s nickname from the Hospitality Highway to the Information Highway. Who came up with that silly Hospitality Highway in the first place?

(click to enlarge)

Where High-Income and Low-Income Workers Live in Atlanta

In 2009 the Atlanta Regional Commission published an interesting report called Where High Income and Low-Income Workers Live in Atlanta. The study’s basic conclusion was that,” Low-income workers, for example, tend to live south of I-20, while high-income workers live north of I-20 along the GA 400 corridor”. Of course anyone casually familiar with Atlanta could have told you that but the maps used to illustrate the conclusion are worth seeing. (You can click on the images to enlarge)

The difference is stark. And if you notice how many of the high wage earners live in the proposed Milton County you can see why the rest of Fulton County and the City of Atlanta are desperate to make sure it never happens.

Look out Milton… it’s time to hide ya kids, hide ya wife

Monday the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Livable Centers Initiative will be used wipe out 1800 potential jobs in Alpharetta and  make room for 500 more condos. Now they will bring that same astute land use planning to the quiet City of Milton. You can read the whole thing on the Alpharetta Patch here but the key passage is:

The ARC reports that since the first LCI grants were awarded in 2000, more than 84,000 residential units, 20 million square feet of commercial space and 35 million square feet of office space are either planned, under construction or complete in these areas. Region-wide, 67 percent of all office space built since 2000 has been built within LCI areas. And, LCI areas have attracted 8.5 percent of all new residential units and 21 percent of all new commercial development built in the region.

No wonder Miltonites didn’t want to expand sewer service. The sharks are circling. Noted analyst Antoine Dobson speaks on the subject:

Seriously though, if you care about what happens to the City of Milton you had better pay close attention to the LCI process. You wouldn’t believe the garbage that comes out of it if residents don’t get involved.