Growth and Traffic in Fulton County

 

Transportation funding will be a crucial issue for Fulton County in 2016 as mentioned in this previous article. Transportation can often be a complex issue to discuss but in Fulton County it is further complicated because it involves a million people stretched over 90 miles including the high density urban areas of Atlanta, medium density suburban areas and extremely low density rural areas concentrated at either end of the county.

The county’s demographics are as varied as the geography as well. Over the last 40 years Fulton County has become a true melting pot with people from all over the world representing every economic background imaginable.

Given these characteristics it is important to understand that there is no universal solution to solving transportation issues. Expecting a single solution that would allow a million people from varied geographic, cultural and economic backgrounds to reach unanimous consent would be unreasonable. But it is reasonable to believe that an objective evaluation of current options could result in a reasonable proposal that an overwhelming majority of residents can agree on.

The first step of that process is to objectively assess our current situation so let’s take a look at the numbers. The largest city in Fulton County is Atlanta and our metropolitan area was one of the fastest growing metro areas in the nation from the year 2000 to 2010.

As you can see in the charts below the Atlanta metro population increased by more than 1.1 million people between the last two censuses taken. The population of Atlanta actually decreased slightly over that decade but the population of Fulton county as a whole increased by more than 100,000 people.

Fulton growth 00-10Atlanta-MSA comparison

In the year 2000 Roswell and Alpharetta were the only cities which existed in North Fulton county but they only accounted for 130,000 of the 297,000 people who lived in the area. The other 167,000 residents lived in areas of unincorporated Fulton County until the municipalities of Sandy Springs, Johns Creek and Milton were formed.

The formation of the new cities took place before the 2010 Census which showed the population of North Fulton to be over 347,000. So over ten years there was a total increase of approximately 50,000 residents in the region which equals a 17% growth rate.

That means North Fulton County has been one of the fastest growing areas in one of the most rapidly growing metropolitan regions in the United States over the last 15 years. So it is only natural an area experiencing such growth would also experience growing pains. In North Fulton the growing pain most often complained about is rush hour traffic.

And while traffic is definitely an issue most areas only experience congestion for a few hours a week. In Alpharetta we generally have complete mobility for about 20 hours a day during the week and any time on the weekend. During the summer when schools are out there is hardly any rush hour at all in most areas.

For example on an average Tuesday morning at 11:00 a.m. a person can drive anywhere in Alpharetta in about 20 minutes. They could get to I-285 on GA 400 in about thirty minutes or even reach Hartsfield Airport in less than an hour.

So as we assess infrastructure needs in North Fulton county it is important to realize that most roads flow freely except for about 4 hours a day, five days a week. The other 88% of the time we already have an abundance of transportation capacity.

The issue North Fulton faces isn’t really a lack of road capacity but rather a problem of poor traffic flows during peak hours. The distinction won’t make you feel better when you’re  sitting through 3 cycles of a red light to get through an intersection during rush hour… but we have to identify the right problem if we want to find the right solution.

However as we discuss what to do about traffic in 2016 let us not lose sight of the fact that it is only an issue because North Fulton provides one of the most attractive places in the world to live, raise a family and do business. As a region we have successfully created a place where people and companies from all over the world want to be. That is a good thing and we should not take it for granted.

Success does bring challenges but they are the challenges we should welcome as we work to resolve them.

 

 

 

North Fulton Transportation Funding 2016

The year 2016 promises to be a defining one for the City of Alpharetta and our neighbors in North Fulton County. In Alpharetta we expect to see construction begin on the land in front of City Hall as well as hundreds of homes and townhomes in the surrounding area. Construction of the second phase in Avalon has begun and we expect to see a new convention center take shape along with the hotel, stores, restaurants and apartments also planned on the site.

Around North Fulton our neighbors are also expecting great things. Sandy Springs has begun construction of its own town center and is welcoming the North American Headquarters for Mercedes to town. Roswell is working hard to reinvigorate their beautiful historic areas with new growth while the relative newbies of Johns Creek and Milton are in various stages of creating their own visions of their future.

These are exciting times to live and do business in North Fulton. We are blessed.

And as all of these great things are going on there is an underlying discussion taking place that will affect us all. How will we work as a region to build and maintain the roads and infrastructure needed to accommodate this growth and development?

For the past two decades North Fulton has experienced tremendous growth but the network of roads and infrastructure have not grown accordingly. Anyone who has driven in other metropolitan areas knows that traffic in North Fulton is not as bad as most other comparable cities but it is still an important issue.

That is why the Georgia state legislature passed House Bill 170 last year which raised taxes to fund infrastructure projects at the state level. The bill was heavily publicized after its passage but many people in North Fulton County still don’t know about a seldom discussed feature of the legislation.

HB 170 allows Fulton County to hold a county wide referendum to authorize an additional 1% sales tax increase for funding local transportation projects. There has been media coverage about this lately but many people still don’t realize how this discussion will impact our region for decades to come.

Current projections show that a 1% sales tax increase for 5 years could raise more than $83 million to be used for transportation projects in the city of Alpharetta alone. The total amount projected for all of North Fulton would be more than $500 million. That would approximately double the amount cities currently have to address transportation projects and could make a huge dent in the backlog of projects which have accumulated as fast growing cities struggled to keep up.

But will residents vote for a large tax increase if it’s for transportation? Would the money go to fund road improvements or will some of it go to pay even more than the current 1% MARTA sales tax subsidy? Would the tax increase be limited to 5 years as proposed in the legislation? Or will the county and cities agree to extend the tax for 40 years to allow bonds for expanding MARTA?

These are all questions that have yet to be answered. However if the referendum is going to be placed on the November ballot these questions and many others will have to be answered soon. And those answers will go a long way in determining what the City of Alpharetta and North Fulton County look like for the next 10, 20, even 50 years.

So over the next few months I intend to explore many of the questions posed by the proposed Tsplost tax increase proposal. Hopefully this will be a constructive forum for us to discuss what promises to be the most important issue of 2016, North Fulton Transportation funding.

 

 

 

 

“T-SPLOST list doesn’t spend the money where the traffic is”

Kyle Wingfield recently had a new column about Georgia’s proposed transportation sales tax increase, the T-SPLOST. Here is an excerpt that is particularly relevant to the residents of Alpharetta:

What’s more, 46 percent of the people in the 10-county region live OTP in Cobb, North Fulton, Dunwoody and Gwinnett. Likewise, 46 percent of the T-SPLOST’s projected revenues — $2.83 billion out of $6.14 billion — come from that northern swath.

Yet, the current project list would leave this region well short of its proportional take. Even if we include some federal funding tabbed for projects in the northern suburbs, they’d get shortchanged by $150 million. And you may as well ignore another $132 million for studying future transit along 400 and 85, since those two projects would be hundreds of millions of dollars and a decade or more away from existence.

Worse, about one in four dollars devoted to the area would go to a single rail project that would barely cross into Cobb.

Still, we are only now reaching the coup de grace. That would be Ellis’ wish to suck yet another $33 million out of the 400 corridor.

Doing so would leave an area that provides almost half the population and revenues for the T-SPLOST — and way more than half of the region’s traffic congestion — with barely one-third of the proceeds.    (emphasis mine)

Transportation is one of the biggest issues facing the city of Alpharetta and we do need a regional solution. But it becomes more apparent every day that the T-SPLOST is not that solution. Before we waste any more time I hope our state legislators will realize that we need a real solution and stop wasting precious time on a proposal that is destined for failure.

I encourage you to read the whole column here.

United Nations applauds the Georgia Transportation Tax increase!

The United Nations is excited about Georgia’s proposed transportation tax increase. In fact they are so excited that they devote several pages in their publication Urban World: Ten Years into the millenium to the idea.

First the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce came up with the idea:

The traffic impasse became a cause celebre for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and its president, Sam Williams. He recounted

how “we beat the drum for four years” to get permission for a regional transport sales tax add-on, enlisting the aid of the Georgia

State Chamber, top Atlanta corporations, county officials and mayors, plus Chamber allies in such regions as Savannah and Macon.

Then all of the state’s Chambers of Commerce threatened to cut off the money spigot to any politician that didn’t support their tax increase:

A pointed message was also telegraphed to would-be candidates for state office: their position on transport funding would be a

‘litmus test’ of whether they could expect campaign support from the business community.

And once the governor and state legislature were sufficiently motivated they could work together in a bipartisan way to overcome the objections of those rascally ole Tea Partiers:

…bipartisanship can be developed, ‘Tea Party’-like nihilism averted, if a governor and legislative leaders work hard to

make it happen.

Finally the article concludes by thanking Georgia for setting an example for third world countries:

That’s a fascinating model for these times, ideal for transport, maybe fresh water supply systems and other major issues.

Thanks Georgia.

Isn’t that special. You can find the publication on the United Nations website here.

No wonder Jim Galloway of the AJC reports that the entire tax is now in jeopardy:

So in January, we’ll have a full-fledged donnybrook between the two most powerful entities now existing in the Republican party: The state chambers of commerce, and the tea party.

Brilliant.

“Legislators critical of proposed rail line”

Interesting article in the Marietta Daily Journal about the fault lines that are appearing in the political support for the transportation tax increase. You can read the whole thing here but below are some of the juiciest tidbits:

Cobb lawmakers on Monday criticized the proposed light rail line from Midtown  Atlanta to Cumberland Mall which constitutes the majority of Cobb’s take in next  year’s vote on a regional TSPLOST.

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The $856.5 million number is the conservative estimate. The maximum cost is  targeted at $1.234 billion, according to the county.

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“We’ve got huge infrastructure needs in far west Cobb  County, and to ask those people that I represent to support a mile’s worth of  rail that’s finished in 2026 when they have to drive to work every morning would  be something that doesn’t fix the here and now, and I doubt they’d be very happy  with me for supporting something like that.”

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Cooper said the rail line would clearly benefit one area of the county, the  Cumberland Community Improvement District.

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Setzler reiterated what he told the Journal on Friday, which is the rail line  would only benefit five percent of the county while at the same time costing  each household in Cobb $4,000.

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“We know that rail offers some things that you can’t get from just building  roads,” Rogers said. “But we also know that rail doesn’t do a great job in  lessening traffic, and at a time when we need traffic to be lessened  significantly..”

Although this article is about legislators in Cobb County it is especially relevant to the people of North Fulton county for three key reasons:

1. The political climate in North Fulton is almost identical to that of Cobb County.

2. Elected officials in Cobb County acknowledge transit is really just a subsidy for commercial property owners in the local CID.

3. Traffic is the primary concern for voters in both areas yet transit projects will have no positive impact on traffic during the supposed 10 year duration of the tax.

As North Fulton opponents of the tax increase become more vocal I expect we will see our elected officials do the same.

North Fulton mayors vote to trade MARTA funds for roads

This morning I noticed an article on NorthFulton.com which reports the mayors of North Fulton county have voted to sacrifice extending MARTA into their communities in exchange for more road money:

The North Fulton Municipal Association decided to try to trade $37 million in MARTA engineering funds for the restoration of road projects to be funded by the 2012 transportation-improvement sales tax.

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He said Fulton is a net donor to the tax while Cobb County and DeKalb County get a 120 percent return on their investment.

Bodker then criticized the Beltline streetcar project in Atlanta. He said it is an Atlanta project, not a regional one, but it is slated to receive $600 million in funds intended for regional transportation development. He said Atlanta is getting more than its fair share of the revenues and this money is being taken from North Fulton’s hide.

“If Atlanta wants to fund it, they have 15 percent off the top of this thing,” he said.

He said Atlanta would be paying for the project using other people’s money.

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Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos suggested heavy rail would never come to North Fulton, so the $37 million was money wasted.

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The representatives of Alpharetta, Milton and Johns Creek voted in favor; Wood, representing Roswell, voted against it. No representative from Mountain Park was present.

While the shift of $37 million of a $8 Billion dollar tax is a small gesture it does show that the mayors of North Fulton are finally yielding to the political realities in their communities. The strange thing is that just one week earlier the same newspaper published a story from the same reporter which lead readers to believe the mayors unanimously suppported the MARTA funds: 

Bodker said all the mayors support transit, but are concerned there is no regional transit system that all participating governments support. As far as the projects are concerned, the mayors support extending MARTA to Holcomb Bridge Road and eventually Windward Parkway. At the very least, the tax should pay for the necessary engineering, which would cost $37 million. The mayors also unanimously supported completing the proposed Clifton Corridor that would connect MARTA to Emory University, Atlanta’s largest employer, and extending MARTA up I-75 to at least Cumberland Mall.

A complete reversal of the North Fulton Municipal Association’s position in one week? How curious.

Partisan bickering over Georgia’s transportation tax illustrates why it won’t solve anything

Jim Galloway points out in his Political Insider column for the AJC that the campaign to squeeze more money from Georgia’s taxpayers has hit another speedbump:

At the state Capitol, next year’s statewide round of regional sales tax votes is again in trouble.

At issue is legislation backed by Gov. Nathan Deal to shift the day of the vote from the July primary, when the electorate is likely to be overwhelmingly Republican, to the November general election.

Tea-party Republicans against the sales tax are opposed to changing the date, accusing supporters of trolling for voters churned out by President Barack Obama’s re-election bid. In a private session with Republican lawmakers from metro Atlanta, Deal this week quietly argued that presenting a tax initiative before the largest audience possible is in keeping with GOP principles, according to people who were in the room.

In addition to Deal’s backing, another good sign for supporters is that the legislation to change the date of the vote is sponsored by House Speaker pro tem Jan Jones of Alpharetta — the most powerful metro Atlanta lawmaker in the Legislature. So the Republican side of the transit sales tax vote may be close, but it’s likely to hold together.

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Democrats in Fulton and DeKalb counties have supported next year’s transit sales tax vote — but only reluctantly, given that their voters have long been paying an extra penny sales tax to fund MARTA.

With tea party Republicans opposing the issue from the right, black lawmakers will be needed to make up the difference, if the date to shift the transit vote is to succeed.

State Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said his members are angry enough over the Senate map to lock down on the transit issue. “I think our caucus would be inclined not to cooperate,” Jones said.

It is sad to see such an important issue bogged down in partisan politics but it is completely predictable. Georgia’s transportation problem isn’t caused by a lack of money it is caused by an incompetent political class. As I wrote in this post last year:

The political class say they could fix the problem if they only had more money. What the political class doesn’t understand is that the voters don’t blame infrastructure needs on a lack of money, the voters place the blame on the political class. Taxes in Georgia are the 16th highest in all of the United States while transportation spending is 49th out 50. See the problem?

But Georgia’s political class won’t accept the fact that they have been the problem. Instead, the politicians and lobbyists  sat down together and once again hammered out an agreement acceptable to the politicans and lobbyists.  And once again their solution is to raise taxes… billions and billions of dollars in taxes. That solution must have sounded awfully good in their echo chamber because a few months ago the political class unveiled this genius idea to great fanfair and they patted themselves on the back so hard that Atlanta’s chiropractors must have made a fortune.

But the people that will pay for this enormous tax increase are not impressed, they are hurting. They face 10% unemployment while the other 90% are still unsure of the future. More than 12,000 Georgia homes were foreclosed in July. IRA accounts and home prices are going down while grocery and gasoline prices are going up. To make matters worse their federal income taxes are going up in a few weeks and they will have even less money to spend. Georgia voters are hurting and they find it offensive that political insiders have decided taxpayers need to pay billions of dollars more to fund transportation improvements. While transportation improvements might bring jobs to Georgia in a decade or so, the state’s taxpayers would have to cough up billions of dollars that could have gone to pay their mortgage or put food on the table in the meantime.

The tax increase being pushed to solve Georgia’s very real transportation problem won’t solve anything because lack of money isn’t the problem. Lack of effective leadership is.

Georgia’s statewide transportation charade

Yesterday the AJC posted an editorial by Neal Boortz titled Our transportation record shows lack of leadership. He makes some excellent points so I hope you read the whole thing. Below are a few choice selections:

I’ve been reading the AJC’s coverage of the machinations surrounding the  multibillion dollar transportation infrastructure tax referendum scheduled  to descend upon us next summer. And so, a question: Considering the  transportation track record of the brilliant traffic planners and engineers  in the Atlanta region, do you really have the confidence to put a few  billion dollars in their hands for more projects and “improvements”?

Let’s just look at the record. First we’ll deal with that traffic monstrosity  known as the Downtown Connector. If you weren’t born here you probably don’t  know that what is now the Downtown Connector was supposed to be the route of  I-85. I-75 was supposed to come roaring in from the North along what is now  Northside Drive to cross I-85 around the airport. Someone decided we could  save some money by simply combining the two through the city. That certainly  worked out well, didn’t it?

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Pity also, if you will, the poor saps traveling down Ga. 400 toward downtown.  Your typical suburban families eager for an evening of fun at Underground  Atlanta. There our transportation wizards funnel four lanes of traffic down  to one for the transition to I-85 … and Lord help you if you cross the  gore, that white line separating the highways from the on- and off-ramps.  See you in court.

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The new tax is also supposed to fund some rail projects as well, right? Will  these projects be designed by the same geniuses who didn’t put a MARTA  station at what was then Atlanta-Fulton County Station — a station that  would now serve Turner Field — because Atlanta was afraid it would lose  parking revenue at the stadium? Can the people who made this decision be  banned from getting anywhere near even 1 cent of this new tax revenue?

Boortz is right. How can any rational person believe that the dysfunctional politicians, consultants and bureaucrats that got us into this mess will ever solve anything?

If you doubt me just consider that after months of political haggling the geniuses in charge have managed to compile a list which would spend more than 6 Billion Dollars without making any noticeable impact on Atlanta’s traffic problem. Look at the list yourself.

Notice anything strange? The state is trying to sell people on higher taxes for a plan that doesn’t even begin to cover the cost of the projects they are including!

The state list says that they will spend $172,000,000 to improve the exchange at GA 400 and I-285. But the cost of the project is projected to cost $450,000,000. The list also calls for $37,000,000 to bring MARTA to Roswell… but it projects the total cost to be more than $900,000,000. Transit advocates have been all excited about the inclusion of One Billion Dollars to expand MARTA into the I-20 and Clifton Road areas. But apparently it doesn’t bother them that the state expects it to actually cost nearly Two Billion Dollars. So even if those projects could relieve traffic the state would still need another Two Billion Dollars to get them all done.

But we are falling into a trap if we worry too much about the list anyway. It is an illusion. The project list will carry no more weight than a flyer handed out by a used car salesman.

The list to be voted on next year will not be a binding contract… on the state. When the state takes money from one promised project to cover the gap they have in another, taxpayers will have no recourse. Remember what they did with the GA 400 tolls?

So realize that the entire transportation tax charade is just one big, happy waste of time intended to get the “buy-in” of Georgia taxpayers and facilitate a new pipeline of money for the people responsible for our transportation mess in the first place. The same people that created the downtown connector and routed MARTA away from Atlanta Fulton County stadium will decide where Billions of dollars in extra tax money go and there won’t be a darn thing we will be able to do about it. Yay!

Another nail in the coffin of Georgia’s proposed transportation tax increase…

The Dekalb county commission just raised property taxes 26% to cover the county’s budget deficit. As a result Dekalb County residents will suffer a 50 million dollar tax increase even as their property values have declined. In exchange for that $50 million Dekalb residents won’t receive any additional services or benefits and are already being warned that the higher taxes still may not be enough.

As reported in the AJC:

Residents also will need more money. The new incorporated tax rate is 21.21 mills. The tax hike adds $93 a year to the tax bill on the average home, which dropped in value since last year.

But tax bills increase far more where home values have remained the same, with a $420 increase, for instance, on a home that remained at $300,000.

Those kinds of hikes will hit northern and central DeKalb particularly hard, because many home values there barely dropped. Commissioner Elaine Boyer, who represents northern DeKalb, called the tax hike a “slap in the face” for her constituents.

Boyer, who with May and Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton voted against the budget, said she also worried that without long-term forecasting, no one could say another tax hike won’t be needed next year.

Dekalb taxpayers are the only Georgia residents other than those in Fulton County that already have to pay a 1% sales tax to support MARTA. The new $50 million tax increase makes it less likely those same residents will choose to pay another 1% for transportation every time they spend their hard earned money.

The coffin nails are starting to add up at what be an alarming rate for those people determined to raise taxes in Georgia and proponents of the transportation tax increase know it. That is why they are moving the vote to a time when more tax and spend Democrats will likely be voting.

But even tax and spend Democrats have a limit to what they can tolerate. One must wonder if even Dekalb County Democrats may reach that limit before the transportation tax increase comes up for a vote.

Congratulations Mr. Lowery you did it. Now it’s time to put the deck of race cards away.

The referendum on Georgia’s transportation tax increase won’t be on the ballot for more than a year but the Reverend Joseph Lowery is already playing his race card. In writing about the process surrounding the transportation project selection Mr. Lowery writes:

Originally, the committee was composed of all white men, mostly from the suburbs. This glaring imbalance prompted Rep. David Ralston, Speaker of the state House of Representatives, to intervene and request that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed be added to the executive committee.

The painful truth is that Ralston, a white Republican from the north Georgia mountains, should not have been involved in such a local issue.

It’s also telling that other committee members failed to recognize that they did not reflect the region’s diverse demographics. It certainly was obvious to many average citizens in Fulton, DeKalb or the City of Atlanta, who collectively represent 40 percent of the vote within the 10-county region.

A similar misstep was brought to light by Mayor Reed last month. During a meeting of the Regional Roundtable, Reed pointed out that a team of consultants selected to manage the $5 million referendum campaign is also exclusively composed of white men.

You can read Mr. Lowery’s column here.

Of course the appearance of the race card during the transportation tax debate isn’t the only time Mr. Lowery has used it lately. Just a few months ago the news broke that the Reverend filed a lawsuit to dissolve cities in the state of Georgia because of he believes the incorporation of the cities were racist acts. You can read about that issue here.

It is sad to see a man with such a proud history stuck in the past. I have spent nearly 5 decades living in Georgia and I remember how things used to be. I am also well aware of the role that Mr. Lowery played during the civil rights movement. I respect what he did and I am grateful that my children will never be exposed to the kind of racism Mr. Lowery fought.

But with all due respect, this is 2011 and the world is not the same as it was in the 1950’s and 60’s. Children born today are 50 years removed from the segregationist policies that Mr. Lowery fought so valiantly. The vast majority of young white people think of segregation as something that might as well have happened in the stone age.

I am 46 years old and the Civil Rights Act was passed before I was born. People born today are farther removed from institutionalized racism than I was from the Great Depression and the depression seemed like ancient history when grown ups talked about it back then.

Time moves on… so do societies. Leaders need to move on as well.

I’m not saying that racism has been wiped off the face of the Earth any more than greed, lust or avarice have. But the world of 2011 is nearly a half a century removed from the racism that the Reverend Joseph Lowery is still fighting. Someone needs to help him understand that he tarnishes his place in history by continuing to fight battles that are already won. Incorporating a city and raising the taxes on every Georgian are policies we can debate but that does not make them racist acts.

Congratulations Reverend Lowery. You did it. Racism may not be extinct but it has been vanquished. It’s time to put the deck of race cards away.