Whenever a transportation bill snakes its way through the state legislature, taxpayers should guard their wallets. It was just three years ago when the legislature approved a massive gas and hotel tax increase to fund transportation. But earlier this year, the legislature approved another transportation bill (HB 930), and because of it, metro counties, including Cobb, could face more tax increases.
HB 930 permits 13 of Atlanta’s metro counties to levy a 30-year, one percent special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST). Further, it creates a metro area transit board called the Atlanta-Region Transit Link (ATL) to coordinate the spending of such funds and ensure that the metro-area transit system is integrated. However, metro counties have the right to refuse these tax hikes. Cobb County should exercise this authority and instead focus on better transportation solutions.
It’s far too early to know exactly what a potentially 13-county transit system might look like, but lawmakers have been whispering the four-letter word: R-A-I-L. Rail would be massively expensive. Light rail could easily cost Georgians $140 million per mile to build. Besides these astronomical costs, a metro Atlanta rail system makes little sense.
To start, Cobb County’s 30-mile Northwest Corridor project isn’t even completed yet. It will be a reversible toll road in Cobb County that will essentially provide an I-75 bypass. If this massively expensive project is supposed to alleviate our transportation woes, then it seems unwise to invest in rail at this juncture.
The reality is that rail simply isn’t a good fit for all areas. Experts have found that rail performs better in regions with higher population densities. While Atlanta is the ninth largest metro area in the nation with nearly six million people, as of 2012, its population density didn’t even crack the top 50 statistical areas!
This suggests that metro Atlanta probably isn’t well-suited for rail, but Cobb may specifically be a poor prospect for rail for other reasons too. Cobb is one of the wealthier counties in metro Atlanta – with East Cobb being especially affluent. It seems highly unlikely that these residents will leave their luxury cars at home and opt to ride mass transit – especially when there is ample parking in Atlanta.
In denser, more appropriate regions, rail has often been successful, and historically it has made some sense. It’s important to remember, however, that rail is old technology. Rather than attempting to equip metro Atlanta with a mode of transportation that may soon be outdated, Cobb County officials ought to focus on transportation’s future, which includes highly automated vehicles (HAVs). Unlike rail, HAVs can be immediately deployed on Cobb’s existing infrastructure.
HAVs are an emerging technology that promises to fundamentally alter transportation. There are already highly-automated vehicles on Atlanta’s roads. They will likely become far more common by 2020, and estimates suggest that 95 percent of all new cars sold by 2040 will be HAVs. This should be welcome news that may potentially fix many of our transportation woes.
HAVs can also meaningfully impact road safety. 94 percent of vehicular accidents are caused by human error, but advanced automated technologies will reduce these incidents because HAVs don’t drive drunk, fall asleep at the wheel, or text and drive. This alone will ease traffic conditions, but another aspect of HAVs promises to do even more.
Atlanta is often burdened by phantom traffic jams. These occur when there are no accidents or construction but traffic slows because roadways near capacity. The result is a maddening stop and go traffic pattern caused by human nature. However, a recent study concluded that if only five percent of traditional vehicles are replaced by HAVs, then phantom traffic jams might become a thing of the past.
Rather than investing in dated transportation systems like rail, Cobb County, and all Georgia, should prepare for inevitable emerging technologies, such as HAVs, that will positively impact the state. As such, Cobb County should reject outdated and expensive rail proposals and instead embrace transportation’s technology-driven future.
Marc Hyden is the Southeast region director for the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Cobb County resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.