Will poll numbers resonate?

The Atlanta Regional Commission survey of 2,100 metro residents reports only 7 percent believe that traffic has improved in the last three to four years, with most saying it has worsened. More than 70 percent believe “improving public transportation is very important” to the area’s long-term future. And four times as many people say we must “redevelop older areas,” rather than “build new suburbs.”

Is it time for optimism about the region’s determination to address its urban sprawl and transportation problems?

It is hard to be overly sanguine, even though the crushing defeat of T-SPLOST in the summer of 2012 was in part due to the proposal’s inadequate commitment to MARTA and public transportation options, and its mess of political compromises rather than coherent transportation strategies — hence leading to a strange opposition alliance of both pro- and anti-public transit groups.

Indeed, MARTA has been plagued by having to be funded almost exclusively by Fulton and DeKalb county taxpayers. That has led to high fares relative to much better U.S. systems,service cutbacks and a largely stagnant ridership — though rail ridership per mile, 4,594, is only modestly behind the 4,056 riders per mile for the twice-as-large Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in San Francisco, according to American Public Transportation Association data.

The situation has not been helped by past MARTA battles with the Atlanta Braves over the Braves bus shuttle, one of many factors making the Braves unhappy about being at Turner Field.

But the potential rewards from tapping into genuine public enthusiasm for serious improvements in the region’s public transportation are great. They are hardly limited to the most visible tourist-related investments, such as the downscaled downtown streetcar project. And the benefits are certainly not confined to the injection of additional short-run economic activity during the construction phases of such projects.

Recent research done by urban planning scholars Daniel Chatman and Robert Noland concludes there are hidden but very tangible “agglomeration” economic benefits of expanded public transit service. These can be in the tens of millions of dollars per year, depending on city size, the magnitude of traffic congestion, and the degree of existing transit network capacity. There is also large academic literature regarding the “spatial-mismatch” between residential and job location that suggests significant benefits from expanded transportation options.

There is hope that the plans of new leadership at MARTA, and further state legislative cooperation with flexible use of funding, can reverse the trends in fare hikes and service cuts. Given the tortured history of suspicion, demography and race, and limited imagination regarding public transportation, one can only hope that the ARC survey results do reflect genuine support for expanding our transit options, and that regional leaders can turn those vague sentiments into concrete resource commitments.

Bruce A. Seaman is associate professor of economics in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

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