Los Angeles Metro Rail

L.A.’s Westside Subway is Practically Ready for Construction, But Its Completion Could be 25 Years Off

» The Wilshire Corridor metro extension’s final environmental impact statement is released.

Of the nation’s public transportation improvement projects, Los Angeles’ Westside Subway is one of the most important: It would offer an alternative option for tens of thousands of daily riders and speed travel times by up to 50% compared to existing transit trips. It would serve one of the nation’s densest and most jobs-rich urban corridors and in doing so take a major step forward towards making L.A. a place where getting around without a car is comfortable.

L.A. County’s transit provider, Metro, released the final environmental impact statement for the 8.9-mile Westside Subway project last week, providing the most up-to-date details on a multi-billion-dollar scheme that is expected to enter the construction phase next year. The project received a positive review by the Federal Transit Administration in the Obama Administration’s FY 2013 budget, and it is likely to receive a full-funding grant agreement from Washington later this year. Local revenue sources generated by taxes authorized over the years by voters will cover the majority of the project’s cost.

But questions about the project’s completion timeline remain unanswered: Will L.A. have to rely on conventional sources of financing, or be able to take advantage of federally-backed loans to speed construction?

In addition, the project’s specific plans for station construction suggest that there are opportunities to improve station layout and do more to develop land around certain stops.

(I) The Project’s Significance

Many of the rail expansion projects being built in the United States today serve corridors with rather limited existing bus service — there are few people who currently take the bus from downtown Washington to Tyson’s Corner or Dulles Airport, for instance, but a huge Metro extension is currently being built to connect the three, fundamentally to build a new market of transit riders.

L.A.’s westside, on the other hand, already has a very large base of transit users, and most of them are concentrated on the Wilshire Boulevard Corridor, which runs from downtown, through Beverly Hills, the Century City business district, and UCLA, before reaching Santa Monica. The three intermediary areas together contain about 150,000 jobs, about as many as downtown L.A. — and most of them are concentrated within a quarter mile of the street. The city’s famed congestion, especially severe in this area, has attracted people to transit: The local and express bus routes along the line — the 20 and 720 — carry about 60,000 daily riders.

It is no surprise, then, that the corridor has been a focus of L.A. transit investment proposals for decades. The Purple Line subway, which currently terminates at the Wilshire and Western station, was supposed to extend much further into the city when it was first designed, but the threat of gas explosions, a lack of adequate funding, and significant political opposition delayed that action. Yet the election of Antonio Villaraigosa to the mayoralty of L.A. City in 2005 altered the situation entirely, as he ran on a platform that explicitly endorsed the project’s completion and he later campaigned for a sales tax increase to pay for the project — 2008’s Measure R — passed by a large majority of voters. An alignment with seven new stations was selected by Metro in Fall 2010 after three years of studies, though final decisions on station locations were not announced until this week.

Estimates released by the agency point to the degree to which the subway will improve the performance of the transit system, whose service to the westside is currently plagued by traffic-induced delays. Trips from downtown’s Pershing Square to UCLA will decline from 55 to 25 minutes. Riders travelling from South L.A. will save 23 minutes on their journeys; those from east L.A. and Pasadena will save 29 minutes (see above image). These travel time savings are enormous — more than almost any other transit project in the country — and will attract a projected 49,300 daily riders to the line.

Though the subway’s completion will likely not reduce congestion on the highways (because automobile capacity, it seems, never ceases to be consumed), those who need to travel within the corridor will get a new, much faster travel option that is in many cases faster than that which is offered by private automobile, a remarkable achievement in the realm of public transit.

(II) Questions of Time

Because all of L.A. County’s voters approved the Measure R sales tax increase, it would have been unreasonable to focus all revenues in one corridor (and indeed, one suspects that such a plan would not have been approved). Thus the Westside Subway shares the stage with a blizzard of other transit projects being funded over the next twenty years, including the Regional Connector, Crenshaw Corridor, Exposition Line, Gold Line Extensions, South Bay Green Line Extension, and Orange Line Extensions, among others. The large quantity of funds being consumed to build these lines mean that under conventional financing techniques, the Westside Subway will not be completed to its proposed terminus at the V.A. Medical Center until 2036. Only the first phase — a 3.9-mile link to the intersection of Wilshire and La Cienega — would be done by 2020.

For Mayor Villaraigosa and much of the L.A. community, this timeline is unacceptable: To have to wait almost twenty-five years to see a long-planned project completed is scary. Yet the Westside Subway’s $4.4 billion cost (in 2011 terms) is too large for the county to raise money for in a short time period.

Thus L.A. proposed its 30/10 initiative — later renamed America Fast Forward — to use federal loan guarantees to reduce the cost of borrowing and essentially use tax revenues expected to be raised in the future to pay for projects today. This proposal, concretized in the expansion of TIFIA proposed by the U.S. Senate in its transportation reauthorization bill earlier this month, would make it possible for L.A. to build its full subway line by 2022, fourteen years ahead of schedule. Advancing the project’s completion would reduce year-of-expenditure costs for the project from $6.29 billion in the 2036 completion date scheme to $5.66 billion in the sped-up scheme. And it would do it without increasing the level of federal grant commitments to the project, just by reducing borrowing costs for the local agency. Because future residents of L.A. will benefit from transit expansion now, it does not seem unreasonable to use future revenues to pay for the project.

Yet there remains a possibility that the U.S. House, controlled by a GOP delegation that has opposed practically all legislation that Democrats have proposed, will decide not to pass the Senate’s bill and therefore prevent the expansion of the TIFIA program. This would put the timely completion of the Westside Subway in serious doubt.

(III) Station Location

Whatever the Westside Subway’s overall merits in terms of travel time improvements, there remain significant questions about how exactly the line will be constructed. After all, a well-designed transit project is not only one that moves people quickly from station to station but also one that cultivates dense, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

Though for the most part the project’s construction has been welcomed by affected neighborhoods, the Century City station — about halfway down the line — has undergone significant opposition because of the proposed alignment. Metro supports the construction of a stop under Constellation Avenue, in the heart of the Century City business district, compared to an alternative under Santa Monica Boulevard, about two blocks north. This is the reasonable choice as the latter alignment runs through an earthquake-prone zone, faces a golf course, has half as many jobs within a quarter mile (10,000 versus 20,000), and would see a third fewer daily boardings according to current estimates (5,500 versus 8,600). Though some locals have complained that the Constellation routing would run under Beverly Hills High School and therefore put students in danger, those concerns are hyperbolic considering precedent in other cities and the obvious advantages of that alignment.

Although most of the stations on the proposed line will have entrances at street intersections in relatively dense, urban areas,* the stop at the end of the line, at Westwood/V.A. Hospital, is an exception. The station exit as proposed would deposit people onto a series of winding paths just adjacent to a parking lot and a section of Wilshire Boulevard that is effectively an expressway (at the intersection with Bonsall), about 1,200 feet away from the entrance to the V.A. Medical Center (see above image). The situation is made worse by the parkland just adjacent to the stop and the impassable barrier of I-405 northeast of the stop. This is a pedestrian-hostile environment that will offer a disincentive to taking the train.

As Metro’s Steve Hymon notes, the V.A. Hospital stop will play an important role in serving the region’s veterans, but terminating the line there misses tens of thousands more people living further southwest along Wilshire in dense neighborhoods. They, too, should be provided improved transit service, but they will have to wait until 2036 or later to see another subway extension because of budget limitations. Many of them will likely want to drive to the station in order to take the subway because of the significant time savings offered, but Metro proposes no park-and-ride facilities there. Though bus connections will be important, the agency is effectively losing out on potential passengers by not providing for that need.

It would make sense for Metro to consider working with the V.A. Hospital to develop the parking lot directly abutting the stop into a high-density residential or office use, considering the significant demand likely to be spurred on by the completion of the subway.

* With stations spaced at about one station per mile, the argument could be made that these neighborhoods are not being served well enough, especially the community situated between the proposed UCLA and Century City stations, which would be about two miles apart.

See the project’s Final Environmental Impact StatementFinal Environmental Impact Statement Executive Summary and Accelerated Financial Plan.

Images above: from L.A. Metro’s The Source and FEIS Executive Summary

Congress DOT Finance

The Senate’s Transportation Program

(I) The Accomplishment

The U.S. Senate’s passage of a transportation reauthorization bill Wednesday was big news, if only because it has now been 898 days since the last transportation bill officially expired. Three years of debates in both houses of the Congress have brought us one proposal after another, but only one piece of legislation has actually made it out the doors of one of the chambers. That is a serious accomplishment for Barbara Boxer’s leadership in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Senate Bill 1813, also known as MAP-21 (“Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century“), is a $109 billion law that will remain in effect for 18 months if it is passed by the House. It reorganizes several national transportation programs and includes a number of interesting features, some of which I describe later in this piece.

Of course, the specific policy measures of MAP-21 may be meaningless despite the bill’s 74-22 passage margin, which included about half of the GOP contingent in the Senate; House Republicans have suggested that they have little interest in moving forward with this bipartisan legislation. Current funding for transportation runs out on March 31st; at that point, if nothing happens at the Capitol, collection of fuel taxes and distribution of transportation funding from Washington to the states will cease. What seems most likely is yet another extension of the existing transportation bill, originally passed in 2005 but now woefully out-of-date and underfunded.

Some have noted that MAP-21, for all the acclaim it has received (at this point, any bill to get through would likely be lauded…), is ultimately little more than another extension of the existing law. But, as Lisa Schweiter has written, it does nothing to resolve the financing difficulties that plague America’s transportation funding situation. The bill will require a significant infusion of money ($12 billion) from sources other than the Highway Trust Fund. In other words, it will not be fully funded through the fuel tax user fee, which many would like to see increased to cut down on automobile-produced externalities and force a link between spending on transportation infrastructure and revenues derived from transportation. It is unclear how the next bill, facing even fewer revenues from the Trust Fund, would be funded.

Yet the political conditions in which MAP-21 did pass are indicative of the bill’s importance. We are, after all, in a tightly contested election year in which Republicans have set their sights on the White House and Senate as Democrats eye the House. The bipartisan passage of the legislation — though not as close to unanimity as many previous transportation bills — suggests that there continues to be relative consensus among both parties that there is a rationale for federal investment in transportation infrastructure. Republicans in the Senate could have easily deflected the bill’s passage, forcing yet another extension — but they chose to cooperate and produce a less-than-ideal bill that will nonetheless keep people employed and America’s infrastructure in reasonable condition.

It is true that the Highway Trust Fund’s diminishing pot of funds — caused by the coinciding effects of an overall decrease in driving, better fuel efficiency, and the lack of any inflation adjustments on the levy since 1993  — imperils the future of U.S. transportation funding, whether or not MAP-21 makes it to President Obama’s desk. But Congress is not run by economists. It is run by politicians who, for better or worse, must respond to the demands of their constituencies.

What is unquestionable is that the level of support for a national increase in the fuel tax is minimal. Republicans are hammering the Administration for presiding over a significant increase in fuel costs since 2009, despite no increase in the tax. Meanwhile, Democrats are legitimately worried about increasing the burden of transportation costs on the nation’s lower- and middle-income households. In discussing how to pay for transportation, we cannot forget the fact that a majority of the nation’s poor now live in suburbia — most of them far away from the nation’s underdeveloped public transportation system. Increasing the gas price will do significant damage to the purchasing power of tens of millions of Americans in the short and medium term. There’s a reason that doing so has little political momentum.

Transportation experts may not like the sound of it, but funding for national infrastructure is not — and likely will not be — fully user funded (it wasn’t even when the Highway Trust Fund was on more solid fiscal ground). In fact, its role is as somewhat of a redistributive tool, encouraging mobility by subsidizing cheaper travel both through cheap roads and, in the cities, transit. Helping people to get around is a bipartisan policy goal. This leaves MAP-21 in the uncomfortable position of relying on outlays from federal funding sources other than the gas tax. In this day and age, that comes in the form of debt.

(II) The Policy

Despite the limited nature of the MAP-21 legislation, there were nonetheless some significant changes to federal transportation law contained within. Most intriguingly, the bill puts into question the future of private sector involvement in the transportation field.

What MAP-21 does not do is either cut funding for sustainable transportation dramatically (as would have the still-born House Republican proposal, H.R. 7) or devolve transportation funding and decision-making entirely to the states, a revision whose primary consequence would be putting more highway-crazed State Departments of Transportation in charge. It was, in other words, not a good policy. Thankfully, two amendments to MAP-21 that would have done so failed by huge margins in the Senate (Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC)’s by 30 to 67; Senator Rob Portmans (R-OH)’s by 30 to 68), suggesting that there is little support on either side of the aisle for moving all transportation policy to the states.

MAP-21 is designed to provide a framework for a significant reworking of the nation’s transportation policy structure. It does so first by establishing a set of national goals for the mobility system — to improve the freight network, to ensure a state of good repair for existing infrastructure, and to reduce congestion, for instance. These largely symbolic efforts may come to play a larger role if MAP-21 enters into the law and is eventually expanded by future legislation.

More importantly, this bill consolidates duplicative programs in the Department of Transportation and at least in theory streamlines project delivery processes to ensure faster construction timelines and cheaper costs. Whether these changes will actually improve the construction and operation of transportation in the U.S. remains to be seen.

Though MAP-21’s investment strategy is generally designed to continue existing levels of federal transportation investment (at an inflation-adjusted pace) including the now-standard 20% of funds for transit, it includes several measures that are beneficial to sustainable transportation options. For one, the TIFIA program, which offers federal loan support and can back significant private investment in new infrastructure, would be expanded from $122 million a year to $1 billion a year. For cities like Los Angeles, which wants to expand its transit network at a breakneck speed, this could be a huge boost, as it allows cities to take out more loans at lower, federally backed rates.

The bill permanently equalizes commuter tax benefits for transit commuters with those received by people who park, a long sought-after rule. It also allows transit agencies to use federal funds to pay for operations costs in certain situations. This is currently not to be covered using money from Washington (because transit funding is currently reserved for capital expenses). This is a huge advance that could provide downtrodden metropolitan areas the ability to maintain services on their bus and rail lines even when they face declines in revenues from other sources, which has happened in most U.S. cities since the beginning of the economic crisis.

Despite the inclusion of more money for TIFIA, the bill’s stance on private involvement in transportation is mildly contradictory. The House bill H.R. 7 would have given transit agencies a monetary incentive for contracting out their services to private operators. This was, to be frank, a giveaway to the private transportation industry. MAP-21 has no such provisions.

On the other hand, MAP-21 includes an amendment proposed by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) that passed 50-47 that excludes private highways from the calculation of a state’s guaranteed transportation funding through standard federal formulas. Currently, states are provided highway funds in part based on their mileage of federal highways; the Senator’s amendment simply says that roads that used to be public and were transferred to a private entity should not be counted in that calculation. Bingaman argued that “drivers across the nation shouldn’t be subsidizing any state that has chosen essentially to “sell off” an existing highway to the highest bidder.” He has a point, and his amendment seems likely to dissuade states from continuing down this particular path, but it does seem to be somewhat of a contradictory move on the part of the Senate: Does it want private investment through programs like TIFIA, or not?

Altogether, the Senate’s proposal is a significant advance over the existing law. If it were passed by the House, American cities would benefit.

Nevertheless, MAP-21’s ultimate failure remains the fact that it fails to provide for a significant expansion in funding for sustainable infrastructure projects. President Obama, whose administration continues to officially promote the passage of a bill that would double national transportation spending and devote a far higher percentage of it to transit, livable communities, and high-speed rail, has been shunned to the sidelines in the Senate’s debate. And the nation’s mobility systems will suffer as a result.

What, then, can we make of the future of the nation’s transportation network? What is inevitable is that MAP-21’s success or failure in the House of Representatives will do nothing to resolve the legislative confusion between the oft-repeated claim that transportation should be paid for through user fees and the embarrassing fact that there aren’t enough user fees being collected to pay for the things we want.

Image above: The subway connecting the U.S. Senate office buildings and the national capitol building, from Flickr user goldberg (cc)

Airport Los Angeles

For L.A., How to Build an Airport Rail Connection That Makes Sense for Passengers?

» Linking current and future light rail lines to the airport will require a corridor extension, the construction of an automated people mover, or improved bus service.

Los Angeles leaders, like those of many major cities, are very interested in improving public transportation access to the airport. Such projects are perceived to be politically palatable transit investments because they are appealing to a wide spectrum of the population, including people — especially the economically influential — who do not usually take the bus or train. Unfortunately, even when they’re built, these connections often fail to live up to expectations. Can L.A.’s planned airport rail link do better?

As part of Measure R, the sales tax approved by Los Angeles County voters in November 2008 that will dedicate billions to new rapid transit, $200 million was dedicated to the extension of the Green Line light rail to LAX Airport — a project that has been under consideration for decades. Currently, the Green Line runs from Norwalk to Redondo Beach, mostly along the Century Freeway; customers can switch to airport-bound buses at the Aviation station.

But there is no direct rail service into the airport, and buses entering and circulating around LAX’s eight terminals are slow. As a result, virtually no one takes transit: Today, just 1% of air passengers and 9% of employees arrive by public transportation. As a comparison, according to the most recent Census statistics, 7.1% of Los Angeles County residents take transit to work and 11.0% of Los Angeles City residents do the same.* There is certainly room for improvement.

The problem is that there is no obvious answer about how to connect Los Angeles’ rapidly expanding rail network with the airport. Early plans from 1988 suggested running a line beside or below the airport on the way to Marina del Rey, northwest up the Pacific Coast. By the mid-1990s, a $215 million extension would run as a quick spur from the Green Line, where it would meet an airport people mover.

With little progress on those plans, LAX planners promoted a people mover to run to the existing Aviation station in the mid-2000s, but that effort has not yet been part of the airport’s renovation scheme. Meanwhile, the transit agency won millions of dollars in aid from the federal government for its 8.5-mile Crenshaw light rail line, which will run east of the airport by 2018 and connect to the Green Line, but again, not provide direct airport access.

All this leaves L.A. grasping about for a plan. This year, L.A. Metro planners are performing an alternatives analysis on the corridor with the goal of selecting a locally preferred alternative for the route in 2013. All but the most basic route would require more funding than the $200 million currently available, so there is no guarantee that the project will be built this decade; even so, the airport will likely contribute hundreds of millions of dollars in airplane landing fees to the line, so something will probably be built eventually.

Metro developed four basic alignments for the route, as illustrated in the figure at the top of this article. Like the Washington Metro Dulles extension (and indeed most airport links), the agency has two fundamental options: Will it serve the airport directly with rapid transit service, or will it have its customers transfer to a people mover from which they will have access to terminals?

The average customer using the line would save the most time if the light rail line were simple rerouted under the terminal (and this would attract the most new customers), but this would be an expensive and duplicative approach, since it would parallel the north-south Crenshaw Corridor. One obvious question is why the Crenshaw Line wasn’t designed to run through the airport on the way to the Green Line, but it is too far along on the design process to change course now. Other options would provide direct light rail service as a branch from the Green Line or a circulator, either in the form of a people mover or a bus rapid transit line, connected to the Crenshaw Line or an intermediate station.

Of these options, only the intermediate branch idea, with a short light rail line connected to an airport circulator, seems truly out of the question, since it would attract fewer riders, save less time, and cost almost as much as the rail re-routing.

As shown below, Metro has also begun to analyse how the new rail link would approach the terminals themselves. The first three options could be completed by light rail or people mover; the fourth would use bus rapid transit. As the analysis demonstrates, using BRT would be far cheaper, and it would allow people a direct walk to each of the eight terminals (a rail network stopping at each of the terminals would apparently cost about two and a half times as much as a system stopping at just one location, so it seems to have been pulled from consideration). The BRT would be a few minutes slower than the rail system for the average user.

This kind of analysis raises some important questions. With this many terminals, do the two or three stations that are possible with a rail scenario make any sense? Does the flexibility inherent in bus service make things easier for baggage-carrying passengers, or will they be treated to something akin to Boston’s Silver Line, where buses meander between terminals at a remarkably slow pace? Will passengers chose not to use the transit link if it is provided by a bus rather than a rail car? There are no easy answers.

Returning to the original issue, one reasonable question is to ask who might be reasonably be convinced to use this new transit connection if it were built. Consider the following L.A. Metro maps showing concentrations of air passengers and employees:

What seems clear is that while employees live mostly in the neighborhoods around the airport, passengers are concentrated across the westside of Los Angeles, along the Pacific Ocean and along Wilshire Boulevard Avenue. Will the transit improvements as proposed serve them well?

Certainly, simply branching off the Green Line would save time for people coming from the existing route and the South Bay — in addition to people coming from downtown, who will likely be able to get to airport more quickly using the existing Silver and Green Lines than the future Exposition and Crenshaw Lines (because of the larger number of stops on the latter route).

On the other hand, branching off the Green Line would require those arriving on the Crenshaw Line — in other words, people coming from the Westside, where there is a large airport user base — to switch to the Green Line to get to the airport. This will slow their commutes significantly because of the limited frequencies on the Green Line (just every 15 minutes currently at midday). A more equitable solution might be providing a high-frequency people mover from a shared Green and Crenshaw Line station that ensures that whenever a train arrives, there will be a people mover waiting. This forces everyone to transfer but at least there will be little waiting.

Of course, no matter the outcome, this link will not be the end of the conversation about better transit to LAX. None of the solutions proposed will significantly improve airport travel times for most people in the region, and none of them will get downtown within half an hour of the airport, a goal for most cities. Look to places like London and Paris — despite quite significant (and costly) transit links to their respective airports, they’re spending even more to supplement those lines with more connections. And indeed, L.A. planners have in the past mentioned express trains between Union Station and the airport, via the Harbor Subdivision. Satisfaction is hard to come by.

* Those figures, by the way, put Los Angeles (both city and county) near the top of American cities. This is not a particularly car-obsessed city by U.S. standards.

Images above: Comparative data from Los Angeles Metro LAX Extension Project

Atlanta Finance

In the Atlanta Region, Disagreements about Investment Priorities Spur Discord Over a Planned Transit Tax

» DeKalb County NAACP announces intention to attempt to thwart passage of transit tax this summer.

Getting the residents of the 10-county Atlanta region to agree on anything was always going to be a difficult effort. The newest controversy about which projects to fund with a new sales tax there raises questions about what to do when a lot of money is available for transit — but there isn’t enough for every proposed project.

Back in 1971, when MARTA was formed to run Atlanta’s new federally funded rail system, the agency — and its dedicated funding stream — were restricted to  Fulton and DeKalb Counties, which surround the City of Atlanta and which sit at the center of the region. At the time, those counties represented about 70% of the region’s population of 1.5 million, so restricting adequate public transportation in those areas was perhaps an acceptable compromise in an area of the country already skeptical of the value of transit.

Forty years and 2.6 million more people later, these same areas account for just 40% of the region’s population. Yet MARTA’s rail network and its related buses have expanded only minimally since, and they haven’t left the core counties. MARTA can barely cover its operations costs. Meanwhile, traffic is as bad as anywhere in the country.

Thus the call for a new, dedicated source of revenue to support transportation improvements in the ten-county area. In mid-2011, leaders announced they had come to an agreement about holding a referendum in 2012 (it will be held July 31). Later last year, negotiations over how the $6.1 billion in predicted ten-year revenues from the 1% sales tax would be distributed produced a project list that would extend MARTA to Emory University, bring a new bus rapid transit line to the I-20 corridor, and install light rail transit along a midtown and suburban route. Every county got a share of the funds roughly proportional to their proposed contribution.

Yet the DeKalb County NAACP has announced it will launch a public campaign in opposition to the sales tax referendum because the list of projects agreed upon does not include a MARTA rail link from Indian Creek, the current terminus of the Blue Line, to the Mall at Stonecrest, a 1.2 million square-foot mega mall in the southeastern section of the county on I-20. While discussions last fall had mentioned such a project as a possibility, the negotiators eventually decided to focus instead on bus rapid transit on the I-20 corridor, which will be far cheaper to build but which in theory could eventually be replaced by rail. This has enraged the NAACP, which contends that South DeKalb is being underserved, since the most expensive improvements in the County — the rail link to Emory — is in the west, where MARTA already runs. Back in August, the organization announced that it would fight the tax if the rail link was not included in the priority list, so its actions this week were not unexpected.

Whatever you think about the proposed I-20 line (to my estimation, it is less valuable than many of the other projects proposed for the Atlanta region) is has led to significant controversy in DeKalb, in part because the County’s CEO is one of the major supporters of the proposed tax. He argues that the County’s taxpayers will get more than their money’s worth — $1.3 billion in projects vs. $800 million in tax contributions — but this has not been enough to placate those who sincerely want rail there.

To be frank, this opposition puts the transit tax’s chance of passage in jeopardy. The Atlanta region is relatively conservative, with the population most likely to support increased revenues for public transportation living in Fulton and DeKalb Counties — the densest, most urban parts of the region. The fact that the vote is taking place in the middle of the summer rather than in November means there will be limited turnout. If voters in DeKalb are convinced that the tax will not serve their interests, it stands little chance of passage.

This situation is Atlanta-specific, but its features could be relevant to any metropolitan area considering major investments in new transit lines. The problem is this: Once there is agreement as to the importance of new revenues for transportation, everyone announces that they have an important project they want to fund. The sum of the costs of those projects is inevitably far larger than the amount of money expected to be raised. Eventually, a regional decision-making body must come to an accord about which projects are most important, and which can be delayed for future action. Those who do not get what they want from that priority list — the I-20 rail supporters in Atlanta’s case — become frustrated and may begin to oppose the expansion program, even if other projects benefit them.

Is there a way to avoid this? Unlikely. There are only a limited amount of funds available and a seemingly infinite number of projects that individuals or organizations will latch on to as priorities. Indeed, there is inevitably some opposition in the public discourse to any proposed intervention by the government. The question is how influential each side is, and what percentage of the population will be persuaded by each argument.

Image above: MARTA Station Platform, from Flickr user Chip Harlan (cc)