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Defining Clear Standards for Transit-Oriented Development


» A new report attempts to quantify the relative merits of development near transit. What value can this tool bring for planners?

Transportation and land use are inextricably linked. Building a new rail line may expand development; new development may expand use of a rail line. The direct connection between the two makes differentiating between cause and effect difficult to measure. Transportation planners frequently make the argument that a new investment will produce new riders, for example, but whether those riders would have come anyway is not a simple question to answer. There is no counter-factual.

Nevertheless, planners have invested decades of considerable work in the pursuit of transit-oriented development (TOD), under the presumption that clustering new housing, offices, and retail will result in rising transit use and, in turn, reduce pollution, cut down on congestion, and improve quality of life. There remains some controversy about the effectiveness of TOD investments in actually increasing transit ridership, but, at least in my mind, the success of certain areas over others has as much to do with the manner in which developments are designed as the mere fact that there is construction adjacent to a rail or bus station.

For example, the considerable success of Arlington, Virginia in attracting riders to the Washington Metro, as compared to Rosemont, Illinois’ interaction with the Chicago L, is likely due to the fact that the former prioritized walkable construction immediately adjacent to subway stations while the latter put the rail line in the median of a highway, separated buildings from the station by hundreds of feet, and minimized pedestrian amenities. Getting the design of new development around transit right is often just as important as the transit itself in terms of attracting ridership.

If design matters, what has been missing has been a tool that offers empirical insight into the benefits of specific development interventions in terms of their effect on growing transit use. To fill the gap, a new tool for measuring TOD quality has recently been introduced by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). It holds potential value in terms of defining the appropriate measures for creating effective TOD, but it needs further development to be useful in aiding the creation of best-practice development designs.

The TOD Standard

ITDP’s TOD Standard replicates the BRT Standard the organization finalized this year. Like the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED, both are scoring systems meant to offer a quick measurement that allows projects to be compared with one another on a variety of relevant criteria.

ITDP argues that this tool allows planners, developers, and the public to assess proposed or existing projects on a wide number of measures. The report aims to identify “what constitutes urban development best practice in promoting sustainable urban transport.” In other words, the goal of the tool is to determine which development projects would do the most to positively expand public transportation usage.

From the perspective of planners who should be actively promoting urban design that increases transit use, the Standard’s recognition of “development that is pro-actively oriented toward, rather than simply adjacent to, public transport” is encouraging. If the system works, it could be an potent way to make the connection between transit and development more explicit and, if used by municipalities or developers to design projects, it could eventually result in expanded ridership.

Best practices are identified across eight design categories — walking, cycling, the transportation network, accessibility to transit, a mix of uses, density, connections to existing employment centers, and changes in parking and road use. Within those categories, 24 criteria can be analyzed individually and then combined into an overall score in which developments rate from -50 (terrible) to +100 (excellent). The tool could be used to determine how well a completed development compares to best practice, or to identify areas for potential improvement.

Vienna Town Center Plan

Testing the Standard’s Effectiveness

ITDP’s tool is designed for large-scale projects within 800 meters (one half mile) of transit stations that implement at least 20,000 square feet of new construction on an area of four or more square blocks. The tool is not meant to measure the TOD effectiveness of existing districts (which are supposed to be included in a future revision of the Standard).

To evaluate just how the tool works, I chose three large TOD projects in East-Coast cities to compare their relative advantages, and inputted project data into the Standard for comparison. The three projects I selected are the Lindbergh Town Center project in Atlanta, which is fully completed (photograph at the top of this post); the NorthPoint project in Cambridge, just outside of Boston, which is partially completed; and the Vienna MetroWest (aka Metro Town Center), outside of Washington, D.C., which is in planning (the plan is just above this section). The latter project is the now down-scaled version of the Vienna plan.* Each constitutes a major development program located immediately adjacent to a transit corridor.

The data that I inputted into into the tool produced the results seen in the following table. As the last row indicates, the MetroWest project scored most poorly, with a rating of 3 out of 100.** Lindbergh did much better, with a score of 39, and NorthPoint best, with a score of 56. It should be emphasized that neither NorthPoint nor MetroWest are completed, so upon actual construction, the final TOD scores could be significantly different.

Evaluating TOD Based on the ITDP TOD Standard
Note: These figures offer a “sketch” computation of each project’s TOD score; the score should be treated as a general figure, not a fully accurate measure of each project’s characteristics.
CriterionPotential PointsMetroWest, Vienna, VANorthPoint, Cambridge, MALindbergh, Atlanta, GA
Sidewalk access0-1000
Complete crosswalks0-500
Driveway interference1010
Active frontage101105
Permeable frontage2011
Cycle network0-10-3
Cycle parking at stations2200
Cycle parking in buildings2???
Cycle access in buildings1???
Intersection density2-1021
Small blocks5030
Prioritized pedestrian connectivity3111
Max walk distance to transit00-20
Avg walk distance to transit5555
Mix of uses10101010
Access to food1100
Affordable housing4022
Residential density10497
Non-residential density5000
Connections to existing urbanism10044
Distance to existing jobs5555
Off-street parking15050
On-street parking5???

Assessing the Standard’s Value

The tool was simple to use and its results make sense intuitively: Whereas the MetroWest project is poor urban design from the perspective of encouraging transit use, the other two are far more oriented toward the nearby rail stations. Hypothetically, if the projects were all proposed for the same site, the tool would allow decision makers to make a quick quantitative comparison between the designs and identify the best project for public transportation riders. This could offer a clear benefit in terms of, for example, choosing a winning team for the contract to develop a publicly owned site. Rather than rely on “subjective” comparisons of the aesthetics of site designs (a comparison that too often devolves into a question of individual architectural taste), the tool quantifies the physical.

The Standard could also play a useful role in improving the ability of developers to design their new transit-adjacent buildings most effectively by highlighting where plans fall short in comparison with best practices.

Yet, as beneficial as it could be, the Standard does not appear to have been developed with a clear research methodology to back its scoring system. Why is the active frontage criterion worth 10 points, but the amount of shade on nearby streets only worth 2? Perhaps I am wrong, but my sense is that residential and commercial density are the overwhelming influencers of transit use, yet those criteria only account for a quarter of the score. ITDP does not appear to have conducted a real-world analysis to demonstrate whether certain elements are more beneficial in terms of attracting transit use. Rather, the tool seems to have been created using a common sense approach, which is not as good as one might hope for a “Standard” that is explicitly designed to provide an empirical scoring system for measuring TOD effectiveness.

ITDP’s TOD Standard, though, remains a draft; it will be revised over the next year based on public and expert input. It would be beneficial if those revisions attempted to incorporate evidence about the relative effectiveness of the various criteria in terms of growing transit ridership.

Even so, for those who are already familiar with the basic principles of transit-oriented development, ITDP’s scoring system will do little more than reinforce already-acquired knowledge. Every urbanist knows quite well that good TOD requires pedestrian connectivity, a mix of uses, and bike parking — those goals might as well be imprinted on the foreheads of most people trained in planning. At most, ITDP’s guidelines may highlight slight differences between individual projects, but a quick comparison of the site plans of Vienna’s MetroWest and Cambridge’s NorthPoint is enough for most even unexperienced planners to make out which one is designed for transit, and which one isn’t.

So what added value does the Standard bring? Like WalkScore, it provides an “objective” number that can be used by non-planner decision makers to help them determine which projects would best fulfill the policy objective of maximizing transit use. The Standard must be refined, however, to focus on making that number into something that’s genuinely reflective of best practices.


* I recognize that the Vienna project profiled here may not be the project that is built; the original plan for the site envisioned much higher densities just next to the station. For this comparison, though, I wanted to pick a project that I hypothesized would score poorly using the ITDP tool, and this revision fit the bill.

** Because I could not locate data on bike access to buildings or the area devoted to on-street parking, the documented scores were really out of a total possible score of 93.

Image at top: Lindbergh City Center in Atlanta, from Cooper Carry Architects; below: Revised Vienna Metro Town Center Plan, from Paraclete Realty

Airport Atlanta Dallas Light Rail Metro Rail Miami

Where There Were Once Many Lines Planned, Just One Opens in Miami

» The failure of a local sales tax to produce revenues as expected should dampen excitement around the latest extension of Miami’s Metrorail system.

Last week, Georgia voters overwhelmingly denied the passage of the T-SPLOST referendum, which, among other things, would have provided $7.2 billion for transportation over the next ten years to the Atlanta region thanks to income from a 1¢ sales tax. About half of that funding would have gone to public transit operations and expansion; in the city of Atlanta itself, the program would have paid for the beginning of work on the Beltline transit corridor, a light rail line to Emory University, several BRT lines, and a MARTA heavy rail extension. Voters were clearly unconvinced of the value of the transportation investments, were motivated by anti-tax sentiment, and felt that the projects would not benefit them directly. The result may be decades of increasing traffic in the metropolitan area with few new alternatives.

Yet some voters also expressed another concern: That the proposed projects, despite their inclusion in the official list of priorities, would not actually be built. Their sentiments were not necessarily unreasonable. The $7.2 billion supposed to be generated by the tax was an estimate, and if the economy continues to underperform, it’s quite possible that the actual revenues collected could have been much lower. Moreover, the list of transportation priorities was itself based on project cost estimates, which, if you know anything about U.S. construction projects, are liable to increase wildly.

If anyone was paying attention to Miami, they might be especially skeptical of the tax’s value. There, voters passed a 1/2¢ sales tax increase in 2002 by a huge margin. They were promised an enormous expansion of rail transit service, with dozens of miles of new lines shooting out of the existing Metrorail system in virtually every direction. What they got in reality, however, was one project: The 2.4-mile, one-stop Orange Line extension to the Airport, which opened last weekend at a cost of $506 million. No other rail service is expected to be funded before 2035.

Nonetheless, the Airport extension, which will bring downtown Miami within a 15-minute trip of the airport, is an impressive addition to the city’s transit network. The terminus at the Miami Intermodal Center (MIC) is a beautiful feat of steel, concrete, and glass. By next year, the $2 billion MIC will allow for connections between Metrorail, Amtrak, Greyhound, rental cars, seven bus routes, and the region’s commuter Tri-Rail line. An automated people mover called MIA Mover already connects the complex to the terminals.

Miami’s Metrorail system, showing 2.4-mile extension to the airport and new Orange Line. Ridership in the southern part of the system is higher, so doubling service to the south is a reasonable decision. Source: Miami-Dade County. Read a critique of the new map from Cameron Booth.

The MIC station is expected to see 7,500 daily riders on Metrorail, a huge increase over the 66,000 daily riders currently recorded on the system’s 24.4 miles, according to APTA (up from about 45,000 a day in the late 1990s). Ridership on the system has been increasing relatively steadily since it opened in 1984, unsurprisingly considering the city’s growth during that period. Since 2000 population increase has been particularly quick, with the city now housing more than 408,000 people, a more than 10% increase over the past decade. Miami’s population density of more than 12,000 people per mile is now about the same as Chicago’s.

Thus the argument back in 2002 that something needed to be done to significantly improve the rail system. The People’s Transportation Plan, as it was known, was supposed to have raised $17 billion over 25 years, enough to guarantee the completion of a 10.6 east-west Metrorail corridor and 9.5-mile north corridor by 2016.

Several problems arose. The North Corridor, originally supposed to be the first project completed, repeatedly received poor ratings from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) thanks to low ridership estimates and poor management on the part of Miami-Dade transit. The FTA would have to contribute a significant portion of the project’s cost for it to be funded. At the same time, its projected price tag increased from $515 million to $1.63 billion. Similar problems plagued the East-West Corridor, of which the Airport Link was supposed to be the first phase. Indeed, the cost of this project doubled since initial estimates.

Meanwhile, the beginnings of the recession (which hurt Florida particularly badly) led to a decline in tax revenues. And the system, whose finances had been incorrectly tabulated in previous years, spent far more than expected on operating deficits and a new headquarters, leaving only the $400 million in local funding for the airport line.

By 2010, a partial expansion of bus service was basically entirely reversed, the other rail projects simply do not exist according to the Miami-Dade website, and the only improvements to the North Corridor have been in the form of an improved bus line.

Just as problematic, even when hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in new transit capital, the system has had trouble providing the services that an effective public transportation network is supposed to offer. While Metrorail service has been increased slightly to provide for a distribution of 10-minute peak services on the two branches (the Orange Line to the airport and the Green Line to Palmetto, the other, older terminus), at nights and weekends, trains will leave the airport only every 30 minutes. Nobody should be expected to wait half an hour for a train at the airport when arriving on Saturday at midday. And fewer people will ride as a result. How could the funding for this essential purpose not be available?

It will be convenient for a large number of people to get easier access between Miami’s airport and its downtown without having to deal with traffic, and indeed, the city is one of many American cities prioritising airport rail links. Dallas has its own Orange Line light rail project currently under construction and planned to open in 2014* (Chicago coincidently also has an Orange Line to its Midway Airport). But how much value do these airport connections bring, anyhow?

As I have previously written, airport transit connections are promoted (and prioritised) by urban elites because they are frequent air travellers — and trips to the airport are often the only travel for which they can conceive personally using the transit system. But other investments, such as in the densest areas of the city, usually provide more benefit to the average inhabitant of a metropolitan region. Given Miami’s downtown-oriented growth, there is reason to suspect that new lines operating in the center city, rather than toward the periphery (as the north and east-west corridors would have) would have been more attractive to riders. In this vein, Branden Helms argues that airport stations rarely attract the patronage expected for them. Is Miami’s prediction of a 12% increase in its rail system ridership reasonable?

Does this mean Miami’s new Metrorail extension is a waste of funds? Not necessarily — especially considering Miami’s distinctive position as the “capital of the Caribbean” — attracting millions of visitors and business people each year through the airport. If the city’s growth continues to be based on its status in Latin America, the airport connection may be invaluable.

Miami, however, is a parable: Voters will not always receive that which they believe to have endorsed.

* The first segment of Dallas’ Orange Line opened last week as well, with new service provided between the existing Bachman Station and Irving Convention Center. Additional stops further north at North Lake College and Belt Line are expected to open in early December.

Image at top: New MIA Metrorail Station, from Miami-Dade County

Atlanta Finance

In an Atlanta Desperate for More Transit Options, New Rail Plans for Eastern Suburbs

» After considerable disagreement over the value of funding rail extensions to Southern DeKalb County, the MARTA transit agency board endorses the project — despite a lack of funding.

Solving regional disagreements in the Atlanta way, apparently, means making sure that anyone who makes a loud enough stink gets a piece of an expanding pie. Even if the pie isn’t expanding.

The Atlanta Region Commission (ARC) is already fighting to convince a skeptical electorate of the necessity of increasing the local sales tax to pay for transportation improvement projects — an issue that will be put before voters on July 31. The Transportation Investment Act (TIA) would raise the sales tax across regional counties by 1% over the course of 10 years. ARC’s announced list of priority investments would bring new rail and bus links throughout the region thanks to more than $8.5 billion expected to be raised (about half of which will go to roads projects). MARTA, the operator of urban bus services and the city’s metro rail line, would be the single greatest beneficiary of the funds thanks to line extensions and renovations of the existing network.

Yet, as previously described here, plans for new rail lines extending to Emory University, into the northern suburbs, and along streets through the center city, have been contested as inadequate by residents and political leaders in DeKalb County, just east of central Atlanta. Most bothered are residents of the southern section of the county, led by the local NAACP, who argue that they have been paying for the functioning of the system for years but never received the benefits of rail service.

ARC’s plans for fund distribution, as documented in the map above, would provide for the implementation of a rapid bus line along I-20 East from downtown Atlanta to this area, but South DeKalb inhabitants want something else in exchange for their votes: An extension of the MARTA heavy rail line from Indian Creek. DeKalb County’s residents must vote in favor of the referendum in large numbers in order for it to pass because of the probable strong resistance to the tax from residents of counties further from Atlanta, despite the fact that ARC’s priority list specifically includes funding for lines running in all directions into the suburbs.

Last week, MARTA seemed to make an effort to realize the rail project. The agency’s board approved continuing the advancement of two projects — a light rail line along the Clifton Corridor in west DeKalb and a $2 billion, two-pronged strategy for serving South DeKalb. The latter would include both the 12.8-mile I-20 East rapid bus line previously discussed and a 12-mile rail extension along I-285 and I-20 to the Mall at Stonecrest, with four other new stations as requested by South DeKalb groups. The projects would, like most American transit capital programs, require federal funding.

But they would also need a source of funds above and beyond those being distributed by TIA, raising questions about whether MARTA’s move is designed primarily to give voters in South DeKalb the sense that rail is planned for their area, rather than actually offering funding for it. In order to construct this rail extension, an additional $800 million in local funding is required beyond that being raised by TIA. No one seems to be clear about how this money would be raised.

It is also worth questioning the value of extending rail to South DeKalb County. The area is, like much of metropolitan Atlanta, automobile dependent and lacking in significant density. The alignment of the rail corridor in the median of interstate highways seems unlikely to produce any significant transit-oriented development. The BRT project, which would rely on HOV and HOT lanes to transport people between the area and downtown Atlanta, would not be much better from any of these perspectives, but at least it would be more economical. A total of 28,700 daily riders are expected to use the two services ($70,000 per rider), at the very high end for similar new transit capital projects.

Serving a denser section of the region is the Clifton Corridor, which will bring 8.8 miles of light rail between the existing Lindbergh Center and Avondale Stations, via 10 to 13 new stations, including at Emory University and the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control. Its $1.1 billion cost (also rather high) would be enough to connect the stations in 26 minutes, about 8 minutes less than is possible today on the MARTA rail system with a transfer at Five Points. Service to this area of DeKalb County has been a priority for MARTA since the agency’s first plan was developed more than 40 years ago. Though the use of heavy rail connected to the remainder of the MARTA system was considered, the lack of adequate right-of-way makes a through-running connection between Lindbergh and Avondale impossible with fully grade-separated rail. So light rail has been the focus.

The first phase of the corridor, from Lindbergh to the CDC headquarters near Emory Campus, can be paid for fully through TIA funding, but the rest of the line will require federal aid.

A significant portion of the Clifton Corridor would be built in a subway, as documented below in a map distributed by MARTA. This results from two factors: One, (wealthy) homeowners in several of the areas through which the line would pass would likely legally contest a surface line that would require significant use of eminent domain in residential neighborhoods; two, CSX (the freight railway) owns the track right-of-way that the corridor parallels and MARTA has been loath to consider negotiating with the company, likely because of CSX’s hostility to passenger rail projects in other parts of the country.

Fortunately, other sections of the line would be built in the median of arterials, a construction method that would deliver most of the benefits at a far lower cost.

The focus on projects for DeKalb County here should not imply that the City of Atlanta itself has been ignored in the proposed funding allocation. Indeed, TIA would fund a significant expansion of the city’s diminutive streetcar project, which is currently under construction. The streetcar line would be expanded both east and west to meet the first stages of the Beltline project, which is a proposed combined transit and park system along existing freight railway rights-of-way that would encircle central Atlanta. A new crosstown corridor on North Avenue would connect Georgia Tech directly to Midtown. Though the full Beltline would not be funded through TIA, these first stages serve the city’s densest neighborhoods in which people are most likely to take advantage of transit. Later phases may be sponsored by the revenues from the tax increment financing district that is funding other elements of the project.

The projects being promoted in the Atlanta region are thus a mixed bag in terms of necessity and cost effectiveness. None, however, will be implemented without the passage of the sales tax increase later this year. Will voters from South DeKalb be convinced by MARTA’s move?

Map above of Clifton Corridor: From MARTA

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)

Atlanta Finance Seattle

In Atlanta and Seattle, Hope for Better Transit Through Referendums

» Recognizing the limitations of federal  aid, local leaders in Atlanta and Seattle propose tax increases or additional fees to improve the quality of their transit networks.

Despite the skepticism about the importance of government spending now enthralling Washington on both sides of the aisle, the perceived value of investing local resources in public facilities such as new transit lines seems only to be ramping up.

Take Atlanta and Seattle, sitting at the helm of the nation’s 9th and 15th-largest metropolitan areas, respectively. In the first, a regional initiative supported by political and business leaders across a ten-county area will advance a 1% sales tax to the ballot next November. Over half of the billions in locally raised funds is proposed to be transferred to transit capital and operational programs. In the second, an enthusiastic mayor is articulating a grand, citywide strategy to bring high-quality transit to his city as quickly as possible. If approved by voters, a significant increase in the vehicle registration fee could mean rapid streetcars and more bus rapid transit.

If this is the face of the future of transit funding, then supporters of improved public transportation offerings may have reasons for optimism. In contrast to Washington, municipal and regional groups, convinced that today’s infrastructure is underperforming, are pushing forward — alone.

Atlanta’s referendum, if passed by voters in the 4.1 million-person, 10-county region covered by the Atlanta Regional Commission, would represent the most significant expansion of the area’s transit system since the creation of MARTA in 1971. After state legislation was passed last year to allow the region to ask its voters whether they wanted to increase their own taxes, a “Regional Roundtable” comprised of elected officials was established to determine how exactly to spend the estimated $6.1 billion that will be raised by a 1% sales tax over the course of ten years. Though the final list has yet to be completed (that will not happen until October), 54% of the funds noted in the preliminary list would go to transit (the rest mostly directed towards highway expansion).

The projects suggested for funding range from general support for suburban bus operations in Clayton and Gwinnett Counties to $600 million for state of good repair upgrades for existing MARTA lines to significant expansions of the heavy rail network. Of those, several are particularly exciting: $658 million of the $1.55 billion in total costs for the Beltline light rail corridor; $700 million for a link along the Clifton Corridor between Lindbergh Station and Emory University, expected to cost $1.11 billion; and $879 million of $1.23 billion for a light rail line from Midtown’s Arts Center to Cumberland Mall in northwest Atlanta. In general, these are good projects: Unlike several others proposed by exurban counties in the region, they are aimed towards upgrading transit links in the urban core, where rail investments will be most cost effective.

Not everyone will be completely satisfied, however long the list: DeKalb County politicians have argued that they will actively fight against the tax’s passage if their preferred rail line, an extension of MARTA five miles south from the existing Indian Creek terminus on the east side of the system to Wesley Chapel Road and I-20, if not included in the plan. That threat is likely to be heeded in order to maintain the regional collaboration that appears necessary to support this referendum (it can only pass with a majority of votes across the metropolitan area, not in one municipality at a time). Supported projects must reach as much of the taxed zone as possible. Otherwise, this once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand the transit system could be lost.

Seattle’s Mayor Mike McGinn has taken a wholly different approach, focusing on his municipality alone. Unlike his predecessor Greg Nickels, who championed regional thinking and the successful passage of a 2008 ballot question that increased funding for a regional light rail system, Mr. McGinn has determined that the needs of his city may be best met through its own initiative.

Just a few months after Seattle increased its vehicle licensing fee by $20 and a week after King County (which includes Seattle) added its own $20 charge to prevent cutbacks in the county’s Metro bus network, Mr. McGinn challenged the city to increase the tab by $80 more in order to “be bold” an fund a citywide network of rapid streetcar corridors. In theory, voters would be asked to approve the increase this November.

Displaying genuine entrepreneurship in his approach, the mayor suggested that the city could invest in five high-capacity rapid transit corridors, four of which qualify for rail. Instead of relying on slow-moving Sound Transit, which is building the Seattle region’s light rail network, Seattle could be more successful by playing alone and avoiding having to deal with the delicate matter of regional cooperation, Mr. McGinn argues.

The city council must approve the proposal — other members have suggested raising the fee by $40 or $60 instead — but Mr. McGinn’s initiative speaks for itself: Here is a leader who recognizes the value of public investment and is willing to put his face forward in order to support what is effectively a significant increase in the cost of driving a car in the city. That’s courageous.

Of the $27 million the fee is expected to generate annually, about half would fund transit, and those dollars would go towards investing in city corridors based on recommendations from the city’s Transit Master Plan, currently under development. Mr. McGinn’s approach would spread good transit throughout the city and put corridors within easy access of most of its citizens. The most important links not already in Sound Transit light rail plans would connect Ballard, Fremont, and the University of Washington each to downtown in conjunction with the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcar lines, the first of which is in service and the latter of which is funded. (These and other potential corridors have been meticulously described by Seattle Transit Blog: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII.)

To save costs, Mr. McGinn has been pushing European-style rapid streetcars — some might refer to them as tramways — that run mostly in road rights-of-way but that have fewer stops and reserved travel lanes and therefore travel more quickly than most American streetcars. This could allow Seattle to build significantly more rail than other American cities investing in more traditional light rail.*

Though the annual sums that could be collected by the license fee are modest, one approach being considered would involve asking the U.S. government to finance low-interest bonds that the city could pay back with expected future revenues; this would allow faster construction.**

One wonders how many of these projects will be able to advance, though, since most major transit commitments in the United States have relied on significant support from the federal government. With a Congress in continued cost-cutting mode, the likelihood that the proposals in Seattle and Atlanta — amongst those in many other deserving cities — will see full support may be shrinking by the day. If the federal government removes funding for day-to-day capital expenses, like the purchase of new trains or buses or the upkeep of rights-of-way, the new income resulting from these tax and fee increases will have to be redirected back to expenses that were supposed to be supported by other sources. This will disappoint voters, who hate to be misled or have promises pulled out from under them.

In addition, there is no guarantee that either of these referendums — or the others like them being proposed in other U.S. cities — will receive citizen approval. Though it is true that voters in municipalities as varied as Charlotte, Miami, and Phoenix have expanded funding for transit by taxing themselves in recent years, other cities have been less successful, such as Kansas City, where voters rejected a sales tax increase for a light rail line in 2008.

report from the Mineta Transportation Institute last week provided some insight into the success factors that account for the passage of similar measures. By examining eight case studies, the study’s authors pointed to the importance of consensus among business, elected, and environmental interest groups and suggested that campaign leaders must be able to orchestrate a savvy, well-funded media message. What appears to be less important — especially as compared to the 2001 study that this report updates — is producing a multimodal plan that distributes gains evenly across the area whose population is asked to fund it. The reputation of the existing transit agency may or may not be important.

While Atlanta appears at least so far to have sufficient business and political support for engaging a positive dialogue in favor of higher taxes or fees for investments, Seattle’s Mayor McGinn may have more work to do. On the other hand, Seattle’s city-only referendum may by its very nature be easier to pass than Atlanta’s region-wide ballot question, which must convince typically transit-hostile exurban voters. Other cities hoping to fund similar improvements should examine these experience to see what lessons can be learned.

Update, 17 August 2011: The final list of projects approved for funding has been agreed upon.

* It is ironic that Mayor McGinn has become such a fervent supporter of light rail investment; his pre-election persona was in favor of bus rapid transit rather than rail because of what he described as its lower costs and equivalent performance.

** This closely mirrors Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s America Fast Forward proposal, which he hopes to encourage cities across the country to emulate.

Image above: Seattle Streetcar, from Flickr user sillygwailo (cc)