Transportation referendum: Is the AJC being a downer?

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On Sunday, the AJC provided an in-depth look at how the proposed transportation sales tax will affect commute times. This being the Twitter age, it’s safe to assume many readers delved only as far as the article’s downer of a lede:

“The money, collected from taxpayers over 10 years to build projects across 10 counties, would be vast.

“The payoff for commuters, less so.”

Transportation reporter Ariel Hart centered the article around a stat from a February Atlanta Regional Commission study (PDF) stating that if the tax passes and the project list is tackled, the number of Atlantans able to reach job centers in less than 45 minutes by car would increase by a humble 6 percent.

If you took the time to read the whole article, you’d find a nuanced explanation of how even single-digit improvement bears significance and how fraught such statistics are in the first place. But you’d have to scroll pretty far, for instance, to read ARC research chief Mike Alexander’s feelings on the matter. From the article:

“We know, after all these years of doing this, we see 6 percent, and it’s, ‘Woo hoo!’ ” he said, raising his arms in victory. “We’ve got something that’s working.”

In a phone call this morning, Alexander agreed that the AJC story’s hook didn’t reflect its later points. “Once you stayed in there, you could see she was trying very hard to be balanced,” he said of the author.

He also elaborated on why small time savings matter in a big city. “It’s cumulative each day for many years,” he said, noting that many of the roads we use today were planned before the Civil War. “A minute here and a minute there for each person—we’re talking about millions of people that commute every day.”

We reached out to Hart and asked if she thought the article’s lede had a negative slant. She responded:

“No, it didn’t strike me as negative, it struck me as right down the middle of the facts. The tax, if passed, would raise more new money for transportation than anything here in decades. It would maybe double the construction budget of DOT in the region, and raise a massive budget for transit expansion where currently little exists. But would it double the speed of all commutes, halve delay, double the amount of people able to get to employment centers within a reasonable time? Not even close.

“And there’s a very good reason for that, which is that urban transportation expansion has become crazy expensive, and congestion is just a very tough thing to battle. Planners recognize all that, and to them this plan is a victory. So that was important to present in the story, too.”

Hart is right: She did present the facts. But if the central question is whether doubling the transportation budget would halve commuter delay in a sprawling region where transportation has long been underfunded (and transit scarcely funded at all), she sure sets them up for failure.

So let’s swing to the bright side and point out that the ARC study doesn’t take into account the project list’s many “transportation quality of life” projects—crosswalks on treacherous Buford Highway, much-needed MARTA escalator repairs, new golf cart paths that those crazy Peachtree Citians use instead of driving. Nor does it factor in the 15 percent of tax funds that will go back to local governments.

But perhaps the study’s biggest “Woo hoo!” moment, to steal Mike Alexander’s line, is that the tax would precipitate a 20 percent increase among Atlantans able to reach their jobs in 45 minutes by transit. The mere idea of such a jump in this car-centric town is enough to warrant popping open the champagne. (The AJC article didn’t even give that stat its own sentence.)

Then again, with Channel 2’s report this morning that more voters now oppose the referendum than support it, no champagne corks are likely to be loosed any time soon.

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