The Antiplanner’s friend, Benita Dodd, reviews the Atlanta streetcar on the second anniversary of its inaugural run. It was supposed to cost $72 million to build. It cost $97 million. It was supposed to cost $1.7 million a year to operate. It actually costs $5.3 million.
It was projected to earn $420,000 a year in fares. During its first year, it earned nothing because it was free. In the second year, the city began charging $1 a ride, and it earned under $200,000. When it was free, it carried 2,600 riders a day. After they began charging, ridership fell to less than 1,500 a day, less than half the projected number.
It normally runs on Saturday nights until 1 am. Last Saturday, “to accommodate large crowds” for New Years Eve, the city stopped running it at 4:30 pm. (Despite the absurdity of the claim that not running the streetcar will accommodate large crowds, the Atlanta Journal-Constitutionreprinted the city’s press release word for word.) Naturally, after all these great successes, the city wants to build 22 more miles of streetcar lines.
The Consumer Electronics Show opens in Las Vegas today, so the next few days are likely to see new hype (some say overhype) about self-driving cars. Last month, Yahoo reported that Ford and Google would announce that they would build self-driving cars together, but Ford’s announcement yesterday about its electronics plans didn’t mention Google. Ford may still make an announcement with Google later in the show, but it is curious that Yahoo’s original story doesn’t seem to be live anymore.
A combination that has been confirmed is between General Motors and Lyft. While their goal is to create a system of shared, self-driving vehicles, the only substance in the announcement was that General Motors was “investing” $500 million in Lyft. So it isn’t clear which, if either, company will be developing the software and hardware needed to make GM cars self-driving.
A Ford-Google partnership probably makes more sense than a GM-Lyft combine. With the former, Ford offers car-making expertise while Google offers the software and the resulting products could be used for car sharing, individual ownership, trucking, and other services. The GM-Lyft partnership is limited to just sharing and neither of the partners has the software to do true autonomous cars.
The truth is that MARTA is something of a paradox. On one hand, it has built a reasonably efficient 52-mile-long rail system: fares cover 40 percent of operating costs, which is much higher than the transit industry’s overall 25 percent; railcars carry an average of 26 passengers, which is more than Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, or Washington’s heavy-rail systems; and they consume less than 2,000 BTUs of energy per passenger mile, which is second only to New York City subways in terms of energy efficiency.
The Antiplanner has a rule: anytime someone mentions how wonderful a transit-oriented development is or will be, just Google the name of that development with the words “tax-increment financing.” So, when Atlantic Cities writer Rebecca Burns breathlessly praises the Atlanta BeltLine as a “magical TOD,” I immediately looked it up.
It turns out the development is expected to eventually receive a modest $1.7 billion in tax-increment financed (TIF) subsidies. Total subsidies will be even more: of the $337 million in subsidies to date, only $120 million are from TIF. That’s not magic; that’s crony capitalism. If you want magic, go to Disneyland, which only cost $17 million (not billion) to build in 1955, which is less than $150 million in today’s dollars. (Disney World cost about $331 million in 1973 which, converted to today’s dollars, is in the ballpark of $1.7 billion–but it was virtually all privately financed.)
Regular readers know that the Antiplanner is not fond of TIF. Though public officials like to portray it as “free money,” in fact it takes money from schools, fire, and other property-tax-supported services. At best, TIF doesn’t stimulate development of an urban area; it only influences where that development will take place and what it will look like. If the development would have taken place anyway–perhaps in another location and at lower densities–then the taxes earned by the development would have gone to schools, etc. if there had been no TIF. At worst, TIF actually slows the growth of an urban area by increasing the tax burden or reducing the quality of urban services.
For the second time in a week, Paul Krugman has written about sprawl. This time he is as wrong as the last, when he blamed Detroit’s bankruptcy on sprawl. Now he blames Atlanta’s entrenched poverty on urban sprawl. “The city may just be too spread out,” he says, “so that job opportunities are literally out of reach for people stranded in the wrong neighborhoods.”
Krugman quotes a study that finds that one of many factors reducing social mobility include “areas in which low income individuals were residentially segregated from middle income individuals.” But income segregation is very different from sprawl, and can take place in communities of any density. New York City, for example, has pretty high economic segregation.
Krugman adds that Atlanta’s sprawl “would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t.” He obviously doesn’t know the history of mass transit in Atlanta, which had a great transit system until regional leaders decided to build an expensive rail transit system. Since they aimed the rail lines at middle-class neighborhoods and sacrificed bus service to low-income neighborhoods to pay for the rail lines, transit’s share of commuting has fallen by more than 60 percent and per capita transit ridership has fallen by more than two thirds.
The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) spends $50 million more than its peers on employee benefits, says KPMG in an audit of the agency. Reducing benefits to national average levels (easier said than done) and contracting out some services such as cleaning would allow MARTA to erase a $33 million deficit in its annual budget.
Comparing a transit agency to its peers is like criticizing a bank robber for stealing more than home burglars. The fact is that they are both ripping people off, and just because some are a bit less rapacious doesn’t make them any more morally correct.
Private jitney in direct competition with MARTA bus.
So the Antiplanner has a more aggressive agenda: complete privatization. Atlanta is one of the few cities that doesn’t outlaw private transit in competition with the public agency, and as a result it has a number of private jitneys that operate without subsidies and often charge riders less than MARTA. The jitneys even stop at MARTA’s bus stops.
Here’s a heartwarming story: Late last year, Clayton County, Georgia (a suburban Atlanta county) decided to terminate its subsidized bus service to Atlanta, saying it was costing $10 million a year but only bringing in $2.5 million in revenue. Despite protests from bus riders, the service was duly ended on March 31, leaving many riders worried that they would not be able to reach their jobs.
What’s so heartwarming about that? Starting this week, a private party has started a new bus service following some of the same routes as the Clayton County buses. Fares will be $3.50, compared with average fare collections on the County buses of about $1.10 in 2008. The Antiplanner extends best wishes to QuickTransit.