Gwinnett County’s Billion Dollar Transit Boondoggle

Insanity is often described as doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Consequently, if a specific result is desired, the best approach is to try something different. Even if the difference is simply window dressing.

As the county’s population approaches 1,000,000, road congestion continues to be a major frustration for both residents and visitors. The “new” proposed antidote to traffic congestion? A “new”, highly researched, thoroughly discussed multi-billion dollar transportation plan that is in fact, little more than the plan defeated by voters less than two years ago, in a new wrapper.

Proponents of the 2019 referendum claim it was defeated because of “poor timing”; it was included on a special election ballot in March of that year. However, much of the opposition to the referendum was a 4-mile extension of MARTA heavy rail, viewed by many voters as a one billion-dollar boondoggle. Hooking up with the MARTA system is analogous to marrying someone who is drowning in debt; you may not be responsible for pre-existing encumbrances, but sooner or later, it will cost you.

Add that to the fact that even the most ardent proponents estimated that it would be at least 20 years before construction on a rail extension began, and the referendum rejection is not only understandable, but entirely logical. In his July 15th speech in Atlanta, President Trump referenced the problems created by approval processes that dragged on for 20 years. He cited his experience with approvals “taking forever” for building construction. “By the time you start building, the market changed. The market was good when we started, now the market is lousy, So you say to hell with it, we won’t build.”

It’s irrelevant whether a 20-year delay is the result of government red tape, or the collection of the funds necessary to start construction, markets change. The difference is, projects funded by taxes rely on other people’s money, and if the market changes, and the project turns out to be money poorly spent, the project executives do not take the financial hit.

Those considerations aside, in spite of a previous rejection of a MARTA extension, in spite of the fact that a transit review committee provided options for a “no rail” plan, and in spite of the fact  that several Gwinnett city leaders expressed a preference for the “no rail” plan, the county Board of Commissioners selected a transit plan that includes heavy rail (i.e. a MARTA extension).

The currently proposed plan does include more expansion of bus, bus rapid transit (BRT) and micro transit service, but the billion dollar cost of a four-mile heavy rail extension (construction cost is currently approximately $250 million per mile) does little but divert money from other forms of public transit that would serve the entire county, to a heavy rail system that will directly serve only a sliver of the population along the county’s western edge.

Extending MARTA into Gwinnett County and building a new station at Jimmy Carter Blvd makes even less sense when you consider that it calls for the most expensive form of public transportation to serve only a fraction of the county population. Further, with only 38 stations, (By comparison, the New York City subway system has 426 stations.) extending MARTA simply provides more people with access to a system that doesn’t take them where they want to go. And it does nothing to address travel between cities in Gwinnett County or to adjacent counties other than Fulton and DeKalb.

Then there is the potential financial burden to consider. MARTA’s 2019 financial report lists operating revenues of $141,163,000 (down $7 million from the previous year) and operating expenses of $762,782,000 (up $47 million from the previous year) resulting in an operating loss of $621,619,000. Every public transportation system in the country operates at a loss and relies on tax revenues and grants to make up the difference. However, few rely on a subsidy of over 81% to continue operations. Concurrently, MARTA has $2.2 billion in outstanding bonds.

Take away the smoke and mirrors, and MARTA’s boast of maintaining a balanced budget is laid bare. MARTA’s total 2019 budget (operating expenses and non-operating expenses) was $881,709,000; total revenues were $829,206,000. Even through use of Common Core math, subtracting $881,709,000 from $829,206,000 results in a negative number- which is reflected in MARTA’s financial report as a “Loss Before Capital Contributions” of $52,503,000. The bottom line “balanced budget” figure was turned positive only because of a $121,708,000 entry listed as contributions and capital grants. If such generous grants and contributions evaporate in the future, MARTA’s bottom line will turn blood red.

Yet in spite of a host of valid reasons to defeat the currently proposed plan, if it serves as the basis for a transit referendum on the November ballot, there’s a good chance voters will approve it.  Heavy rail has continually been sold as the end all, be all solution, not only for Gwinnett County’s traffic congestion problems, but also as an engine driving economic development.

It will be at least 20 years before rail construction begins and by then, the market will have changed- dramatically. By that time, autonomous vehicles will have come of age, as will working remotely, and both will drive ridership on public transit to new lows. Gwinnett’s “marriage” to MARTA will have cost taxpayers billions for four miles of heavy rail that links to a system that few people will use. Viable alternatives and a changed work environment  will decimate ridership on a fixed-route transit system that does not take people where they want to go.

1 Comment

  1. Excellent piece. My wife and I just returned from visiting friends in Suwanee. We live in a major city, and Dave is an individual who is looking out for this area as it grows, and he’s thinking into the future. I don’t know what I enjoyed more, boating on Lake Lanier, swimming in High Shoals Falls, or the friendly folks of your community, which we would like to join.

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