Citizen Contribution: T-SPLOST: The False Dilemma
T-SPLOST: THE FALSE DILEMMA
By: Billy Wise, Concerned Citizen, Duluth
That there is a problem with traffic congestion in Metro Atlanta cannot be argued with. The big question is, are we on the correct solution path with T-SPLOST to address that congestion? As a possible answer to that question, the following hypothesis is offered: Within one decade, technology applied to the office environment, automobiles, and traffic management can solve the traffic congestion problem in Metro Atlanta without the $18,660,000,000 T-SPLOST tax.
A False Dilemma
With the TIA and T-SPLOST, we are being given a false dilemma – endure traffic congestion or pay tens of billions of dollars in taxes in an attempt to “fix” the congestion problem. We are told that there is no third alternative (the elusive Plan B). A false dilemma is a type of logical fallacy that involves a situation in which only two alternatives are considered, when in fact there is at least one additional option. False dilemma can arise intentionally, when fallacy is used in an attempt to force a choice. But the fallacy can also arise simply by accidental omission of additional options rather than by deliberate deception. There is a Plan B that involves the implementation of technology.
Consider the example of the United States Postal Service. The advancement of technology has reduced the need for the over-the-road mail delivery service provided by the USPS. Revenues are dropping and the USPS is currently losing $5.1B a year. Email, on-line banking, Facebook, Twitter, RSS, etc., have had a dramatic effect on reducing the amount of information transfer that at one time was handled mainly by the USPS – letters, bills, greeting cards, bill payments, advertising, legal documents, family photos, etc. Newspapers, magazines, and movie theaters are another example of businesses that are experiencing falling revenues and resulting business failures due to the implementation of technology. Americans are increasingly turning to the internet for news and entertainment. In the same vein, technology can have a profound impact on traffic congestion in the Atlanta Metro area.
Why are there so many cars on the roads? The major reason is getting to and from work. What time of day is traffic congestion the worst? The answer is morning and evening “rush hours,” for perhaps a total of six hours on each work day, or 30 hours a work week, or 1,470 hours per year (assuming 49 work weeks a year). At virtually all other times of the year, 7,290 hours (8,760 hours per year – 1,470 rush hours), or 83% of the time, the road capacity in Metro Atlanta is more than adequate to handle road traffic relating to shopping, entertainment, socializing, dining out, etc. So, to address traffic congestion in Metro Atlanta, all that is necessary is to reduce the peak number of cars traveling on the roadways during the rush hour periods.
Technology in the Office
The use of computers and the Internet have already had a great impact on the way we do business in the United States. As people become more accustomed to using electronic media and other technologies and rely less and less upon conventional methods, the impact will only increase. How many jobs today could be handled by a person using a computer and the internet from home, as opposed to getting out onto the roadways and going to an office each morning? Some examples are; virtually all data entry, accounting, record keeping, medical transcribing, retail and banking “back-office” functions, insurance underwriting, insurance claims adjusting, order processing, marketing, computer programming, engineering design, legal brief preparation, report writing, call center operations, on-line retail selling, mortgage brokering, education and training, and probably thousands more. Use of teleworking (or remote working) and teleconferencing could remove thousands of cars from the roadways each work day. And, there is no need to convert 100% of the jobs to teleworking to achieve the objective of reducing traffic congestion during rush hours. There is a perfect example right here in Atlanta of how this could work to reduce traffic congestion. Simply look at what happens when schools let out for summer vacation. Traffic congestion is reduced dramatically or disappears entirely.
Some will say that workers cannot be trusted to work at home, and that it would be impossible to manage them. Both statements are nonsense. Efficient working at home will follow from appropriate training, adaptation, and accommodation. Businessmen should readily embrace the concept of teleworking because it can substantially reduce the cost of doing business. For $500, in single quantities, one can buy a laptop computer with sufficient RAM and disk storage to manage any standard office software package, and it can have a camera built in that will enable teleconferencing. There is no office furniture to buy for teleworkers (a single office chair can cost $500). Much less office space is required to be leased and less energy is consumed in the workplace. Workers would no longer be paid by the hour to occupy a desk. Compensation for teleworkers would be based on output, i.e., pages of data entered, number of medical records transcribed, number of call center inquiries handled, etc. Managers could easily use technology to remotely monitor the output of teleworkers. Embracing technology in the office to reduce traffic congestion is a very low risk undertaking for business owners. There is no need to convert an entire office at one time to teleworking. It can be done one employee at a time. There is little cost associated with converting an employee to a teleworker, just a $500 computer.
Technology in Automobiles
Much has been made of the problem of air pollution associated with cars on the highways. But consider this, technology has improved the internal combustion engine so that gasoline mileage has increased by 40% since 1970. In that same time frame, while American driving grew by 166%, pollutants from car exhaust decreased dramatically. According to the EPA, total emissions of carbon monoxide from cars and trucks decreased by 67%, nitrogen oxides decreased by 48%, volatile organic compounds decreased by 77 %, particulates decreased by 65%, and lead fell by more than 98%. The complete inventory of automobiles in the United States is replaced about every eighteen years, thereby constantly bringing on line new technology to increase gas mileage and reduce emissions.
By comparison, rail transit is powered predominately by electricity. Electricity comes from electric generating plants. Electric generating plants produce pollutants. Ergo, switching to transit is not going to eliminate the air pollution issue. Electric power plants have a long useful lifetime and technology upgrades to electric generating plants to reduce emissions are very expensive. Rail transit systems have a useful lifetime of 40 years, thus the benefits of evolving technology in the rail industry are not implemented into the systems on a regular basis. Energy consumption and emission levels remain virtually constant over the 40-year useful life of the transit system.
Technology for Traffic Management
Why should the tax payers subject themselves to a 10-year tax (and probably longer), spending tens of billions of dollars in pursuit of a transit solution, when over the same time frame the implementation of technology, with attention to marginal improvements to roadways to address choke points, could solve the rush hour congestion problem for us? We should be incorporating technology now to help smooth the flow of traffic – timed traffic lights, congestion-responsive toll lanes, electronically adjustable speed limit signs, reversible lanes, yellow blinking left turn arrows, protected turn lanes, double diverging diamond overpasses, deceleration and acceleration lanes, moveable barriers, etc. We should not be “calming” traffic, i.e., creating artificial congestion to slow traffic speeds. We should be investing in roadway improvements to address traffic choke points. How much does it cost the taxpayers to operate and maintain an improved road intersection that smoothes the flow of traffic, as opposed to building a transit system that must have its operations subsidized forever? We have a prime example of public transit subsidy right here in Atlanta. In Fiscal Year 2011, MARTA experienced operating losses of $506M operating 48 miles of rail transit, a loss of $10.5M per mile. Fairbox and advertising revenues amounted to only $127M, against operating expenses of $633M. Thus, MARTA operations are 80% subsidized, with no contribution to capital cost. This is simply unsustainable and totally unnecessary.
Public Transit is not the Answer
Some say that public transit is necessary for those citizens who are old, infirm, and/or poor, and have no privately-owned transportation. The sustainable and low lost solution for these citizens is to simply provide them with transportation vouchers, not transit systems that must be substantially subsidized over their entire operating lives. The vouchers could be used on existing public transit systems (MARTA, GCT, CCT, GRTA, etc.), taxi cabs, airport limousines and shuttles, etc. But more importantly, once people with an entrepreneurial eye and spirit realize that there are thousands of people out there in the Metro area holding transportation vouchers and who want to get from place to place, those entrepreneurs will rapidly respond with tailored, privately-owned transportation services that meet the need. In this way, the taxpayers are not burdened with providing and supporting an expanded public transit system that constantly loses money. This is the American way, i.e., let capitalism provide the solution, not government.
Here are two examples of successful private transit operations. In Atlanta, there are privately owned shuttle buses that ply up and down Buford Highway. These buses haul local residents on their daily journeys and have been in operation for over a decade. No public subsidy here. In the National Capital area of Virginia, the Pentagon is situated close to the Potomac River, in an area where there is virtually no single family housing and few condo/apartment buildings. Workers at the Pentagon (25,000 on them), seek out homesteads that are located in the distant suburbs of Washington DC, where housing prices are affordable. The question then is, “How to get back and forth to work?” Some entrepreneurially oriented people purchased some older buses (Greyhound style) and recruited some drivers from among the Pentagon employees. Every workday morning, these buses leave a designated spot in the suburbs, at a designated time, and drive directly to the Pentagon. The Pentagon provides parking space for the buses. During the day the buses are parked and don’t move, consuming no fuel and producing no emissions. At the end of the work day, the employee/drivers start up the buses, collect their fare-paying riders, and drive directly to the drop-off point in the suburbs. The passengers pay a fixed monthly fee to ride the bus to and from work. No public subsidy here. These are both prime examples of how privately owned transit systems can work at a profit, with no public tax money to subsidize construction or operation.
There are at least two other actions that can be taken by business and by local government to help reduce the rush hour traffic peak. One is the old standard “flex time” approach. Instead of requiring that all employees be in the office from 8 to 5, organizations can adapt, with virtually no cost, a flexible work day schedule. For instance, all employees might be required to be in the office during the “core” of the business day, say from 9 AM to 3 PM. Start times could range from 6 Am to 9 AM, and finish times could range from 3 PM to 6 PM. In this way, the rush hour time period is stretched, resulting in fewer cars on the road at any given time during the morning and evening rush hour periods. One proposed difference in the traditional flex time approach would be to not just allow employees to work flex time, but to strongly encourage them to adopt something other than the standard 8-5 work day.
If government just cannot restrain itself from getting involved in the personal driving habits of the citizens, the van pool concept is an inexpensive and sustainable alternative. The local or state government could do a bulk purchase of vans (8-11 passenger capacity) and provide use of the vans to small groups of workers who reside and work in close proximity to one another. Van pool riders would pay a monthly fee to ride the specific van. The fee would be set at an amount that covers the total ownership and operating cost of the van, like in the example of the Pentagon buses described above. The vans would be used only for transportation between home and work.
To summarize, Atlanta voters are being offered a false dilemma, endure traffic congestion or pay tens of millions of dollars in taxes in an attempt to “fix” the problem. Implementation of technology, in the office environment, in automobiles, and in traffic management, could eliminate road congestion within a decade without a massive government-run, taxpayer funded transportation program. Privately owned and operated transit systems could fill in the gaps.