TPLOST: Atlanta’s Traffic Drama Continues

I moved to Atlanta in August 2003 and like many wide-eyed small-town folk who first move to a big city, the first thing I did after grabbing my luggage was take the train. Perhaps even more telling, though, was that I took the train for about 50 minutes just to get to a friend who drove me to his apartment which the train couldn’t get to. My love-hate relationship with Atlanta public transit started right then and there: I, a non-motoring graduate student trying to live within his means. Atlanta, an area where the incorporated city’s population constitutes roughly 8% of its metro census population, but with a transit system with far less branches than that of Boston, New York, or Chicago.

Fast forward to tomorrow, the state of Georgia will cast its vote on the T-SPLOST initiative, a one-cent sales tax proposal for which the funds would be dedicated to a variety of transit initatives. Early numbers don’t bode well that the tax will be approved by metro Atlanta voters. And indeed, while the entire state will be affected by results regardless, for me, it’s really just another chapter in a troubled history of transit development in the city of Atlanta.

Fellow GSU doctoral alum Miriam Konrad navigated this turbulent history in her dissertation-turned-book Transporting Atlanta: The Mode of Mobility under Construction, which divides the historical discourse on Atlanta transit into three areas: growth, green and equity. I find it pretty telling that the green element is largely being downplayed in the public arena. It’s as though the TPLOST supporters merely accepted that this subject is wasted on detractors who presumably don’t care about the environment. But moreover, it’s perhaps taken for granted that potential supporters will simply accept that this would improve the environment on its face. Indeed, the city’s most visible advocates for public transit, CFPT, are all over the new map angle but their website is presently downplaying the “green” talk.

Most interesting of all, however, is how the other two arenas of discourse, growth and equity, seem to constantly run against each other during Atlanta’s entire history.

I view Atlanta as a microcosm for a schism in American circles between a socially conservative bent towards quiet rural life and the repeated result of the pursuit of neoliberal ends: the growth of the city. After all, isn’t it somewhat inevitable that corporate growth leads eventually to, well, a city? And in order for cities to run reasonably well, you can’t have EVERYONE on the road or else it takes forever to get to work.

This is also why not all of the opposition to T-SPLOST is conservative: the Sierra Club, for example, doesn’t share CFPT’s outlook and opposes this initative on the grounds that it’s weighted towards more roads instead of more buses and rails. The liberal critique of the current Atlanta commuter culture is that most people want a quicker ride to work, but not enough people are taking into consideration that less people ought to be driving to work to begin with.

An entirely separate issue surrounding T-SPLOST is the Atlanta’s racially charged history. It’s no secret that northern metro areas of Atlanta continually resist the expansion of MARTA, and this issue is continually charged by racial politics. Supporters of light rail transit allege that resistance to rail initatives are merely extensions of “white flight” designed to turn the city “too busy to hate” into the city “too busy moving to hate.” That would take an entirely different analysis in and of itself.

But what seems fait accompli is the mode of mobility, as discussed by Konrad. If you take Sierra’s opinion, it really doesn’t matter in the long-term whether or not T-SPLOST succeeds, that mode was, is and is destined to be the car (or at the very least, the road). I guess Atlanta’s future graduate students will still have that long tour of bloated traffic to look forward to.

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