Atlanta’s proposed transportation taxes: Views from local, national observers

By David Pendered

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed embraces a proposed $2.5 billion transit sales tax before his administration has time to complete a pending update of the city’s comprehensive transportation plan. Two distinct observers – one local, one national – say the process raises some troubling issues.

Atlanta traffic

Atlanta city officials are considering asking voters to support a sales tax increase to improve mobility in Midtown and throughout the city. Credit: David Pendered

Mike Dobbins, a Georgia Tech professor and former Atlanta planning commissioner, contends the vote should be delayed until the city creates a comprehensive transportation plan.

Matt Leighninger, vice president of public engagement for the think tank Public Agenda, observes that the process Atlanta and MARTA are following for the public engagement proess for the proposed transit tax is unproductive. Public Agenda was co-founded in 1975 by Jimmy Carter’s future secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, Sr.

Dobbins and Leighninger commented on Reed’s desire to put up to two transportation initiatives on the November ballot. Each initiative would propose to raise the sales tax by up to 0.5 percent. The Atlanta City Council has until June 30 to decide whether to call a referendum.

Some concepts Dobbins outlined in a white paper urging a 12-month delay are similar to those in Atlanta’s request for proposals for an update to its comprehensive transportation plan. The 2008 CTP has been updated periodically, including the inclusion of an updated bicycle plan last year.

As Dobbins wrote in his white paper:

dobbins transit graphic

The Atlanta BeltLine circles the urban core but doesn’t provide much connectivity between neighborhoods and regional job centers. Credit: Mike Dobbins

  • “Regrettably, Atlanta lacks a comprehensive transit plan and has not considered most of the technical and commonsense steps to create one, instead pinning its faith on a 52 mile streetcar plan.”

Dobbins’ paper notes that societal shifts should be considered in any major public initiative, such as the streetcar that’s being contemplated:

  • “Increasingly, too, this mode [streetcars] is becoming uncertain in a time of rapid change in travel behavior and accelerating technology, thus over their reasonable timeline for implementation more exposed to risk.”

The streetcar plan is the foundation of the transit plan at the heart of the transit expansion that would be funded with the proposed sales tax hike.

Streetcars are not at the heart of the city’s transportation RFP.

Atlanta released the request for proposals for a Comprehensive Transportation Plan Update on April 28. Planning Commissioner Tim Keane and Adam Smith, Atlanta’s chief procurement officer, issued the RFP. Bids are due Wednesday.

The request for proposals says the contract is worth $1.25 million. The RFP notes that the comprehensive transportation plan will be conducted hand-in-hand with the Atlanta City Design process, which Atlanta BeltLine visionary Ryan Gravel has been retained to oversee.

The RFP does not specifically mention streetcars.

Atlanta city officials are considering a plan to expand the Atlanta Streetcar and pay for it with an increased sales tax. File/Credit: David Pendered

Atlanta city officials are considering a plan to expand the Atlanta Streetcar and pay for it with an increased sales tax. File/Credit: David Pendered

Here are some highlights of the scope of services in the city’s RFP, which seem to echo Dobbins’ comments:

  • “[F]inding new ways to estimate and collect data on travel by bicycle, walking, and shared services such as Uber, Lyft and Zipcar. Finding new and creative way to accurately measure travel patterns across all modes and travel types will help Atlanta understand and measure travel today and in the future.
  • “Evaluating the broadest menu of transportation options including all forms of public transit, emerging technologies, and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.”

Beyond the actual transit concept being considered, Atlanta’s entire approach is wanting for the way it engages citizens in the deliberation of a major public policy, Leighninger said.

The process Public Agenda advocates is a new way for citizens to interact with their government around major issues, such as budgets and transportation priorities. The goal is to create a system that enables government officials to hear and respond to concerns citizens bring forward during regular communications. The method appears to be somewhat akin to a 21st century version of Atlanta’s neighborhood planning units, without a 40-year-old structure that doesn’t always succeed in its mission.

Matt Leighninger

Matt Leighninger

According to Leighninger:

  • “Research show those kinds of meetings [for the transit sales tax proposal] make things worse because they make people less trustful of government. They do more harm than good.”

Leighninger said it doesn’t help that citizens are being recruited to provide input to a project that has been preordained – a streetcar system.

Nor are the political optics helped by the fact that the public meetings conclude after the state mandated deadline for MARTA to submit a preliminary project list to Atlanta. Citizens will be airing their views after the preliminary list is set. The final list isn’t due under state law until July 31, but the public perception will be that insiders cut the deal before the public was engaged, according to Leighninger.

Public Agenda was founded in 1975 by Vance and Daniel Yankelovich as a research and public engagement firm. The company’s briefing book on public confidence in government was used during the 1976 presidential campaign by both Carter and GOP nominee Gerald Ford, according to the company.

Atlanta traffic, buckhead

Atlanta drivers have learned that the inside lane of a six-lane road is reserved for vehicles that aim to turn left in a short distance. Credit: David Pendered

According to Leighninger, MARTA and Atlanta:

  • “[C]learly have left almost no time to do almost any public engagement. The fact that two meetings happen after preliminary decision is submitted, people don’t like that for good reason. Those are kind of basic mistakes about engagements, as opposed to thinking more about down the road.
  • “This is par for the course with most conventional public engagement. … In most places that have traditional meetings, there are three minutes each at the microphone to air complaints. That’s by far the most-used form of engagement by governments and school systems. It’s not a format that’s helpful for anyone.
  • “The public goes home frustrated. The staff and public officials go home frustrated. Nothing gets done.”

 

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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