By Maria Saporta
The regional transportation sales tax vote on July 31 will define metro Atlanta.
For me, there are two prevailing issues. Are we as a region ready to act as a unified region? And are we enlightened enough to expand our skeletal mass transit system?
One of the most distressing outcomes of the whole debate for and against the regional transportation sales tax has been how it has polarized the region. Some days it actually feels as though we are two regions — a region within I-285 that embraces transit and a region outside of I-285 that wants to invest in roads.
And if one were to look at the 157 transportation projects on the $6.14 billion list with 52 percent being invested in transit and the balance in roads, it would reinforce that impression. Most of the transit projects are slated to be built within I-285 while most of the road projects would be outside I-285.
A simplistic view of the list would conclude that the various parts of the region are getting what they want.
But the nuance that has been lost in the campaign is how the different projects and areas in the region complement each other. For example, a stronger transit system that attracts more riders will mean fewer cars on the road.
Or if there are significant improvements made at the pivotal intersections of I-285 and Georgia 400, I-285 and I-85, and I-285 and I-20 west, it will help clear up our region’s clogged arteries, thereby helping improve the region’s air quality.
Also, many of the road projects are designed to become “complete streets” — including multiple modes of transportation such as sidewalks and bikeways that work well with bus and rail transit. Again, those kind of investments can unify our region by providing real options for all modes of travel.
For those who complain that the transportation projects were selected to please developers, that’s nothing new. There’s always been a relationship between transportation and development, and metro Atlanta has benefitted from that relationship in the past.
The question is what kind of transportation and what kind of development we want in the future.
Study after study has shown that the only way to make significant inroads on congestion is to create communities served by transit where people can walk and bike to key destinations. It really is about providing options — in the ways we get around and in the communities where we live, work and play.
Now if it were up to me, all of the sales tax revenue would be dedicated to transit because we are in dire need of implementing a critical mass of rail and bus service. To create a regional transit system, we need more transit — much more transit.
Beyond this regional sales tax, there currently is no pot of money in the state that can be invested in transit other than the MARTA sales tax in only two counties — Fulton and DeKalb.
And given the political climate and divisions within our state legislature, I do not see the state passing any plan to create new revenue sources for transit any time soon.
In short, if we as a region want to see our transit system expand, this regional transportation sales tax likely is the best deal we’re going to get for the foreseeable future.
Admittedly, I have been critical of the pro-tax campaign because it has been reticent to showcase the value of transit and because it has not provided a unified, inspirational vision for the region.
But the events of this past week show a reinvigorated and re-energized campaign with the passionate involvement of several champions including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Gov. Nathan Deal and a host of business and civic leaders.
It seems as though this past week, pro-tax advocates have woken up — especially after polls showed that the tax was in trouble and after reports pointed out flaws in the campaign.
Asked if the tide was turning, Mayor Reed answered on Sunday: “I think it’s moving right now.”
Later the mayor elaborated.
“I sense an energy out there that we didn’t have five or 10 days ago,” Reed said. “What you are seeing right now is the passion on the other side being met with passion on our side.”
The challenge will be to get a majority of voters in the region to show the same kind of bi-partisan, regional spirit that the Regional Atlanta Transportation Roundtable showed when 21 urban, suburban, Democrat and Republican elected officials unanimously passed the $6.14 billion project list last October.
“On July 31, if we did all of that and still can’t get it done, then shame on us,” said Reed, adding that Atlanta has “always come out on the right side” of history.
So now the 10-county metro region faces its ultimate test — whether its residents realize that we are one region that must work as one region and must invest as one region.
“I think it’s a test with a very heavy weight on it,” said Reed, who recounted a recent conversation with former President Bill Clinton about how cities need to focus on the business of the future. “The question is whether we are going to be in the future business. I’m just confident that the region is going to come down on the right side.”