A matter of trust, equity: ARC weighs fate of Atlanta BeltLine rail as deadline looms
By Guest Columnist FRED O. SMITH JR., a founding member of BeltLine Rail Now
Trust is a strange thing. It is easy to lose. And once lost, it is difficult to regain. When it comes to transit in this city, an imminent decision by the Atlanta Regional Commission and MARTA officials will help determine whether they retain the citizens’ trust, or squander it. If it is squandered, this could negatively impact transportation in this city for generations. The draft of the 2020 Atlanta Region’s Plan Regional Transportation Plan is in its final public comment phase at the Atlanta Regional Commission, and it will not be revised again for another four years.
Under the current draft, transit on the vast majority of the BeltLine would not happen for decades. Transit on the Southeast corridor, home to neighborhoods that include Pittsburgh and Summerhill, is slated to be built by 2050 – the same as never. On Southwest Atlanta’s Westside, transit between the Westview and Bankhead neighborhoods is scheduled that same mythical year.
The deadline for public comment to the ARC is midnight on Dec. 13. Contact information is provided at the conclusion of this column.
ARC’s long-range transportation plan incorporates the project list and priorities adopted earlier this year by MARTA. Under this schedule, t, some of the most transit-dependent neighborhoods in Atlanta will be among the last to receive service. Transit on most of the Eastside Trail wouldn’t be completed until 2040. The only section of the BeltLine the plan prioritizes for completion before 2030 is a small sliver connecting the Atlanta Streetcar to Ponce City Market.
In 2016, we Atlantans voted to raise our sales tax 0.5 percent in order to pay for transit within the Atlanta city limits. This More MARTA tax is expected to raise around $2.5 billion dollars. And with that money, we need to deliver service in the most equitable way to city residents, and that means bringing transit to people in the most underserved areas of the city so that they can access jobs, healthcare, recreation, education, commerce, and their religious and cultural lives. We should also prioritize More MARTA funds for projects that were actually in the city limits when we voted to tax ourselves.
The More MARTA tax is a regressive tax, which is tax that is applied uniformly, taking a larger percentage of income from low-income earners than from high-income earners. One of MARTA’s top priorities for the timing of its program is to build the $1.8 billion dollar, 4-mile Clifton Corridor to Emory University – which was not in the city at the time of the More MARTA sales tax vote. To be clear, a line to Emory and the CDC should happen. As someone who works as a professor at Emory Law School, I would personally benefit from MARTA’s Clifton corridor rail project. MARTA promised that regional partners for this project would bear a great portion of the cost, but no partners have stepped forward to do so.
What we should do is prioritize projects, such as the 22-mile BeltLine transit loop, that were actually in the city limits when we voted to tax ourselves and that directly benefit most the taxpayers paying the More MARTA tax. To do otherwise is a breach of the basic trust in government that caused the 2012 regional transportation tax to fail, because, as media reported at the time, the voters did not trust their elected officials to deliver on the promises they were making.
The promise of the BeltLine rail project is to connect 45 Atlanta neighborhoods and the diversity that is contained with them. Over a million new residents in the city are projected by 2050. Can we handle a million new cars? Compared to other projects, BeltLine transit carries with it the unique potential to connect most of those residents to their entire lives, not only to their jobs, making car-free living a choice for those who want it, and a true life option for those who have no other choice. We must build it now. Every day that we wait to build transit within the city of Atlanta as promised in 2016, the greater the risk becomes that officials lose the public trust, and that these projects will never become the reality we need them to be.
Notes to readers:
Fred O. Smith, Jr. is a professor at Emory Law School where he teaches local government and constitutional law. He is also a community advocate, and a founding member of BeltLine Rail Now.
Friday, Dec. 13 is the deadline for public comment on the proposed 2020 Atlanta Region’s Plan Regional Transportation Plan. Comments can be sent by email to [email protected] and by mail to John Orr; Manager, Transportation Access & Mobility Group; Atlanta Regional Commission; 229 Peachtree St., NE; Atlanta, GA 30303.