For decades, the third rail for transit in Georgia has been money.
The state’s gas tax is constitutionally limited to funding roads and bridges — giving the state a convenient excuse for not investing in public transit or alternative transportation modes, such as sidewalks, bicycle and multi-purpose paths.
As a result, almost all of the state’s transit systems have been financed by county governments, or in the case of the Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb — the one-penny MARTA sales tax.
But now metro Atlanta has an opportunity to pass a one-penny transportation sales tax for the 10-county region in a 2012 referendum.
And those could be the most “precious” transportation dollars we’ve ever had because we finally have a mechanism to pay for the development of transit, sidewalks and bikeways.
On June 1, the Georgia Department of Transportation issued the “unconstrained” list of transportation projects in the Atlanta region — a $22.9 billion wish list, including $14 billion for 66 transit projects. The list also includes $8.6 billion for roads, $27 million for aviation and $204 million for bicycle and pedestrian projects.
Now the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable is the unenviable task of trimming down the list of projects to match what the tax could possibly raise over its 10-year lifespan, if the sales tax is approved.
Currently, it is estimated the tax will raise between $6 billion and $8 billion over 10 years (Georgia State University will be releasing new estimates in the coming week).
So the executive committee of the Roundtable met on June 9th to try to figure how to decide which projects should be included in the list presented to voters next year.
Among the issues that could narrow the list include whether projects significantly reduce congestion, whether they can be completed within the 10-year time frame, whether the projects fit into a regional vision, whether the projects promote sustainable development patterns, whether the projects are geographically balanced and equitable, or whether the projects make economic sense.
Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd said another factor should be considered. “I’m looking at projects that don’t have other avenues of funding,” Floyd said.
If state dollars from the motor fuel tax are available for interchange improvements, why should we use these “precious” sales tax dollars on projects that can be financed through other means?
Of course, the ultimate goal should be to get the state to become a true investor in public transportation, be it commuter rail, light rail, streetcars, and bus systems. So far, the only real consistent state funding for transit has been for part of the costs of running the XPress bus system operated by the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA).
Remember, MARTA is the largest transit system in the country that receives virtually no funding from its state government.
That point really hit home on June 8th during the Metro Atlanta Northern Crescent Transit Summit held at the Cobb Galleria.
Pat McCrory, the former Republican mayor of top Atlanta competitor — Charlotte, N.C., had made the development of light rail a centerpiece of his administration.
On this issue, McCrory encouraged leaders in the Atlanta region to embrace new transit development — just like he did in Charlotte.
“We in the entire (Southern) region have to work together,” McCrory told the gathering of hundreds of business and government leaders from the north metro area. “In the whole I-85 corridor, we are in this together. Our competition is not each other.”
So then McCrory shared his wisdom.
“Everything you do must be integrated with what your vision is, not just a transportation vision but a development vision,” McCrory said.
As a way to make his point, McCrory showed a picture of a commercial strip with loads of concrete, ugly billboards and little signs of urban vitality.
“I call these ‘corridors of crap,’” McCrory said. “I call this ‘anywhere USA.’ You have got to redevelop these corridors. As goes the commercial districts, so go your neighborhoods.”
Then McCrory showed how such corridors were transformed once light rail was added.
“You need to start showing pictures,” McCrory said about how to sell the transportation to tax to prospective voters. “Show them what it will look like if they implement transit.”
In Charlotte, McCrory’s message was to create “the best of Mayberry in Metropolis” as a way of telling voters they could have the best of both worlds — big city, small town.
McCrory said the backers of light rail were able to communicate their passion about improving Charlotte’s quality of life, sustainability, not just for today but for generations to come.
But McCrory also was able to communicate that passion to the state of North Carolina. Funding for Charlotte’s light rail system was: 50 percent from the federal government, 25 percent from a local sales tax AND 25 percent in state funding.
So how did McCrory convince state leaders to invest in Charlotte’s transit system?
First, McCrory convinced state leaders that transit would improve Charlotte’s economic development potential, and he got the governor on board.
Plus, McCrory’s argument was that Charlotte contributed greatly to the North Carolina’s tax revenues. And as the state’s economic engine, Charlotte deserved its share of state’s revenues. (Now substitute Atlanta and Georgia in that same argument).
After McCrory’s comments, Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, one of the most influential leaders in the region, made a ground-breaking statement.
“I think the state should invest in transit in the metro region,” said Johnson, who is chairing the executive committee of the regional roundtable. “The state needs to put some money in transit. I think the governor needs to get involved in this.”
If Georgia were a true partner in strengthening metro Atlanta’s economic vitality, the state would invest in transit in the same way that North Carolina has invested in Charlotte’s light rail system.
Imagine how much further our regional transportation sales tax dollars would go if the state were to match the local contributions in transit, and if the state were to invest in rail projects that cross over several metro regions, ie: helping pay for commuter trains between Atlanta and Macon.
But the Georgia Department of Transportation recently pressured Erik Steavens, its director of intermodal programs and senior rail transportation expert, into resigning from his position — resurfacing questions about the state’s commitment to rail and alternative modes of transportation.
And then there’s that question of funding.
Now here is a dirty little secret. Georgia DOT has been able to invest in transit, sidewalks and bikeways all along.
Every time someone buys a gallon of gas, 7.5 cents is the gas tax. But a driver also pays a 4-cent state sales tax on that purchase. Of that, 3 cents goes into GDOT’s pockets and 1 cent goes into the state’s general fund.
That state sales tax has no constitutional restrictions meaning there is NO reason for the state to sit on the sidelines when it comes to developing a transit system for the Atlanta region.
Bottom line. Some way, some how, we must find a way to invest in transit once and for all — be it through a “precious” regional sales tax or through direct state funding or preferably both.