By Maria Saporta
Second column in a two-column series on the City of Atlanta’s transportation options
It’s a given. The City of Atlanta will go to voters in November to propose an additional half-penny in taxes over the next 40 years for MARTA. That tax alone initially is expected to generate more than $50 million a year.
But the City of Atlanta also has the option to ask voters whether they want to approve another half penny for five years for general transportation projects. Over the next five years, that tax could generate a total of $280 million to $370 million.
So the question is whether Atlanta should go for the gusto – investing in its transportation infrastructure in an unprecedented fashion.
Already City of Atlanta voters approved $250 million in bonds for infrastructure improvements with most of those funds going to roads and bridges. That was meant to make a dent in the City’s $900 million infrastructure backlog.
But imagine how much more accessible Atlanta would become if it improved its MARTA and streetcar network inside the city limits through the 40-year half-penny.
And then imagine if Atlanta also approved another half-penny sales tax for the next five years. How could we best invest those transportation dollars?
One thing to remember (and this also is important for the rest of Fulton County) – sales tax revenues are not restricted to just roads and bridges. They can be invested in non-capital transit investments as well as sidewalks, bicycle paths and multi-use trails.
Ultimately it will be up to the City of Atlanta – including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, the Atlanta City Council, city department heads – to decide to go for both the MARTA tax and the half-penny tax for general transportation.
City Councilman Alex Wan said it may be better to wait a year to go after the second half-penny for two reasons. Voters might be more prone to approve a tax if they both weren’t on the same ballot. Also, it would give the city administration more time to absorb and digest all the improvements designated in the infrastructure bond.
But others believe Atlanta voters will support alternative transportation investments in the city – a move that has given Atlanta a competitive edge when it comes to attracting millennials, empty nesters and companies seeking the talent drawn to city living.
Paul Morris, CEO of Atlanta BeltLine Inc., is hopeful the city will go for both the MARTA tax and the transportation tax. The five-year sales tax could help close the BeltLine multi-use trail loop. It could also improve pedestrian connections to the BeltLine.
But that sales tax also could dramatically make Atlanta far friendlier for pedestrians and cyclists. At the same time, we could make the City far more beautiful.
We could create wider sidewalks with trees providing a buffer between pedestrians and cars. We can create boulevards so that people can cross streets and have a protected island in the middle of the street. And we could improve our crosswalks with well-painted bars so that the space for pedestrians is much more visible to drivers.
We also could use these funds to fix our broken sidewalks – once and for all. No longer would residents be responsible for having to fix the sidewalks in front of their homes. Sidewalks would be treated as a true right-of-way for the public.
We also can provide more routes for cyclists throughout the city – helping give Atlantans multiple options on how to get around.
And once we improve the walkability of our major streets with well-landscaped sidewalks, we will enhance the beauty of our city.
Tim Keane, commissioner of Atlanta’s Bureau of Planning and Community Development, has said the city has beautiful neighborhoods and communities. But he added that the connections in between leave a lot to be desired.
The opportunity to make a major difference in the way our city treats people at street-level could be a transformative move for Atlanta. When we combine a walkable environment with streetcars, light-rail and heavy rail transit with the development of attractive boulevards and parks, Atlanta could become one of the most beautiful cities in the country.
Click here to read the previous column: City of Atlanta and MARTA can create transit model in age of micro-regionalism.