By Dave Williams and Maria Saporta
Friday, July 29, 2011
A key development project planned for downtown Atlanta is in danger of falling off a list of transportation improvements metro voters will be asked to fund next year.
A request for $50 million to help build a bus and rail passenger terminal in the blighted “Gulch” area has been removed from the latest project lists a committee of local elected officials is assembling for a 2012 referendum on a regional transportation sales tax.
Combined with another move by the regional “roundtable” to cut from the list a proposed commuter rail line linking Atlanta and Griffin, Ga., the omission of the Multi-Modal Passenger Terminal (MMPT) threatens both downtown revitalization and plans for a rail network connecting the economically depressed south side with the rest of the region.
“[The MMPT] is the hole in the doughnut,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, a nonprofit community development organization. “It is the missing part of tying the region together. … It has an opportunity to leverage everything around it in a way no other project can.”
Metro Atlanta’s 21-member roundtable is a product of transportation funding legislation passed by the General Assembly last year setting up referendum votes in 12 regions across Georgia on a 1 cent sales tax to pay for highway and transit projects.
The dozen regional roundtables called for in the bill have been spending this summer putting together project lists for their areas. Each committee must adopt a draft list by Aug. 15 and a final list of projects for next year’s regional ballots by Oct. 15.
The proposed sales tax would raise $7.2 billion in the 10-county Atlanta region. Of that amount, $6.1 billion would be available regionwide, while the rest would be distributed to local governments. However, metro cities and counties and transportation agencies asked for $22.9 billion, forcing the roundtable to prioritize.
The panel’s five-member executive committee did so by asking transportation planners to cut that original “unconstrained” list to $12.2 billion in a new version released July 7. A few projects dropped off, including the Atlanta-to-Griffin rail line, while others had their funding reduced.
Then on July 21, the executive committee began considering three “scenarios” to get the list down to the $6.1 billion the tax would raise for regional use. The scenarios were developed to help committee members decide whether the final list should emphasize highway improvements, transit projects or a balance of the two.
None of the three optional lists include the Multi-Modal Passenger Terminal.
Real estate observers say losing the MMPT would cost the metro region more than a transit project. The terminal is at the heart of broader plans to revitalize the Gulch, an under-utilized area of downtown now dominated by parking lots.
“Rejuvenation of our core urban areas, particularly downtowns, is clearly going to be a defining characteristic of this next [development] cycle,” said Dan Sherman, with the real estate practice of DLA Piper LLP, a firm that has focused on downtown redevelopment.
The Gulch project has been imagined as a magnet that could attract a new corporate headquarters for MARTA, or AT&T, the wireless giant that has embraced transit-oriented development.
It could also draw interest from Georgia State University as it continues to expand student housing.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a member of the roundtable’s executive committee, said he supports the MMPT. But he said funding sources other than the proposed sales tax could become available to build it.
Indeed, the Georgia Department of Transportation is developing the project as a public-private partnership. The DOT selected Cousins Properties Inc. last March for the right to bid on the work, and negotiations are under way.
“The multi-modal project has more than enough private interests and resources, so it didn’t need to be included on the list,” Reed said.
But Emory McClinton, who represents Atlanta on the State Transportation Board, said the MMPT has fallen victim to a zero-sum game involving the planned Atlanta Beltline.
With four projects along various segments of the 22-mile Beltline corridor set to receive up to $700 million from the sales tax, he said, there’s not enough room to include the MMPT and retain regional balance on the project list.
While the city sought funding for the Beltline projects, the request to put the MMPT on the list came from the DOT.
“If the city elects to put in a project like [the Beltline], those are political considerations,” said McClinton, a longtime backer of the MMPT. “It’s becoming a political situation and not a transportation solution.”
McClinton also opposes leaving the Atlanta-to-Griffin rail line off the list, a project considered vital to the economic development prospects of south Fulton and Clayton counties.
“The only job center we have on the south side of our region is the airport,” said Nathaniel Smith, founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity, a coalition of local businesses, universities and nonprofits. “We continue to encourage economic development on the north side.”
Besides the equity issue, the project’s supporters say federal funds have been earmarked for the Atlanta-to-Griffin line that would be left on the table without a local match.
About half of the $87 million Congress set aside for the project back in the 1990s still remains available, DOT spokeswoman Jill Goldberg said. The rest has been spent on planning work and environmental studies, she said.
“We’re at risk of saying, ‘Never mind. We don’t want that money,’ ” said Gordon Kenna, CEO of Georgians for Passenger Rail, a group of business leaders that has made the line to Griffin — eventually intended to extend to Macon — its top priority.
But Norcross, Ga., Mayor Bucky Johnson, the executive committee’s chairman, said the project’s backers are partly to blame for its lack of progress.
The DOT came close to signing off on the portion of the line between Atlanta and Lovejoy, Ga., during the last decade. But those plans fell apart in 2007 when the Clayton County Commission rescinded a previous agreement to provide $4 million a year in operating costs.
“That would lead me to believe there’s not the backing to really get this project done,” Johnson said.
Cost and ridership also are weighing against the Atlanta-to-Griffin line. A recent update of cost estimates by consultants to the roundtable raised its price tag from $463.6 million to $882.2 million, a huge jump that is drawing skepticism from the project’s supporters.
The line also suffers in ridership projections compared with other rail projects still on the roundtable’s list.
Johnson said his aim is to produce the best project list from the perspective of the entire metro area, not any one segment of the region.
“Where it is in the region is not important to me,” he said. “The more we think in a regional way, the better for all of us.”
Douglas Sams contributed to this report