By Guest Columnist RAY CHRISTMAN, executive director of the Livable Communities Coalition
After a three year debate, the Georgia General Assembly passed last month HB 277, The Transportation Investment Act of 2010, which provides the opportunity for the Atlanta region (and other regions of the state) to pass a one percent sales tax dedicated to transportation improvements.
The bill’s passage generated much celebration among transportation advocates of all stripes who had worked for years on this goal. And it induced a good bit of teeth gnashing as well, particularly by those who felt the legislation unnecessarily penalized MARTA.
But with the bill passed and the rules and processes in place for moving forward, it is now time to turn attention to how to successfully implement the legislation, particularly in a way that allows transit and related “complete street” projects (streetscape improvements, pedestrian intersection enhancements, bicycle paths, etc) to gain their fair share of funding to be generated by the tax.
In this regard, I would suggest that there are four key questions to be addressed by community leaders over the next two years to ensure that this program is developed and approved in a way that advances the region’s overall best interests.
1. How do we shape the criteria to support a balanced selection of projects?
Road and transit projects will inevitably compete for a finite amount of money generated by the new tax. And the transportation needs and priorities will vary from county to county within the region.
The first important step to producing a balanced outcome will be to make sure that the criteria on which project selection will be based are the right ones.
This process, which will be led by the GDOT Planning Director and a regional roundtable of local elected officials (essentially the board of the Atlanta Regional Commission) will need to develop criteria that include traditional concerns like safety improvements and mitigation of congestion, but also incorporate newer ideas like connecting new transportation investments to existing development and job centers.
The criteria should allow road and transit projects to compete evenly.
2. What share of new funding should be provided for transit and for what specific projects?
coalition, has suggested that at least 40 percent of overall project funding across the 10-county region should go to transit, recognizing that this number may be higher in the core urban counties than in the outlying, more exurban counties.
But beyond the overall contribution of dollars to transit, there is also the challenging question of which projects. New rail transit projects are expensive and when one looks at the Concept 3 plan, developed several years ago by Transit Planning Board, there are some $54 billion of rail and bus projects that the region needs.
The Regional Roundtable will face the task of not only creating the right roads-transit balance, but choosing specific projects that can gain the broad support of voters
3. How do we build support throughout the 10 counties for a good project list?
Under the bill, voters will be required in July 2012 to approve a one percent sales tax, based on a specific project list, in order to fund the program. Supporters of this measure should not feel that this will be an effortless process.
Raising taxes, even for dedicated and popular purposes, is never easy. There clearly will be organized opposition. And the fact that two major counties – Fulton and DeKalb – already impose a one percent sales tax to support MARTA complicates the ability to fashion a “fair and balanced” project list.
All of this suggests that a major, well funded campaign will need to be waged to help persuade voters of the benefits of this plan.
4. Can we create a truly regional transit system for metro Atlanta?
One of HB 277’s lesser noted features is the creation of a legislative study commission to look at new regional transit governance structures.
Quietly, the ARC has been examining the same topic through a Transit Planning Committee (TPC). One can hope that these efforts will come together over the next two years and result in plan that could evolve the existing two-county MARTA system into a broader system that is supported fairly by regional residents and permits development of a seamless rail and bus system for all regional residents.
Such progressive action on governance could greatly assist the selling of the new tax measure, as it would give voters more confidence in the ability of the region to manage effectively the transit portion of its transportation system.
One final thought to add to the above.
This funding measure, which is envisioned to raise some $7.8 billion over 10 years, is not a silver bullet. It should be viewed only as a start, not the full solution, to the region’s and state’s transportation challenges.
Georgia ranks 49th in per capita spending for transportation and is the only state among the ten largest (and one of only six overall) that provides no state funding for transit.
According to the new State Strategic Transportation Plan, funding through HB 277 will only address about a third of the region’s transportation needs. ARC estimates even a lower percentage.
A good question, therefore, for all candidates running for governor this year is to gage their commitment to expanded state funding for roads and transit beyond that provided through HB 277.