Going nowhere fast. No agreement on new transportation funds for Metro Atlanta

Here we don’t go again.

On Thursday, about 50 of the 120 people who went on the recent LINK trip to Minneapolis-St. Paul gathered at the Atlanta Regional Commission to figure out where we go from here.

(For the record, this conversation needs to take place during the LINK trip when everyone is present, energized and enthused. Issues and ideas become stale waiting two weeks after the fact).

After two hours of conversation between the various participants, I left the meeting feeling no comfort that we are getting close to finding a funding mechanism for transit and transportation funding in our region.

The problems are becoming more pronounced with each passing day.

Tom Weyandt, ARC’s director of comprehensive planning, put it in perspective.

“Most people in this room don’t have any idea about how much worse this is going to be,” Weyandt said of metro Atlanta traffic problems.

To maintain congestion at its current levels, it would cost about $65 billion more than the region expects to have. And that doesn’t include transit. The price tag to implement a regional transit plan is estimated to be about $55 billion between now and 2030.

If, and this is a big if, the region and the state can ever work together to pass a penny sales tax for transportation, it would generate between $1 billion and $1.5 billion in metro Atlanta.

So if we get a sales tax, that means it would take 100 years to generate the amount of money metro Atlanta needs today to address its traffic problems.

Just about everybody agrees that we need a new transportation funding mechanism in this state. And that’s where the consensus ends.

Should there be a regional sales tax for metro Atlanta to be able to chip away at its transportation needs? That is the view of the executive committee of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. The chamber believes the regional solution has the best chance to be approved by voters because they have the most awareness of the problem.

But the problem is that the General Assembly must give permission for the Atlanta region to tax itself. And thusfar, the state legislature seems unwilling to pass a bill giving metro Atlanta that right.

So the legislature, led by the House, has been pushing for a statewide sales tax for transportation, an approach that folks on ARC’s board seem to favor just to get legislative support.

The problem is that it is considered unlikely a statewide sales tax would be approved by a majority of voters across the state. Traffic and transportation issues just aren’t as pressing in other parts of the state as in metro Atlanta.

That means we are caught in a Catch 22 that will become even more complicated next year when every elected state official will be running for office.

Well-meaning folks are trying to figure out how to get ourselves out of this maze.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Get Georgia Moving Coalition have started to work with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce to do comprehensive polling to find out what transportation funding plans voters would approve in the region and the state.

The ARC is working on yet another list of possible projects that would be included in a funding proposal to be brought to voters. And there is a strong desire by the various organizations to see if there is some kind of compromise position that can unify the state rather than pit metro Atlanta against the rest of Georgia.

“I really do believe there needs to be a process where we can check our guns at the door and negotiate with each other,” said Tad Leithead, an executive with Cousins Properties who chairs the ARC Transportation and Air Quality Committee.

But the multitude of agendas don’t bode well that a consensus will emerge that will be acceptable to state leaders and the legislature.

Although the Get Georgia Moving Coalition — a group of 50 or so organizations that include developers and environmentalists — has been around a couple of years, there’s evidence that agreement among members is fraying.

Everyone wants more transportation dollars. But the road builders want the money to go to highways and roads. And the transit folks and environmentalists want the money to be invested in a comprehensive transit system with all kinds of rail.

Deciding who gets what dollars will expose the true differences of opinion.

From my perspective, I would love to see 100 percent of the sales tax go towards transit and non-road projects. The only way this region will be able to survive in the future will be by offering alternative modes of transportation.

We need to support MARTA’s operations and expansion. Let’s have light rail going to Cobb and Gwinnett counties as well as along I-285. Let’s build the Peachtree Streetcar and light rail along the BeltLine. Let’s have commuter rail lines going to Athens and Macon. Let’s start planning to be part of a high speed rail network to link us to cities across the Southeast.

We need to fix existing sidewalks and create sidewalks in communities that are transforming from suburban meccas to livable town centers. We need to create a comprehensive bicycle network for both recreation and commuting throughout the region.

If we want to create a healthy urban center for coming generations, investing in cars and roads won’t get us there.

We already have the motor fuel tax to fix our roads and bridges. What we don’t have is any dedicated funding source for transit beyond the one-cent collected for MARTA in Fulton and DeKalb counties.

As convinced as I am that this approach is the right way to go, I realize that many in our region and our state have a totally different view. There is no consensus.

So we keep going around in circles getting nowhere.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

6 replies
  1. Lucas says:

    Hey Maria – nice column. I agree with you completely. Though I feel strangely hopeful about the deadlock in the Legislature. Because you’re right – if they passed either a regional, or a statewide funding mechanism now, they would likely just funnel it to more inefficient, ugly lanes, across what could be prime Atlanta real estate. But a few more years of worsening gridlock might just strengthen the current momentum towards rail. I recall that on the LINK trip to Vancouver they reported that Vancouver just allowed its roads to clog up, before instituting a comprehensive mass transit plan.

    I guess I’d rather have nothing than more lanes. But I’m lucky enough to be able to ride a bike to work.Report

    Reply
  2. mariasaporta says:

    Lucas,
    You make an excellent point. I remember when the region was non-conforming to air quality standards and was unable to receive federal funds, it meant that no new roads were built. The only projects that could be approved were those that would improve air quality.
    Maybe that should be the strategy until we get more enlightened leaders in our state house. I hope that will be sooner than later.
    Thanks for writing.
    MariaReport

    Reply
  3. Richard E. Hodges says:

    It’s bordering on a tragedy that so few of the people who theoretically–and actually–have the capability to “make it happen” are lacking in the vision that Maria Saporta and a handful of others demonstrate about solutions to transportation challenges besetting metro Atlanta and other parts of Georgia. Frankly, as one privileged to participate in and closely observe an earliar era of Atlanta’s history, in which there was significant far-sighted and courageous political and business leadership, I sense a “take for granted” attitude among many present-day “influentials” about the reasons for the growth and progress of our area in by-gone days. Could it be that the term “spoiled” is an appropriate description of some who should be uniting to solve a major problem? It’s sad to see what seems to be happening to our formerly progressive city in regard to transportation. We can only hope for pragmatic creativity before it’s too late.Report

    Reply
  4. Bo Spalding says:

    Maria: I returned to Atlanta last night after four days in Vienna, Austria for a conference. On Sunday, Melissa (wife) and I rode bikes from downtown to Schonbrunn, the Hapsburgs’ summer palace, a distance of about three miles one-way. There was a bicycle trail the entire way, and it had been added since I spent my junior year there in 1974-75. So they have retrofitted their city, and are unified in doing so – doing the right thing for Austria’s capital. Would that were so here. There are also streetcars and light rail going pretty much anywhere you want to go in the city and surroundings.
    It’s awfully tough here with the city of Atlanta’s small boundaries, the parochialism of local governments and the short-sightedness of the state. It’s beyond me why the Legislature would care if the region wanted to tax itself.
    This issue needs to be front and center for elections in the city, region and state. -BoReport

    Reply
  5. Brian Leary says:

    Maria: Keep up the good work! At no time in recent history has our State been challenged with such an abundance of authority and an equally large vacuum of leadership.

    Just when a third year of record-breaking drought was about to descend upon us, Mother Nature provided the tonic to satisfy our short-term memory & status quo…sadly, there is no tonic on the horizon for transportation – no rainy season to raise the hopes for mobility.

    There should be a forensic accounting of why things aren’t getting done so our so-clear authority figures are held accountable – ideally providing leadership incentive for change. Its not just about transit. Hopefully, IT3 has provided that data necessary for the uninformed to accept the fact that land use decisions and transportation investment (with multiple options) are not mutually exclusive. As your note from Minneaoplis highlights, our challenge is funding of any kind.

    Let’s challenge the next Governor to unveil a comprehensive transportation plan as part of their campaign so we at least have some-thing to vote for if not some-one.Report

    Reply
  6. mariasaporta says:

    Dear Readers, I just received an email from Lee Biola about this column, and he agreed to let me post it. Perhaps a transit-only funding plan is doable. Maria

    Maria,

    I hope you are doing well. I wanted to make sure you are aware that the Tennessee legislature and the North Carolina House of Representatives have passed transit-only funding legislation recently.

    Tennessee’s majority Republican legislature UNANIMOUSLY passed an amazing mass transit funding bill last week. The bill, SB 1471, is far more progressive than any of the proposals Georgia was considering. It does not fund roads at all. (See article below on Tennessee).

    The bill will allow regions throughout Tennessee to set up Regional Transportation Authorities like one that already exists in Middle Tennessee (which currently operates buses, vanpools, and commuter rail to Nashville).

    The Regional Transportation Authorities can let the voters vote on any type of tax to fund the regional transit plan. It does NOT have to be sales tax. Can be property taxes, or any other tax allowed under Tennessee law. Local governments can “opt out” if they choose.

    The definition of transit is very progressive including funding for “transit oriented development.” It does not include funding for roads unless related to a mass transit development.

    SUMMARY OF TENNESSEE LEGISLATION: http://wapp.legislature.state.tn.us/apps/billinfo/BillSummaryArchive.aspx?BillNumber=SB1471&ga=106

    ACTUAL TENNESSEE LEGISLATION: http://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/106/Bill/SB1471.pdf

    North Carolina is also considering transit only legislation. HB 148 has passed the North Carolina house and is pending in the Senate. In addition to mass transit, it creates a state fund for intercity freight rail and intercity passenger rail expansion.

    NORTH CAROLINA LEGISLATION: http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/gascripts/BillLookUp/BillLookUp.pl?Session=2009&BillID=hb+148

    I hope this is helpful,

    Lee Biola
    Citizens for Progressive TransitReport

    Reply

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