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.