This could be the year when the Georgia General Assembly agrees to allow the Atlanta region to put a referendum before voters on a penny sales tax for transportation improvements.
And after years of urging the General Assembly to do just that, now I’m questioning the wisdom of passing such a bill this year.
We probably have only one opportunity to pass a new transportation funding tool for our region. So it is critically important that we make the right choices for our future transportation needs.
Here is the problem. A possible bill to allow the region to vote on a one-cent sales tax is in the works, but an integral element of that bill is a project list of what transportation improvements the region could fund.
And it’s the project list that worries me. Will it include the kind of transportation improvements that metro Atlanta will need for decades to come?
Given the agencies and people involved in putting together the project list, my fear is that it will include the same-old, same-old — roads and more roads with some limited transit projects thrown in.
Think about it. There are key state officials who seriously are proposing to build a tunnel under northeast Atlanta — an idea that is totally opposite of where our region should be going.
Just this past week, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed stricter air quality standards nationwide. Metro Atlanta already is out of compliance when it comes to air quality standards.
Metro Atlanta already has experienced a total cut-off in federal transportation funding for roads because it failed to meet air quality standards. That could happen again.
Over the years, the Atlanta region has had countless transit projects on the books to show how the region can improve its air quality. But year after year, it’s the road projects — not the transit projects — that get funded and built.
So our region continues to concentrate its dollars on roads — think of the rebuilt interchange of 316 and I-85; or think of the reconstruction of the 14th Street bridge that included an expanded Downtown Connector with a host of new ramps.
We are a region that knows how to fund and build roads. We are not a region that knows how to support our existing transit systems — much less expand our transit options.
Our transit systems are facing the worst financial squeeze they ever have. MARTA could have such an operating shortfall that it would have to drastically reduce its transit operations. Clayton County is on the verge of killing its bus transit system. Operating funding for all the other transit systems also is in jeopardy as federal “new start” dollars are about to sunset.
So if we’re having air quality problems now with the limited transit system that we have, imagine how badly we’ll perform with stricter ozone restrictions and drastically reduced rail and bus operations.
But making the right transportation choices is not just about federal air quality standards. It’s about molding the metropolis of the future.
A greener, more sustainable city is a city that provides a multitude of transit options that promote walkable communities , a city that builds and repairs sidewalks, bicycle paths and lanes — creating urban areas are not dependent on automobiles.
Studies and studies have shown that the only way the Atlanta region will be able to reverse its traffic stranglehold is if links smart growth developments with an alternative transportation system that will reduce the number of trips by car.
So when we’re putting together a “project list” of transportation improvements, the question should be whether they are consistent with our plans for a greener, more sustainable city and region.
Let’s consider what happened in Denver, Co. Before voters were asked to approve a one-cent sales tax, extensive surveys were done on what kind of transportation plans they were more likely to approve.
The surveys overwhelmingly showed that voters wanted transit rather than roads. And surveys also showed that voters didn’t just want any kind of transit, they wanted rail transit.
So the Denver referendum reflected the wishes of voters rather than the interests of politicians and developers. That’s how Denver’s one-cent transportation sales tax passed. And that’s how Denver is now building a transit system is propelling it towards the future rather than the past.
How is that different than the paved path we seem to be headed? We appear to be putting together a project list that has not been tested by the people who need to approve it.
Passing a regional transportation tax will need the support of residents in Atlanta, DeKalb and Fulton. If those three MARTA jurisdictions (which have had a one-cent sales tax for transit for nearly 40 years) end up feeling slighted or harmed by the proposed project list, the likelihood of passing a new tax will be slim.
Any state-driven project list will need to be viewed through the filter of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb to make sure they are treated fairly and equitably. (But I’ll save that for a later column).
If it were up to me, a new penny sales tax would go completely to transit and alternative transportation systems — projects that can’t be paid for by the state’s motor fuel tax.
(The gas tax is constitutionally restricted to roads and bridges, which means the state will always have dollars allocated to automobile- and truck-oriented transportation).
But what the state does not have is a dedicated funding source for transit, not only in the Atlanta region, but across the state.
Restricting a new sales tax for transit is not such a radical idea — even in the South.
Last year, both North Carolina and Tennessee passed a sales tax dedicated solely to transit. Consider this: Tennessee’s majority Republican legislature unanimously passed Senate Bill 1471 that did not provide any funding for roads.
Unfortunately, our legislature is not so transit-friendly (understatement of the year).
So until our state, our region and our business community is able to present a truly progressive transportation funding bill, it might be best to continue doing what we do best — nothing.