Passing a draft list of transportation projects on Aug. 15 was only the first step.
The Atlanta region has two months left to improve both the list as well as the process outlined in House Bill 277.
What’s at stake? Creating a transportation system for the Atlanta region that will best serve our metropolis for decades to come.
First: the list.
The executive committee of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable — working with state and local government officials — has been hard at work for the past several months trying to come up with a list. A list was passed Monday in a meeting that lasted nearly four hours.
A goal was to come up with a list that could be supported by all the different constituencies in the region — the urban counties, the close-in suburban counties as well as what Henry County Chair B.J. Mathis has called the five “non-transit” counties (an inaccurate and disappointing description).
The good news. Contrary to concerns early on, transit projects have held their own — thanks to the tremendous public support that exists for more transportation options.
But, not surprisingly, there are several critical transit projects that are either not on the list or are not funded to the level that many had hoped for.
Topping that list is funding for the commuter rail line from Atlanta and Griffin as well as its sister project — funding for the Multimodal Passenger Terminal station in downtown Atlanta.
Despite the fact that there’s passionate multi-regional support for these projects and despite the fact that there are federal dollars available, the Roundtable’s executive committee has failed to include even limited funding for the project as part of its draft list.
The most surprising absentee leader in the commuter rail project is Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who did not speak up for the project at the meeting on Aug. 11.
“I don’t believe that the case was made to me individually or members of the Roundtable (for commuter rail),” Reed said after the meeting. “It’s not priority. You can’t have everything. My focus in this process was strengthening the Atlanta BeltLine, and that has fared reasonably well, and supporting MARTA.”
Asked if he was against commuter rail, Reed quickly answered: “No. It’s just not a priority.”
Commuter rail and the MMPT station, however, should not be so easily dismissed. The economic development potential of both projects is probably greater than any other transit project in the list.
Also, the project would address the obvious slight to communities south of I-20 — areas that have largely been ignored in the draft list when it comes to transit. That brings up all sorts of troubling issues — race, income, unbalanced investment that impacts economic development.
The other big transit project that needs greater financial backing is building a MARTA connection in South DeKalb, either along the I-20 corridor or towards Candler Road.
Once again, there are several issues of regional equity, fairness and race that could raise their ugly heads if the South DeKalb link is ignored.
And both of these transit project will serve the “non-transit” counties (commuter rail — Henry; MARTA line — Rockdale), which could be more important for their economic future than the multitude of road projects they have included.
So how can the Roundtable add more transit projects when it’s having to keep to its budget total $6.14 billion?
The answer is greater state participation. Yes, the state should become a true partner in transit.
In a dramatic moment Monday, Reed told the committee members that Gov. Nathan Deal had agreed to help cover a portion of the $180 million needed to run the state-controlled Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s Xpress buses over the next decade. The governor reportedly agreed to contribute $80 million of GRTA’s total.
But the state also should become a more significant partner in metro road projects. In the draft project list, more than $1 billion is to widen or improve “state roads.”
At one point during the executive committee meetings, it sounded as though Todd Long, director of the Georgia Department of Transportation, said that if the Roundtable funded some of the state road projects, it would “relieve” the state of its obligations. Excuse me? I thought the point of the regional sales tax was to fund projects important to the region and not to substitute state funding.
Another large pot of money to be considered is $540 million that is supposed to be allocated to Georgia 400 projects. Again, just why should this regional sales tax pay for Georgia 400 projects when a toll already is collecting money for that state highway? Wouldn’t that be double taxation?
Second: the process.
One of the biggest flaws of HB 277 states that the tax last 10 years or when it has raised the estimated amount of dollars. So if the $6.14 billion of Roundtable projects is raised in year seven, the tax would go away.
Given the fact that the region’s transportation needs are so much greater than the $6.14 billion, it would be crazy to not to leave the sales tax in place so as to fund more projects.
Cherokee County Chairman Buzz Ahrens suggested that the second clause of that sunset be removed and just keep the tax in place for 10 years. At Thursday’s executive committee, members endorsed that change. The 21-member Roundtable voted unanimously Monday to recommend that change to the state legislature.
That one change on the sunset would improve HB 277 immensely.
Why? It would help the region come up with two lists — a first tier list of projects and then a second tier. By giving the region flexibility to add projects, it would encourage the state, MARTA and local jurisdictions to keep costs down and seek other sources of funds — be it the state, the federal government or private support.
Knowing the sales tax could go towards a second-tier list of projects would serve as a major incentive for the region to be fiscally conservative.
Mayor Reed said Ahrens’ motion was “appropriate and thoughtful” and that he hoped “the legislature will respond favorably.”
As for the region having the flexibility to seek lower cost options and add more projects to the list as money became available, Reed said he was open to exploring that idea.
“Once we’ve got a list, we have until Oct. 15 to think through other scenarios,” Reed said. “If we come in under budget, it would provide second-tier opportunities.”
(Another helpful fix would be to remove the unfair MARTA restrictions that currently would prevent the new sales tax going to existing MARTA operations).
The focus on road and transit projects has seemed to squeeze out bike-ped projects. As of the Aug. 11 meeting, only .4 percent of the funding — $24.1 million — was slated to go to bicycle and pedestrian projects around the region.
If we really want to have a complete transportation system in this region, the investment in bicycle and pedestrian projects should be a multiple of that number.
In short, we have an opportunity to pass a really progressive list of transportation projects that could move this region forward in significant ways.
Let’s try not to blow it.