By Maria Saporta
Over the years, metro Atlanta’s leaders have been willing to invest in our future.
There was Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield, who had the foresight to see the future of aviation and positioned the city to become a leader by investing in the building of a major airport.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, there were Atlanta mayors Ivan Allen Jr. and Sam Massell, who promoted the development of a modern transit system — MARTA — a rail system first envisioned to serve five counties instead of the current two.
Allen also understood how professional sports teams would help give Atlanta national stature.
Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson reinforced Hartsfield vision by championing a major expansion of the airport — and using the massive public works project as a way to help integrate the city’s economy by encouraging minority-majority joint ventures.
And Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin led an effort to reinvest in the city’s decaying sewer infrastructure.
These all were massive investments led by the City of Atlanta to catapult the region into world-class status among cities. The leaders found a way to invest in their visions and build the foundation for the next generation.
But now the region’s infrastructure needs have outpaced our ability to pay for them. And the vision of where we need to invest our money has become much cloudier and complicated.
So here we are in 2011 — a time when the federal, state, county and city governments have little to no money to invest in its current and future infrastructure needs.
The Urban Land Institute’s Atlanta chapter held an all-day Infrastructure Summit on May 24 at the Georgia World Congress Center with the title — “A Region at the Crossroads.”
Maureen McAvey, ULI’s national executive vice president of policy and practice, put it in a global perspective.
“China currently is spending $1 trillion in the next five years on its infrastructure,” McAvey said. “It will have 10,000 miles of high speed rail by 2020. In the United States in 2020, we will have zero.”
McAvey said the American Society of Civil Engineers have estimated that the United States should invest $2.2 trillion in its infrastructure in the next five years. But there is little appetite among taxpayers to spend that money. As McAvey said, the nation’s gasoline tax has been at the same rate for 18 years, and there is little willingness to increase it to pay for our growing infrastructure needs.
It’s a far cry from the 1950s when then President Ike Eisenhower had a vision to connect our nation with an interstate system and to pass a gasoline tax to pay for it.
At that time at least, there seemed to be a willingness to tax ourselves when we believed the money would be invested in a vision that could unite us.
In the City of Atlanta alone, it has been estimated that its infrastructure needs, including fixing our roads, bridges and sidewalks, total about $750 million. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who has pledged to not raise the city’s property taxes, has been promoting sales taxes as a way to pay for at least some of our needs.
The most openly debated one penny sales tax is the regional transportation sales tax that will go before voters in the 10 metro counties next year. That would raise about $8 billion over 10 years and would be invested in a yet-to-be-determined list of transportation projects, including everything from roads to rails to sidewalks.
Mayor Reed also is planning to seek an extension of the one penny sales tax to finish the investment in the city’s water/sewer system.
And then, Reed is a strong supporter of a bill that would allow communities throughout the state to pass a fractional sales tax that could go to funding the arts, other quality of life and economic development initiatives.
That measure has come close to passage in the past two legislative sessions, and Reed is hopeful that it will pass in the near future.
“At the end of the day, we are going to pass a fractional tax in the state and in the region,” said Reed, who believes that the fractional tax will give Atlanta and its cultural institutions a dedicated funding source. “There’s no excuse for a city like ours to no have perpetual funding of at least $10 million every year.”
The fractional sales tax also could go to other areas such as parks and green space, which currently are facing drastic budget cuts in the city.
“I’m going to be a champion,” Reed said of the fractional tax effort.
But Reed is equally committed to making sure that the one-cent sales tax for the rebuilding and renovation of Atlanta’s public schools does not get renewed.
“It’s not going to happen,” Reed said. “There is no path for a full penny for the City of Atlanta school system. There’s no political will for it. It’s not needed.”
Plus, Reed is extremely sensitive to the sales tax burden that would be in the City of Atlanta if the school tax, the transportation sales tax, the MARTA tax and the sewer tax were all being levied.
“We can’t have a 9 cents sales tax rate,” Reed said. “None of our citizens are going to agree to being a 9 percent sales tax community.”
The Atlanta region, and the nation as a whole, is in a peculiar spot. The need to reinvest in our communities is as great as ever. But there’s little willingness to pass a tax increase to pay for that reinvestment.
Catherine Ross, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development said it best during a panel at the Infrastructure Summit.
“You can’t have everything and pay for nothing,” Ross said.