Metro Atlanta turning winning transit season into losing one
By Guest Columnist COLLEEN KIERNAN, director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club
The way the Transportation Investment Act (TIA) is playing out in the Metro Atlanta Region feels a lot like the 2011 Braves season. It started out with a lot of hope and promise, primed with new leaders at the helm who would be able to undo years of disappointment.
In the early stages, it stumbled a bit, but by mid-season, it was in good shape. After the All-Star Break, aka the August 15 deadline for a draft project list, boosters claimed the list was about 55 percent transit, 45 percent roads.
Although I’m not aware of anyone who thought the draft list was perfect, it did represent the first time that the 10-county region, as a whole, was going to make a significant and (somewhat) ongoing commitment to funding transit. That commitment, like the ballclub, is starting to crumble in the home stretch.
The team that blew a long lead was the same team that had been looking good enough to run up that long lead. The TIA showed a similar appearance vs. reality profile: the 55 percent transit number was always a bit misleading.
That figure considered only the 85 percent of the pot that the Roundtable is allocating, omitting the other 15 percent that local jurisdictions get to spend on their own local projects – almost certainly roads.
The 55 percent also counts federal money that is tagged for projects, which makes the transit percentage appear higher than it is. The true final breakdown is likely to be around 40 percent transit / 60 percent roads – a discouraging result in light of the fact that road projects have a dedicated revenue stream, the gas tax; transit has limited regional and no state funding.
Even if the TIA were dedicated entirely to transit, overall regional spending on transit expansion would still fall short of projected roadway spending over the life of the tax. That long lead was not so long after all, not so long it couldn’t be blown when confronted by determined opponents. The difference between the Braves and TIA is that the opponents are supposed to be members of the TIA team.
But the most troubling element of the TIA draft list is that a segment of the Northern Arc expressway, an intensely controversial road that was repeatedly contested finally defeated by a diverse coalition of organizations (including Sierra Club) nearly a decade ago, was quietly slipped onto the list as project TIA-GW-060 with little public discussion regarding the true impact and ramifications of this decision.
The connection between TIA-GW-060 and the historical Outer Perimeter / Northern Arc concept is undeniable when properly articulated (click here for a visual explanation), and we are concerned that once voters fully appreciate the magnitude of the decision to resurrect a divisive proposal that was resoundingly rejected by the public years ago, this project will become a poison pill that could endanger passage of the tax next year.
While no amendments were offered that would strip the Northern Arc, Roundtable members have started hacking away at the transit component. Cobb County, which got the biggest allocation of transit money, proposed moving $271.5 million from their transformative rail project from Atlanta to Cumberland to making a portion of Windy Hill Road an expressway and adding bus service from Acworth to Atlanta.
While Cobb insists that the feds will step in and keep the rail project viable, the project will “live” on a wing and a prayer instead of a reliable stream of revenue.
More encouraging was a proposal from DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis to redirect road money from a massive widening and reconstruction of GA-400 to the proposal for rail along I-20, but the amendment received little support from fellow Roundtable members. It was then revised to take from the Clifton Corridor rail project instead, and was ultimately tabled until next week.
If this “robbing Peter to pay Paul” exercise is approved, it may be enough to satisfy South DeKalb constituents who have promised a “Vote No” campaign if I-20 East rail is not on the list, but will seriously jeopardize the viability of the Clifton project and likely lose another constituency that otherwise could have enthusiastically supported the tax.
The more offensive example of “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” however, is the proposal to fully fund Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s (GRTA) Xpress buses at the expense of MARTA maintenance and the Beltline and Clifton Corridor rail projects.
As Senator Doug Stoner pointed out, it’s time for the State to step up to the plate on GRTA funding. And finally, despite overwhelming support from all corners for adding the Griffin commuter rail line, all it got was $20 million for additional studies, which while taken from another bad road project (the Tara Boulevard “super arterial”) is good, but not enough.
Sierra Club can’t see any major public constituency that will be truly excited about supporting the T-SPLOST as the project list currently stands — not just on election day but also during the critical campaign season leading up to the vote.
Anti-tax activists and Tea Party types will oppose this new tax simply because it’s a tax.
Should the T-SPLOST fail to inspire significant support from environmental and pro-transit voters, this could be the death knell for passage of the 2012 referendum. The Roundtable would be much better served by focusing on gaining the support of the ever-growing and varied group of pro-transit voters.
If they do, Atlanta can take its place among other forward-looking metropolitan areas that have positioned themselves for enduring success in the 21st century. And then the Roundtable’s last regular season game, despite dragging on for 13 innings, will end up in the “W” column, and we won’t have to once again “wait ‘til next year.”