By Maria Saporta
The next six weeks are the make or break time for the regional transportation sales tax.
On Aug. 15, the executive committee of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable will release its draft list of transportation projects to be included as part of the 2012 referendum.
For transit advocates, the critical issue will be whether a large portion of those projects will be for non-road and bridges transportation options. In short, they will be looking to see if the project list will include significant funding for transit, bicycle paths and sidewalks.
Much of the focus of the Roundtable has been on how much the sales tax is expected to generate in 10 years, and how much they have to divvy among projects. In 2011 dollars, the tax is estimated to collect $7.2 billion. Fifteen percent of the revenue collected will go to local governments for their projects.
That means the Roundtable will be deciding how to spend $6.14 billion, and it is now trying to figure out which projects it should include.
On Thursday, the Roundtable will meet for a “Transit Decision Making Workshop.” The workshop will review all the transit projects on the “unconstrained list” that was released on June 1. That unconstrained list had a total of $22.9 billion in projects.
The unconstrained list had 66 transit projects that would cost a total of $14 billion. It also included $8.6 billion for roads, $27 million for aviation and $204 million for bicycle and pedestrian projects.
The Thursday meeting also will include a panel discussion among several national leaders that have had experience in passing transit referendums.
Mike Allegra, generation manager of the Utah Transit Authority; Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce; Mark Sharpe, county commissioner of Hillsborough County in Florida; Phillip Washington, general manager of the Denver Regional Transportation District; and Jim Shroeder, vice president of the HDR Engineering Co. of Houston.
Much conversation of Roundtable observers has focused on whether transit should comprise 50 percent or more of the available dollars of the sales tax revenues.
But Ray Christman, executive director of the Livable Communities Coalition, said that there is another way to look at how to spend those dollars.
Say $4 billion of the $6.1 billion were to go to transit projects — roughly 60 percent. But Christman said the Roundtable should take into account all the other transportation investments that are expected to be made in the next decade.
There would be the $1.1 billion of the sales tax that would go to local governments, and that would likely be spent on road projects.
Then there’s the Transportation Improvement Program (the TIP), which is funded primarily by the motor fuel tax — estimated to be up to $9 billion. The gas tax is restricted to the just roads and bridges.
All those transportation investments would total $16 billion.
“If transit projects on the project list total $4 billion, that would only be 25 percent of transportation that we would be investing in transit in the region,” Christman said.
By looking at the complete transportation funding picture, it certainly does change the equation when we think about developing a balanced transportation vision for our region.
In fact, even if all $6 billion of the tax were to go toward transit projects, that still would represent well under half of all our projected transportation investments.
As the Roundtable does its deliberations, it should take into account what projects would have alternative sources of funding.
“There are alternative sources available to fund roads and bridges,” Christman said. ”There is no alternative source for transit investments.”