By Maria Saporta
The mood was somber at the Fair Share for Transit reception — held Thursday evening at the Margaret Mitchell House in Midtown on the 75th anniversary of “Gone with the Wind.”
The coalition of 67 local organizations and groups is hoping that the region will invest in transit as part of the one-cent transportation sales tax that will go before voters in 2012.
“We are coming to a very critical juncture in this process,” said Ray Christman, executive director of the Livable Communities Coalition, the lead organization behind the Fair Share for Transit initiative.
Christman explained that by law, by Aug. 15, the region will have to issue a draft list of all the transportation projects that is to be included in the referendum.
“That will be the first official stake in the ground,” Christman said. “It’s very, very important that that first draft be viewed as positive, something that we can enthusiastically support.”
In other words, the test will be whether “the list” will have a healthy balance of transit projects when compared to road projects.
The Regional Transportation Roundtable — an organization of elected leaders from throughout the metro area — will adopt the final project list in mid-October.
The roundtable will have to pass a project list that will total about $6 billion — the amount that a one-cent tax is expected to raise in the 10-county region over 10 years.
“I’m preaching to choir,” said Jim Durrett, chairman of the MARTA board and executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District.
Durrett went on to say that MARTA — which operates only the City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties — is open to working with all the other counties that have transit systems because of the transit agency’s desire to be part of regional system.
As of now, there is no common vision about what a regional transit system
should look like. Should a new umbrella agency be created? Or should one of the existing agencies be revised to serve as the overarching transit organization?
Some believe that the governance issue must be resolved before the referendum can pass because voters will want to know which entity will be implementing the transit projects.
But recently there seems to have been little movement on the whole governance question.
Other issues also are troubling. The referendum is now scheduled for July 31, 2012 — the primary election that is expected to have a low turnout and is expected to attract a disproportionate number of suburban, Republican and conservative voters.
One fear is that the “project list” will be designed to win approval from those likely voters — meaning it very well could tilt in favor of suburban road projects.
But if the date of the referendum is changed to the general election on Nov. 6, there would be a much bigger turnout and have more intown, African-American, Democratic and liberal voters. No doubt, they would be more transit-friendly than the voters who would be expected to show up in July.
“Many of us are feeling apprehensive right now,” Durrett told the gathering of about 50 people.
As of now, the Fair Share for Transit initiative has tried to take a relatively positive approach towards the regional transportation sales tax — explaining how important it is for the region to have new revenues to invest in transportation projects.
Still, if the project list does not include a “fair share” of transit projects, it will be interesting to see if the coalition of the “fair share” organizations will continue to support the regional transportation tax.
“We will cross that light rail track when we come to it.,” Christman said.
By the way, proponents of the tax keep saying: “There’s no Plan B” if the tax does not pass.
But it’s important to remember that Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton all were part of the original MARTA bill and still have the option to vote to join the system (or a new hybrid transit agency).
Although those three counties did not pass the MARTA tax 40 years ago, the support for transit has increased in those areas as they’ve become more densely populated with greater congestion.
Having a full penny sales tax go towards transit in Clayton, Gwinnett and Cobb actually would go a long way towards creating a regional transit vision for metro Atlanta.
And for those who are dedicated to there being a “fair share” for transit, that “Plan B” could end up being a more attractive option for our region than “Plan A.”