By Maria Saporta
Atlanta’s proposed transit projects now are taking center stage in the 11th hour effort to pass the regional transportation sales tax.
From July 21 to July 24, transit leaders from around the country are meeting in Atlanta just a week before the region will decide whether to invest in rail and bus transit in the 10-county area.
And the campaign proponents for the tax now are showcasing transit on youtube, on cable television, at transit stations and with new brochures that outline how transit will be expanded if the regional transportation sales tax passes on July 31.
If tax fails to pass, transit leaders said the Atlanta region will be even more of an outlier when compared to other major cities in the country that are investing in their transit systems.
“Ridership is up across this country in cities big and small by 5 percent in the first quarter,” said Michael Melaniphy, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association. “In Atlanta, total ridership is up 3 percent. Last year we had the second highest ridership since 1957. There were 10.4 billion trips on public transportation last year.”
Melaniphy said that not only are more people riding transit, but they also are voting to invest in transit. There have been 28 public transit referendums since 2000, and 22 of them have passed.
“Seventy percent of transit initiatives have passed in this country,” Melaniphy said. “We have a tremendous story to tell.”
The question is whether metro Atlanta will follow suit on July 31.
The issue is important “as Atlanta looks at its place in the competitive landscape in the country and quite frankly the world,” Melaniphy said.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said that the region’s traffic already has been hurting its competitive edge. Reed said that traffic was one reason why Time-Warner last year decided to locate 1,000 jobs in Tampa rather than Atlanta.
“There’s a reason Gov. (Nathan) Deal, a Republican, and I are working together on this,” Reed said. “We have sat in the same meetings with more than half a dozen (prospects), and in the first 30 minutes, we’re talking about traffic and congestion.”
Gary Thomas, the current chair of APTA who also is president and executive director of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), said that while Atlanta and Dallas often compete against each other, he hopes the tax will pass in the Atlanta region.
“Transportation is vital to the success of a community,” Thomas said. “While Atlanta and Dallas compete neck and neck…, I personally hope Atlanta succeeds. It’s important — not only for Atlanta, but the country.”
Currently MARTA is the country’s ninth largest transit system in the county, but the agency’s general manager — Beverly Scott — said she’s looking over her shoulder at cities like Dallas which are investing in their transit systems.
Dallas already has 70 miles of light-rail lines in its region with plans for more rail lines. By comparison, MARTA’s heavy-rail system has 48 miles of rail.
“The Dallas business community is one of our strongest supporters,” Thomas said. “They understand that transit is vital for the community. You have to give people a choice.”
Thomas also said that the Dallas business community understands that the transportation systems that made sense 20 to 25 years ago don’t make sense today.
“All the leading cities in the world are moving in the direction of transit,” Reed said, adding that many young people don’t have cars or even driver’s licenses. “Young people would rather be interconnected (using their digital devices while riding on transit) rather than sitting in traffic.”
The Livable Communities Coalition’s Fast Track Forward campaign is targeting that young audience with a new youtube video that it hopes will go viral on the web during the last week before the vote.
“The whole idea is to reach the young, in-town transit rider, and to excite people who have not been inspired during this campaign,” said Jim Stokes, executive director of the Livable Communities Coalition.
The video was designed by MarketZero, an in-town film production studio that has produced online videos for a number of campaigns, Stokes said.
Meanwhile, a television commercial aimed for cable TV audiences is being shot at a MARTA station and should start airing in the next few days.
And an email campaign is being posted by an addressee called MARTA Matters that asks people to forward the email to at least 20 “relatives, friends, acquaintances and strangers” that breaks down all the reasons why it is important to vote for the tax to help support MARTA.
Now it’s just a race against the clock on whether the transit message will get out to enough transit-friendly voters by July 31.