Update on Metro Transportation Tax: Elected officials tell regional planners to halve $23 billion list

By David Pendered

Four metro Atlanta politicians who are to lead the process of deciding which transportation projects to fund with a proposed penny sales tax have passed the first part of the task to regional planners.

The four elected officials voted Thursday to have the Atlanta Regional Commission cull their $23 billion wish list. The vote came soon after the top Transportation Department official working on the project admonished the elected officials to get to work.

“I recommend you pull your sleeves up and get working,” said Todd Long, GDOT’s planning director. “It’s coming quick. You’ve got to cull that list down.”

In short order, the Executive Committee of the Atlanta Regional Roundtable voted 4-0 to have the ARC take a first pass at the wish list. The ARC is charged with cutting the wish list of transportation projects in half – from $23 billion to $11.5 billion – by July 7.

The elected officials who voted to have the ARC cut the list were:

  • B.J. Mathis, chairman of the Henry County commission;
  • Tom Worthan, chair of the Douglas County commission;
  • Bill Floyd, mayor of Decatur;
  • Mark Mathews, mayor of Kennesaw.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, the fifth committee member, did not attend the meeting. At about the same time, the Atlanta City Council was negotiating on one of Reed’s priorities from his 2009 campaign – pension reform for city employees.

The meeting unfolded along a pattern that’s familiar for important meetings about significant public policy issues in metro Atlanta. A lot of information was presented and there was no initial conversation about how to trim the wish list.

Presentations included:

  • An update on the website;
  • A report from the state economist who outlined his methodology for calculating the amount of money a penny sales tax would raise over a decade;
  • An update on telephone town hall meetings that reached 134,405 participants in the 10-county tax district;
  • An update on how the projects on the list can be analyzed with Microsoft-style graphs and comparing the culling of the list to trimming trees to reduce a forest;
  • An update by GDOT’s Long on the status in other sales tax districts around the state.

Long used his update to let the metro Atlanta officials know that he thinks they need to start cutting the list.

“I’ll say this – the other regions’ staffs are doing good,” Long said. “They don’t have town hall meetings. They don’t have fancy circles and eco-systems. They’re doing it more on history and what they want their region to be.

“Sometimes you get analysis paralysis by data,” Long said.

Committee Chairman Bucky Johnson responded by saying that the metro Atlanta committee has a huge job – managing a program about the size of the entire rest of Georgia.

Following some general conversation about how to cut the list, Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd made the motion to have the ARC staff cut the wish list in half. The motion failed for the lack of a second.

But Floyd’s motion got the conversation started.

In short order, a motion was crafted for the ARC to cut the wish list in half by following these four guidelines:

  • Congestion relief;
  • Deliverability, meaning completion within a decade;
  • Economic impact/job creation;
  • Regional Equity.

Johnson added a fifth caveat by himself:

  • The ARC will have the job done by the board’s meeting on July 7.

The deadline apparently floored Jane Hayse, the ARC’s transportation planning chief. Hayse had presented the report on project analysis.

“We’re talking about a holiday [July 4] and two weeks,” Hayse said. “I cannot stand here honestly and commit that you will have it before July 7.”

Johnson responded that the deadline is not hard and fast.

“We can’t expect that what we dropped in Jane’s lap today, that we’re going to get that much by July 7,” Johnson said.


David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

5 replies
  1. a transit fan says:

    Bill Floyd’s suggestion was for ARC to provide a recommended “constrained list” as a starting point, and it was the first approach offered. The vote on a subsequent motion, for ARC halving the list, occurred about 40 minutes after Bill’s initial suggestion.

    The exchange with Todd Long was more colorful than represented here. Todd reported on the work of other regions and then solicited questions. The one question asked generated some laughter, but Todd’s response had a serious undertone.

    Todd Long: Any questions?
    Bucky Johnson: Do you have any suggestions for us?
    Todd Long: You can pull your shirt sleeves up and start working… and start picking projects…Report

  2. Joeventures says:

    As a direct result of placing “congestion relief” as a priority, the committee will next vote 3-1 to replace downtown Decatur with an interstate highway. Kasim Reed will be the lone dissenting vote, and Bill Floyd will be away while he’s working on one of Decatur’s other major priorities.Report

  3. Cityzen says:

    Congestion relief sounds like the suburbs’ priority. Why are high-taxed in-town Atlanta residents going to agree to pay for widening suburban roads? Would the criteria have read the same if Mayor Reed had been able to attend? (And yes, pensions have been his top priority, so nothing fishy in his absence.)
    And the governor freezes the already-minuscule gasoline tax today. The one tiny contribution that drivers make to the costs they impose is too much? Why on earth should we pay sales tax on all purchases to make up for this cowardice?Report

  4. michelle says:

    I’m sorry, but congestion relief is a ridiculous measure. The important metric is not whether I can zoom down the highway at 70 MPH at any time of day or night. What’s important is the actual distance from point A to point B, the amount of time it takes me to get there, how much it costs me to get there, and whether my elderly, non-driving neighbor can make the same trip. A 30-minute trip to work (by car, foot, transit, or bike) is better than a 60-minute one, regardless of the travel speeds or congestion encountered on the way!

    Oh, and congestion relief is fictional. Induced demand is real, and studies repeatedly show that building new roads or adding lanes just leads to the same level of congestion on bigger roads. That’s what happens when you offer a free good – unlimited demand. The only solution seems to be congestion pricing – as long as you reinvest the revenue into travel alternatives. Of course, if we bulldoze the whole city to build highways, we may eliminate congestion…because there won’t be anyplace worth the trip.Report

  5. Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.... says:

    michelle says:
    June 29, 2011 at 9:40 am

    “I’m sorry, but congestion relief is a ridiculous measure.”

    Congestion relief isn’t that ridiculous of a measure because as if you haven’t noticed, congestion is a gargantuan problem around Metro Atlanta at times.

    We may be overly-dependent on automobiles in the Atlanta Region, but we shouldn’t stop building roads just as we shouldn’t stop building and expanding transit and over the last 15 years we seem to have completely stopped building both roads and transit.

    Now when we do build new roads, we need to smart about where we invest in those new roads just as we need to be smart about where we invest in new transit lines because there’s only so many dollars to go around.

    There seems to be an increasing realization that we can’t completely widen our way out of this mess anymore and that transit must play a key role in “congestion relief” (NOT congestion elimination, because in a metro area of close to six million people, congestion is going to happen, there’s just no way around it).

    We can’t eliminate congestion because that’s just not possible. but we can lessen it by providing “congestion relief” by making our transportation system much more multimodal instead of being totally dependent upon one mode of transport in single-occupant automobiles.

    We shouldn’t stop building new roads as the automobile will still continue to be the dominant mode of transportation in Metro Atlanta for the foreseeable future, but we shouldn’t be solely dependent upon roads as the one and ONLY way of getting around, either.

    Though, if we can get more local single-occupant vehicles off of the roads to clear more space for interstate truck traffic and industrial vehicles, we can really help improve our regional economy and job market as Atlanta is a very, very, very major trucking, logistics and distribution center on the North American continent. If we can get a big amount of the local commuter traffic off of the roads and clear the way for regional and interstate traffic that the INTERSTATES were meant for then we can really help ourselves out by making the Atlanta Region more attractive to industry, industry that brings with it lots of high-paying jobs.Report


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