Editor's Note: A vote next year could affect your commute for decades. As a region, we’ll decide whether to tax ourselves for $8 billion in transportation improvements. The AJC has committed a team of reporters to cover every angle of the transportation referendum leading up to the vote in summer 2012. We kick off that coverage this week with an examination of what’s at stake for Atlanta and each of the region’s 10 counties.
Every day, Atlanta’s population more than doubles to more than 1.2 million people as workers, shoppers and entertainment seekers pour into the city in cars or via mass transit, according to city officials.
In many ways, Atlanta — where three major interstates and two major railroad networks converge — lies at the heart of the region’s traffic grid. It has always struggled to maintain and expand interstate and transit systems that link the metro counties and move their residents.
Officials in the capital city are banking on the money raised by the 2012 transportation referendum’s 1-cent tax, if the 10-county region passes it, to pump millions of dollars into the MARTA system, to fix bridges and roads, to accelerate the completion of the Atlanta Beltline. Of course, how many of Atlanta’s suggestions make it to a final project list has yet to be seen.
Other people question whether Atlanta voters who already are paying a 1-cent MARTA tax will want to spend more. Atlanta has an 8 percent sales tax, one of the highest in the state. If the referendum passes, that would jump to 9 percent.
The entire metro Atlanta region will have to pass the referendum for it to become law. Michael Adams, 31, a small-business owner living in southwest Atlanta, is convinced that Atlanta voters are “savvy” enough to support a referendum that improves traffic conditions, while making access to the city easier for people coming from the suburbs to work and play.
“Until Atlanta takes a serious look at the issue of transportation, businesses and families will continue to suffer because of the congestion, gridlock and structural dilapidation,” Adams said. “Atlanta is long overdue in the conversation regarding new transit options.”
Each county and Atlanta have drawn up their own wish lists of projects that would be included on the referendum vote. Those lists will be pared down by a 21-member regional roundtable. If the referendum passes, those projects would get funded by the new tax revenue.
One thing Atlanta wants to do, if the project makes the final list, is pump $861 million into MARTA to bring the “system into a state of good repair.” Tom Weyandt, Atlanta’s senior policy adviser for transportation, said MARTA currently has a $1.6 billion backlog on repair projects.
“That core system is critical to the state of Atlanta,” Weyandt said. “It has everything to do from complicated issues like making sure that train controls are up to standards, to making sure the roof doesn’t leak. The city has to have a safe, efficient, sound MARTA system.”
The wish list also includes $452 million to address deferred bridge, roadway and sidewalk maintenance. The city, which has no money in the regular fiscal budget for routine bridge and road maintenance, has estimated that it would cost more than $900 million to catch up.
Weyandt said the city is still compiling the list of the highest priority bridges, but the upgrades would include everything from structural maintenance to falling paint and materials.
Critics have argued that not enough information is going out to the voters. Yet others are convinced that while Atlanta has the most to give if the bill is passed, the rewards don’t equate. Atlanta’s initial wish list would cost $3.3 billion, but most of that would be consumed by three major sets of projects.
Mayor Kasim Reed is the only member of the roundtable who represents Atlanta.
“When you look at the roundtable, everything is stacked against us, yet most of the money will come from Atlanta,” said C.T. Martin, chairman of the Atlanta City Council’s Transportation Committee. “Voters are going to be told a lot of reasons why they should vote for this. But they are not being told how this is really going to benefit them in the long run. The public may or may not be tired of gimmicks.”
The city of Atlanta raised $125 million in 2008 from a 1 percent sales tax, compared with more than $700 million raised in the 10-county area.
Traffic has been an ongoing problem that few have been able to get a handle on as people are loath to give up their cars to rely on a rapid rail system that goes to only two counties: Fulton and DeKalb.
According to Connect Atlanta, the city’s comprehensive transportation plan, which was used as a guide in crafting the city’s wish list, the regional freeway system does not serve city residents well because they tend to make shorter trips; the pedestrian system in Atlanta is uneven and inadequate to support walking; and public transportation is underused.
When Ron Lall lived in Toronto more than a decade ago, he found himself walking or taking public transportation everywhere he needed to go.
That changed when he moved to Atlanta.
“For me, having been here for 12 years and having to rely on a car for everything was a real shock and a change,” said Lall, who lives in Ormewood Park. “The lack of an expansive and comprehensive transportation structure in this area is going to hurt us competitively in the long run if we don’t do something.”
Also on the wish list is $1.6 billion for the Atlanta Beltline, including street car lines linking the Atlanta Beltline corridor to downtown and Midtown.
The Beltline is a $2.8 billion redevelopment project that provides a network of public parks, multiuse trails and transit along a 22-mile railroad corridor circling downtown and connecting 45 neighborhoods directly to each other. Planning for the Beltline, set forth in 2005, is making progress with four new parks, six miles of permanent trails and 3.5 miles of hiking trails opening in 2011 alone.
If the referendum passes with the Beltline project, Atlanta officials estimate that the funding could shave 15 years off the Beltline’s targeted completion date of 2031. The Beltline has to make it to that final project list first, so Reed and others would have to be able to convince other local officials on the regional roundtable that the project would benefit the region — for instance, giving drivers an alternative to congested arterial roads.
The path to the wish list wasn’t easy, with several City Council members arguing that it neglected key local needs.
“In the inner city, the condition of our streets is horrible,” said Martin, who questioned a proposed $25 million plan to connect Cobb County’s Silver Comet Trail to Centennial Olympic Park. “Even the street the governor lives on needs paving.”
Lall, who chairs the SouthStar Community Development Corp., which recently examined transportation issues with its South Moreland Corridor Livable Communities Initiative, said getting the referendum passed in Atlanta could hinge on voter education.
When Atlanta voters care about an issue, they have been willing to OK extra taxes. About three-quarters of Atlanta voters in a July 2004 election approved a 1-cent sales tax to improve the water and sewer system.
Ultimately, the final project list for the transportation referendum will have to impress voters.
“I’m not particularly fond of being taxed more than I already am. Far too often, elected officials and organizations such as MARTA are not good stewards over the funds they’re already in charge of,” Adams said. “However, there is a great need for new transportation ideas and explorations, so I welcome the penny tax — for now.”
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Cities and towns submitted their wish lists in March: more than 400 projects worth up to $29 billion or more. Go to ajc.com/go/transportation to see which projects hit closest to home and which have regional effects.