Landmark transportation bill has miles to go

Georgia’s Legislature has just passed the biggest boost to transportation funding in the state’s history — a bill that has the power to transform the Atlanta region’s landscape and the movement of its people.

But before it changes anything, the Transportation Investment Act of 2010 has a long journey ahead of it:

● Officials from rival camps must agree on a project list.

● Voters must approve and pay for the projects in 2012.

● The law must withstand an inevitable legal challenge.

● And commuters must wait three years or more for projects to begin, perhaps more if the law bogs down in court.

Business groups and transportation advocates spent four years trying to convince the Legislature that there was a problem and then persuading lawmakers to fix it. Their victory came Wednesday evening with overwhelming votes in both chambers.

“My friends in Salt Lake City” — where a regional transportation tax is funding road and rail projects — “told me passing the bill is the easy part,” said Metro Atlanta Chamber President Sam Williams, standing outside the Senate after the votes Wednesday night. Williams was exhausted; his lobbying team had collapsed on chairs nearby.

Assuming that Gov. Sonny Perdue signs the bill he worked to create — he hasn’t said when, but after a final review — House Bill 277 could help untangle some of the worst traffic in America.

“It’s the biggest capital investment in the last 50 years in the state of Georgia,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. He said the bill could transform streets, sidewalks and mass transit from southwest Atlanta to Buckhead and beyond.

The bill would divide the state into 12 transportation districts. In each, a “roundtable” of mayors and county commissioners would work with an appointee of the governor to draw up a list of projects in the region. In 2012 the projects would go before the region’s voters, who would approve the list and the 1 percent sales tax to pay for them — or not.

The region with Fulton, DeKalb, Cherokee, Cobb, Gwinnett, Douglas, Fayette, Clayton, Henry and Rockdale counties could raise $750 million to $790 million a year, according to estimates.

Although it is still not enough to meet all needs, that would be the biggest infusion of new cash into transportation in the region’s history.

But to get there, advocates will have to keep navigating the political minefields that dragged out the legislation to begin with, as they draw up a project list.

Controversy No. 1: MARTA. The bill restricts MARTA, alone among more than 100 local transit agencies in the state, from using any of the new tax money for operations of its current system. It could use it for operations on new projects, if voters approved that, though DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader suggests that Washington is unlikely to approve expansion of a system that can’t fund its core. The federal government sends tens of millions of dollars to MARTA every year. In 2010, about $171 million of MARTA’s total revenue of $807 million was expected to come from the federal government. This included an infusion of federal stimulus money.

For three years, the state will lift its restriction on how MARTA uses its money from the special sales tax levied in Fulton and DeKalb counties, said MARTA CEO Beverly Scott. That immediately frees up at least $39 million for operations, and will ease the cuts MARTA was about to make to fill a $120 million gap, especially in bus service, Scott said. But that suspension would only last for three years.

That was a necessary compromise for “people in suburban counties concerned about how their tax dollars are spent and rural folks as well,” said Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Perdue.

On the other side of that fence are urban mass transit advocates who chafe at MARTA being singled out for restrictions. They point out that people in Fulton and DeKalb pay every time an outsider rides MARTA.

Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) is one of those. He railed against the bill but voted for it in the hopes that it will be amended to lift the restrictions on MARTA.

North of Fort’s district, it was Rep. Chuck Martin who in 2007 introduced a bill that first kicked off the public push for transportation funding. On Wednesday, Martin was among the small minority voting against it. The Alpharetta Republican said he was only making a point that mayors of cities in north Fulton should have had a vote on the MARTA board.

Even if the politicians come to terms, there are other ways to up-end the process. Democrats who opposed the bill said that it was unconstitutional because counties, not regions, have the power to tax. The bill would prohibit counties from opting out of a region and its tax on their own; only the region as a whole could decide not to hold a referendum. That decision will be made by the roundtable.

Chuck Palmer, a lawyer at Troutman Sanders and adviser to the governor, said he thought up the way to do tax districts, and they’re legal.

If the new funding mechanism works, it’s a step toward a changed world, one that is only theories now. Early suggestions for projects include interconnected rail transit that could transform town centers across the region; transit along the Beltline in Atlanta; and expressway toll lanes that guarantee free flow for solo drivers who can afford to pay.

Officials say the bill makes a new direction possible, one in which metro Atlanta, the textbook example of sprawl, the third most-congested urban area in the nation, might one day become the scene of pleasant pedestrian commutes and guaranteed highway mobility. It wouldn’t deliver the complete package but would be a concrete start that is not possible now, its supporters say.

That would be a last-minute legacy for Gov. Sonny Perdue, who leaves office next year and who fought hard for this bill. In recent years his opposition or ambivalence were seen as important factors in the issue’s repeated demise. Perdue said he first threw money at the problem, then took the time to make the “business case” for the right kind of investment.

This year, the governor became the face of the issue, proposed the bill and backed down at a key moment on the issue of whether regions could opt out. That and the change in House speaker made high-level teamwork possible, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said this week.

So now, the hard part. At the Atlanta Regional Commission, the region’s official planning agency, the board’s composition is remarkably similar to the roundtable described in the bill. Tom Weyandt, comprehensive planning chief there, has spent years negotiating project lists with his board and is fully aware of the roadblocks ahead. But they can be navigated, he said.

“I think we can,” he said. “We have to. We have to.”

Staff Writer Eric Stirgus contributed to this story.