Four years after a regional transportation referendum went down in flames, Atlanta residents will decide next month whether to go it alone to raise millions for city roads, sidewalks and bike trails and billions for what boosters say is the biggest expansion of MARTA in a generation.
There’s a lot at stake. The Atlanta region has traditionally received high marks for quality of life, cost of living and, save for those months when it really gets hot, pretty decent weather.
But road congestion is legendary and seems only to be getting worse, people who study transportation say. Commute times of 90 minutes or more are commonplace and as the population continues to soar — some estimate the region will add two million new residents over the next two decades — the problem will metastasize.
“Everybody wants the system to be better than it is,” said Emory University economist Tom Smith. “But it’s all in how you show how it impacts me individually.”
Some have voiced concern about the tax increase. Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation policy analyst for conservative think tank Reason Foundation, earlier this year called such taxes regressive because of their impact low-income wage earners.
Atlanta City Councilwoman Felicia Moore voted against the project list in July over concerns that lawmakers rely too heavily on sales taxes and what she saw as an imbalance of where the money would be spent, according to reports.
After failing to persuade metro residents to pass the 10-year regional transportation sales tax increase in 2012, metro leaders want to demonstrate they can get voters to approve a local solution, transportation leaders said. If one size doesn’t fit for every county, perhaps individual plans would, they contend.
If Atlanta residents approve the measures, they will get synchronized traffic signals that allow motorists to go through more than one light at a time, more bus routes as well as buses that run later in the evening and more sidewalks for those who walk to work or for dining out. Also being pushed are infill train stations to increase access to Atlanta’s subway system, which many complain is too limited in scope.
A big component — $66 million — will be dedicated to buying the remaining right-of-way to complete the popular BeltLine.
And it could have an influence on surrounding counties, which are cautiously warming to solutions broader than road expansion.
“To accommodate all this change, there has to be something in addition to cars,” said Joseph Hacker, a professor of public management and policy at Georgia State University and certified planner.
Gwinnett, for instance, has held public meetings to gauge public interest in transit as part of long-term transportation planning for its growing congestion while Cobb is considering Sunday bus service and expansion of the Cumberland Circulator system. Residents in unincorporated Fulton County and 13 cities — with the exception of Atlanta — also will vote Nov. 8 to approve a sales tax increase for roads, bridges and sidewalks projects that could raise as much as $655 million over five years.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the tax increase will help improve the city’s competitiveness as a job creator. Big companies like NCR Corp.. Worldpay and GE Digital were lured to relocate to the city in part because of transit access. And as businesses look to recruit millennials, who increasingly eschew cars, communities offering alternative transportation modes will be more attractive.
“That is going to be more persuasive with our regional partners than any political discussion,” Reed said in a recent interview.
Supporters also point out that many of the projects targeted are slated for south and west Atlanta, which traditionally have gotten less attention than the city’s more affluent northern neighborhoods. MARTA would expand westbound rail operations along Interstate 20 under the proposal as well as introduce a transit center at Greenbriar Mall and light rail to Fort McPherson.
“We will see 74 percent of workers within a mile of high capacity proposed projects,” said Eloisa Klementich, president and CEO of Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm. Klementich said that it especially important because improved transportation access could lure employers to locate closer to west and south Atlanta communities so residents wouldn’t have to travel as far for better paying jobs.
On the Nov. 8 ballot, Atlanta residents will be asked to raise the city’s sales tax by a half-penny to add more buses, light rail and infill stations for MARTA. In a separate question, they will be asked to approve a four-tenths of a penny increase for the city to synchronize traffic signals, fix roads and buy the remaining right-of-way for the BeltLine, among other projects. Atlanta’s sales tax is currently 8 percent.
In the days leading up to the vote, boosters plan a $750,000- to $1 million-media blitz to get the word out, Reed said, higher than the more typical expenditure of around $500,000 for pat referendums. The effort will include commercials, online advertising, direct mail and radio and TV appearances.
Supporters, which include bicycling advocates, the city’s business community and groups such as the Council for Quality Growth have aided Reed, MARTA and others in speaking to NPUs, civic associations and other interested parties.
But if you don’t know much about it, you’re not alone. Supporters have struggled to cut through the noise of the presidential election to create awareness for the Nov. 8 vote and they worry some voters might skip the measures altogether because the questions are last on the ballot.
“The challenge for us is to make sure that people know about the opportunity because in presidential election years the typical pattern is that you have about a 30 percent dropoff between people voting at the top of the ticket and voting at the bottom of the ballot,” said Robbie Ashe, chairman of MARTA’s board of directors. “There are number of people who will come in and they’ll vote Donald v. Hillary and then they’ll quit.”
They have their work cut out for them. In recent “man-on-the-street” interviews the Atlanta Journal-Constitution conducted with about 20 people along the Atlanta Beltline and at Five Points MARTA station in downtown Atlanta, the majority were unaware of the referendum, though a few signs urging residents to “vote yes” were posted nearby.
Leo Armstrong, 27, said he didn’t know much about the ballot questions, but did not think he would vote for them as described. Armstrong, who was at Five Points, said MARTA has reneged on past expansion promises and did not have faith the transportation giant would live up to them now.
“MARTA drastically took away a lot of options for buses,” he said about the organization’s decision to eliminate bus routes during the recession. “It’s good business but it’s not good for the community.”
Alice Gage is fully supportive of the tax increase. Stopped during a brisk walk along the BeltLine’s eastside trail, she said for a city to prosper and offer residents the quality of life they seek, there must be investment.
“I want everybody to be able to enjoy this,” she said of the BeltLine. “If you want to help the city, you can’t be lazy.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.