Is metro commute nearing a change?

On Jan. 14, Gov. Sonny Perdue, who has often stayed on the sidelines as others worked for transportation funding — or worked to defeat it — became the face of the battle to pass it. Together with developments in Washington, it makes for a head-turning moment for Atlanta transportation funding advocates.

But they’re not pulling out the confetti just yet, especially after major funding proposals failed the past two legislative sessions. Whether the House and Senate can agree with Perdue on all-important details is yet to be seen. And even the most ambitious proposals on the table now may leave critical problems in limbo.

“It’s a good direction,” said Tom Weyandt, the comprehensive planning chief for the Atlanta Regional Commission. “But it all has to come together.”

As lawmakers dig into the proposals this week, one thing seems clear: The consequences of inaction are stark throughout the state.

Metro Atlanta, the state’s economic engine, is the third-most-congested urban area in the nation, clogging commutes and long-haul freight. Without new transportation funding, the state could forgo up to 425,000 potential jobs over the next 30 years, according to a study put together by Perdue’s team. The number of workers located within a reasonable commute from a potential employer would shrink dramatically. As early as 2012, Georgia may have to pass up federal funds it had coming because it won’t have enough required local matching funds.

“We have no choice but to invest in transportation infrastructure in this state if we’re going to be the kind of state we want to be in the future,” Perdue said in his announcement, citing the study. “That’s clear, it’s compelling.”

The study found that as of 2006, Georgia’s state and local governments spent $380 per person on transportation, about half the national average and less than any state besides Tennessee.

As of this month there is a slate of proposals that may change that direction. In the proposal Perdue outlined, the Legislature would vote to allow referendums in regions throughout the state for a penny sales tax for transportation projects. The money that a region such as metro Atlanta raised would be spent within that region, rather than sending part of it to the rest of the state. Such a tax could yield an additional $750 million to $790 million a year for transportation in metro Atlanta — all transportation, not just roads and bridges like the state gas tax.

That’s good news for Atlanta advocates. In Washington, there was more: This month the Obama administration announced it would scrap Bush administration rules that made it hard to fund projects such as Atlanta’s proposed streetcar and Beltline loop. That announcement came just as Atlanta leaders are on tenterhooks for news about their $298.3 million application for a federal stimulus grant for the streetcar system. The federal rule change “completely changes the landscape,” MARTA CEO Beverly Scott told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Last but not least, in addition to the tax referendum, Perdue proposed borrowing $300 million for a handful of freight routes immediately, an idea that is drawing kudos in the Legislature. Two routes that could be funded are in metro Atlanta.

That’s a lot of change. Whether it’s enough, or just a first step in addressing transportation, depends on where you sit.

Weyandt took pains to note that Perdue’s move was important. However, he said, “Even if everything came together precisely the way we’ve heard these proposals, we would still have needs in [metro Atlanta] alone probably in excess of $100 billion” that would remain unmet.

That’s a big number, and government can sometimes blur the line between “needs” and “wants.” But some gaps seem visible in current proposals:

● The plan put together by Perdue’s team argues that in addition to the penny sales tax, real progress requires a range of other measures. Yet those other measures also include significant changes that aren’t here yet, such as a big push to raise parking fees in Atlanta and successfully drawing private investment to build toll roads.

● The tax referendum, if it passed, would likely sunset after a few years, so it may not provide any mass transit project a permanent source of operating revenue. If a transit project needs federal grants to get built, which the big ones usually do, it must demonstrate a long-term way to pay for its operation.

● State leaders have largely given up on the astronomically expensive notion of solving congestion by simply expanding all of Atlanta’s existing interstate highways. In a similar vein, straightening Georgia’s rail corridors to accommodate a true high-speed rail network would cost billions of dollars that the state currently doesn’t have.

● If the Legislature acts, the public would still have to vote on the referendum. Perdue has proposed it for 2012, time enough to assemble project lists and let the economy recover. On the other hand, when the time comes to sell voters on the referendum, Perdue will be out of office, and his successor’s position is unknown at this point.

Perdue said he waited until his final year in office to push the funding proposal partly because the transportation bureaucracy needed to be fixed and a business case needed to be made for new funding. A consultant hired by Perdue’s team first made the business case in 2008; last year a new law gave the governor more power over selecting road projects.

Transit advocates are particularly anxious about delay. MARTA’s sales tax revenues have declined so much during the economic downturn that it is in danger of reducing service by a third within months if other funds don’t come to the rescue. The Clayton County Board of Commissioners has voted to shut down the county’s entire transit service this spring.

It’s unclear whether the Legislature, dealing with harsh budget cuts, will address the immediate mass transit issues. Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams suggested MARTA might request capital funding in Perdue’s bond funding. As for help from the general fund, he said: “We have some room for bonding. We don’t have any room for general funds.”

MARTA’s Scott said she has hope.

“I think it’s highly significant for the governor to really come out very strongly from a leadership standpoint,” Scott said. However, she said, “There’s also a real need for urgency.”

Not everyone will get what they want out of every bill, especially on “a proposal of this magnitude,” cautioned Rep. Jay Roberts (R-Ocilla), chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Still, he said, he thought the Legislature would pass a comprehensive transportation plan this year.

“The issue has got to be solved,” he said. “It’s not getting any better.”

Top priorities

Among the governor’s top priorities

$80 million: To build one new optional HOV toll lane in each direction of I-75 in Henry County from Ga. 155 to Ga. 138. This would eventually be part of a metrowide network of HOV toll lanes.

$32 million: To relocate Conley Road and connect it with C.W. Grant Parkway/Aviation Boulevard near the airport. This design would help airport freight traffic.

$121 million: To extend the Port of Savannah connector/Jimmy DeLoach Parkway in Chatham County. This would help freight traffic at the ports.

$50 million: To widen U.S. 441 in Rabun County. This would widen the last remaining stretch of U.S. 441 from Athens to Franklin, N.C.

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