Thursday: Historic vote on transportation list?

A group of local elected officials from throughout the Atlanta region is on a mission Thursday to do something historic: agree with one another on transportation.

Five mayors and county commissioners are scheduled Thursday to approve a draft list of transportation projects for the 10 Atlanta region counties, totaling $6.14 billion, to be considered in a referendum. Given their history so far, there’s no guarantee that they will.

If they can’t, they’ve blown their self-imposed deadline, and have only till midnight Monday to make it happen, as outlined by state law.

“This is a very difficult process, probably one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do in my political career,” said Tom Worthan, chairman of the Douglas County Commission, and a member of the group. However, he said, he was hopeful the list would pass as scheduled, though negotiations were still hundreds of millions of dollars apart. “I feel good about it,” he said.

In the referendum next year, metro Atlanta voters will decide whether to fund the project list being drawn up now with a 1 percent sales tax, to run 10 years.

Advocates for the referendum say the stakes could not be higher: The region, they say, risks choking on its own congestion without new investment. Companies that would bring jobs have second thoughts because of it, and people who live here watch long commutes rob their lifestyles. Opponents say the risks are high if it passes, adding another tax to residents who can barely afford the ones they have.

The vote could represent the region's biggest single infrastructure investment in 40 years or more, changing the way residents work, live and move.

At issue now are some of the oldest conundrums in metro Atlanta: How much to roads, how much to mass transit? Is every part of the region getting something worth paying for? Are the big transit projects concentrated too much in the northern part of the region?

County, city and regional staff, in communication with the mayors and commissioners, negotiated for hours Wednesday afternoon, hoping to whittle projects down to a complete $6.14 billion list.

In the end, they could not, and adjourned with $420 million in cutting yet to be done, according to a list obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Part of the reason: The list of seven mass transit projects tentatively approved last week has now ballooned to include $250 million for a MARTA extension on the I-20 corridor to Wesley Chapel Road, $100 million more for MARTA repair projects (in addition to $500 million already proposed) and $40 million for Gwinnett County express bus service.

Other transit money was added as well, such as $37 million for preliminary work on extending MARTA northward to Ga. 140, but that was offset by deleting other projects, according to staff.

As cutting has gotten down to brass tacks in recent weeks, advocates for such projects that had not made the cut stepped up their pleas and lobbying. DeKalb County activists lined up to vent frustration over exclusion of the I-20 corridor transit at a meeting Tuesday. Advocates for a commuter rail line through Clayton County expect to hold a rally and news conference Thursday morning before the meeting begins.

The list would be about 55 percent transit and 45 percent roadway, with $24 million for bicycle and pedestrian projects and $3 million for airport projects in Cobb County.

Under the law that set up the referendum, a 21-member “roundtable” of local elected officials must approve a final list by Oct. 15.  Five of them, the mayors from Atlanta, Decatur and Kennesaw and commission chairs from Douglas and Henry counties, vote on the executive committee putting together the first draft of that list.

If any of them walks into the meeting convinced an agreement is in hand only to see it crumble, it will not be the first time in this process.

Since its very inception, the committee has weathered turbulence and discord. After a tentative deal on choosing the executive committee fell apart, Georgia's speaker of the House had to intervene to get Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed placed on the executive committee.

Then in its first vote on projects, last week, the committee broke down on geographic lines, with the distant suburbs voting against the inner counties on a list of possible mass transit projects.

On Tuesday, it achieved its first unanimous vote on projects, tentatively approving about $715 million worth of roadwork in outer counties.  The committee members were so relieved, they ended the meeting without trying to resolve the other outstanding issues, and pushed the negotiations into Wednesday, and possibly Thursday.

Reports on the progress of a staff negotiation Wednesday gyrated between heady optimism and concern.

Midafternoon, Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews said he didn’t know if there was enough agreement to hold a vote Thursday.

“If we don’t come to a consensus vote tomorrow, it just means that we’re going to be working through the weekend or putting everything off till Monday,” he said. “My understanding is we have until midnight on Monday.”

The roundtable’s chairman, Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, said getting from more than $20 billion originally down to $6.5 billion showed “tremendous progress.” Still, he couldn’t say what the chances were of coming to agreement Thursday. “I wouldn’t want to handicap it, I haven’t been so good at that,” he said.

It is unclear what the consequences would be for failing to reach agreement by Monday, said state Transportation Planning Director Todd Long. The law simply says the draft list must be done no later than Aug. 15.

The real problems kick in if there’s no final list by Oct. 15. In that case, “special district gridlock” is declared -- a term invented specially by the law that set up the referendum -- and the district cannot try again for a referendum for two years. The local governments also will have to pay a larger portion of some state-funded projects.

Similar referendums are being held in 11 other regions throughout the state as well.

A political consultant who once applied to work on the privately funded campaign that will push the referendum said passing a list quickly and on schedule could wipe away some of the taint of disorder that has attached to the issue in recent weeks.

“The more instability there seems to be to any political campaign, the less likely donors are to feel confident in donating,” said the consultant, Mark Rountree. “If they go ahead and quickly come out with the projects and quickly move past sort of the staff issues that come up, there should not be long-term damage with this.”

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The transportation referendum

What? Voters will consider a 1 percent sales tax to fund a list of projects to alleviate congestion and provide travel options.

Why? Advocates argue that traffic congestion and lack of travel options are choking metro Atlanta's growth.

Who? Drivers, passengers, bicyclists and pedestrians are all supposed to benefit from the tax.

When? The list of projects must be finalized by Oct. 15. The referendum is scheduled for July 31, 2012. The Legislature will consider moving it to the November 2012 general election.

Where? In metro Atlanta, residents of Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties will vote on the tax. If it passes, it will be levied and fund projects within those counties. Eleven other regions around the state also are holding transportation referendums.

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The players

The roundtable: 21 mayors and county commissioners who will approve the final list by Oct. 15.

The roundtable's executive committee: Five mayors and county commissioners who will vote on the draft list by Aug. 15, but hopefully Thursday. The executive committee includes nonvoting members, including its chairman and several legislators.

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The story so far, and yet to come

2010: After several years of back-and-forth in the Legislature on the issue, Gov. Sonny Perdue proposes a bill enabling regional referendums for transportation funding. By the end of the legislative session, it is law.

2011: In accordance with the law, the “roundtable” of local elected officials starts choosing projects. They must have a draft of the project list by Aug. 15, and a final list by Oct. 15.

2012: Following a privately funded political campaign, people vote on a 1 percent sales tax to fund the list. The Legislature is considering moving the referendum, currently scheduled for July 31, to November.

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Projects on a roll

These transit projects were tentatively approved for funding by the roundtable’s executive committee. Until the final list is out, anything can change. Some of the dollar amounts are new, proposed Wednesday:

  • Clifton Corridor MARTA route to Emory University, $700 million
  • Atlanta Beltline, likely streetcars, $658 million
  • Atlanta to Cumberland (Cobb County) northwest corridor, possibly light rail, $879 million
  • MARTA state of good repair funding (various upgrades), $600 million
  • Restore Clayton County local bus service, $100 million
  • Preliminary work on a possible light-rail line from Doraville into Gwinnett, $100 million
  • Georgia Regional Transportation Authority Xpress bus service, $180 million

About $715 million in road projects sponsored by the outer five counties, including:

  • Widening Ga. 140 in Cherokee County, $200 million
  • Widening Thornton Road in Douglas County, $43 million
  • Widening North McDonough Road in Henry County, $48 million
  • Widening Sigman Road in Rockdale County, $30 million
  • Building a new East Fayetteville Bypass, $50.8 million

Projects with good odds

These projects have not been voted on but have garnered support, according to roundtable members, and made a possible list Wednesday. Additional money for them would be contributed from state road budgets:

  • I-285 at Ga. 400 interchange, $172.5 million
  • I-285 at eastern I-20, $47 million
  • Spaghetti Junction, $26.5 million

Projects in play

These projects have not made it past a vote so far, but were put in a proposed list by staff Wednesday:

  • Eastern MARTA extension in I-20 corridor, $250 million
  • Gwinnett County express bus service, $40 million
  • MARTA heavy rail extension north to Ga. 140, $37 million

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By the numbers

10: counties in metro Atlanta's referendum

$7.2 billion: the amount estimated to be raised by the tax overall

$6.1 billion: the amount to be spent on a list of projects of regional significance

$1.1 billion: the amount to be spent by the counties and cities where the tax was raised on local transportation projects of their choice