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Transportation votes might put Atlanta area under spotlight

A wave of transportation initiatives on the ballot in Fulton County and Atlanta this November could place the region’s infrastructure investment in the national spotlight for the next decade, if voters approve, a panel of transportation experts said Thursday.

Votes to approve transportation sales taxes in the city and the rest of the county, plus approval of MARTA expansion within the city limits, would be an unprecedented expansion of the region’s infrastructure when combined with the increase last year in the state’s fuel taxes for roads and bridges, panelists said at a transportation luncheon for Commercial Real Estate Women Atlanta at the Cobb Galleria Centre.

“Anywhere in the country, people will be looking at us and how we do it,” said Faye DiMassimo, general manager of Renew Atlanta, the city’s infrastructure bond program. She equated what the Atlanta area might do to what the Denver area has done wrangling voters in dozens of jurisdictions to support transit and other regional improvements to combat congestion.

Georgia Department of Transportation earlier this year unveiled an ambitious, 10-year, $10 billion project list fueled by the new gas taxes that includes a network of managed toll lanes along I-285 and Ga. 400, rebuilding the I-20 interchanges on the east and west sides of I-285, and projects to ease truck traffic on I-75 and near the Savannah port.

Natalie Dale, a panelist and spokeswoman for GDOT, said the fuel tax increase also tripled the funding for road maintenance and traffic signal optimization and doubled bridge repair funds.

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That comes on top of managed toll lane projects on I-75 and I-575 northwest of the city and on I-75 south of the Perimeter and the future I-285/Ga. 400 interchange overhaul that were already either underway or in the pipeline.

In November, voters in unincorporated Fulton County and 13 cities (not including Atlanta) will be asked to vote on a three-fourths penny sales tax increase. It could generate $655 million over five years for roads, bridges and sidewalks. The city of Atlanta, meanwhile, will vote on two separate sales tax initiatives: a four-tenths of a penny sales tax increase for five years for roads, and a half-penny sales tax increase for four decades for MARTA.

The MARTA referendum could generate more than $2.5 billion for projects, including expanded bus services, long-planned light rail service on the Beltline and upgraded and infill rail stations on the main MARTA network.

Janide Sidifall, a MARTA senior transit systems project planner, said her agency has improved service and its financial picture after years of struggles and received a boost when Clayton County recently joined.

“We have tried to make a firm foundation to expand our system into a truly regional system,” she said.

Looking ahead to the November vote, moderator James Touchton, a lobbyist for the Council for Quality Growth, said backers were pursuing a low-key campaign specifically targeting voters to share how the sale taxes generated will affect their commutes.

In 2012, voters across metro Atlanta roundly defeated a regional transportation tax, though a majority of voters in the city of Atlanta supported the measure.

Dale said the three parts of the state that did pass the 2012 sales tax are seeing huge growth in infrastructure investment and it is possible some in metro Atlanta may eye this year’s vote more favorably and with some remorse for voting no four years ago.

DiMassimo said that past performance in the city of Atlanta for the 2012 vote isn’t necessarily an indicator of success this time. The voters need to trust they’re getting their money’s worth.

“We cannot take anything for granted,” she said.

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