For most metro Atlantans, this month's vote on a transportation tax boils down to whether it will make their commutes faster. But business and economic leaders say the $7.2 billion plan really is about the region's economic future.
They're staking that claim on a 10-year, 10-county referendum to fund transportation projects. While there is no crystal ball to gauge its exact economic impact, a 30-page analysis offers a hint at life in metro Atlanta if the measure passes — and it has become a hot topic for both supporters and opponents of the plan.
Computer modeling suggests the penny sales tax would create thousands of jobs, put billions of dollars in metro Atlantans' pockets, and pump billions more into the overall economy. Over the next three decades, new roads, buses and trains created from the referendum would ease congestion, boost productivity and inject $34.8 billion into the area's economy, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission, the region's official planning agency.
"It will literally pave the way for any new jobs, businesses and economic development projects," said Cheri Matthews, director of zoning and transportation planning for Henry County, which has road projects in the referendum.
Opponents aren't buying it. Few dispute the notion that the region's traffic woes have an economic cost, or that throwing billions at new projects could create jobs.
But they say the projects on the list won't make enough of a difference to justify the taxpayer burden.
Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation policy analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation, examined the project list and questioned whether the ARC was too optimistic in predicting mass transit ridership because sometimes other agencies have done that before. Even if the ridership was on target, he believes transit's impact on the economy will be weak — an inefficient use, he concluded, of more than half the money in the project list.
"If we're spending this much money," he said, "we could be getting a lot more bang for the buck."
Independent economists say forecasting so far ahead is imprecise.
Even the ARC has no way of knowing if its predictions will become reality, a national expert who consulted on the report conceded.
Lisa Petraglia, vice president of economic research at EDRG, said the ARC used widely respected tools and took a conservative approach. "No one expects a tool to be perfect, but it gives you an indication of the direction of change if you go in one policy path versus another," she said.
All sides acknowledge the referendum results will shape the region's future, for good or for ill.
On any given day, an assortment of commerce crisscrosses metro Atlanta's ribbon of highways, as do about 1.8 million workers. Time spent idling on traffic-clogged roads costs the greater Atlanta area $2.5 billion a year in lost time and fuel, and raises more ammunition for the area's competitors, especially Charlotte and Dallas.
The average Atlanta commuter wastes about 43 hours a year idling in traffic, according to Urban Mobility, a national traffic study. But businesses, not commuters, are leading the charge for the referendum's passage on July 31.
A leading corporate site selection expert called the referendum "one of the most vital votes" in metro Atlanta's history.
"Atlanta's way past due in addressing its traffic problems. It's probably one of the last major metro areas that's failed to address this issue adequately," said Dennis J. Donovan, principal with WDG Consulting in Bridgewater, N.J. If the referendum doesn't pass, "What's going to happen is lost jobs."
Traffic congestion has knocked metro Atlanta out of the national running for some high-profile companies — including a lost chance last year to snare a nationally known research and development firm with 100 high-paying jobs, Donovan said.
At least one economist cautions against making traffic the main culprit for Atlanta losing business to competitors.
"Many of the business relocation and expansion decisions hinge on a constellation of factors, and transportation infrastructure is just one of those factors," said Jeff Humphreys, director of economic forecasting at the University of Georgia. "It's difficult to know which factor was the deciding factor between Atlanta and Dallas and whoever we were up against."
For companies that are already here, the reality is stark.
Home improvement retail giant Home Depot normally would fight a new sales tax. But traffic congestion is costing the company, said chief financial officer Carol Tome. As chairwoman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, a business advocacy group, she's heading efforts to pass the tax.
"In Georgia, we travel 9.12 million miles moving merchandise to our stores," Tome said. "[Congestion] costs us money. If we can't move the merchandise, if we can't get product to the shelf on time, we lose a sale."
Chanda Bell's family-owned publishing company has been in Marietta for seven years. The 30-employee company, CCA and B, ships the children's book "Elf on the Shelf" and toy elves throughout the U.S. and Canada. Bell says congestion has cost her company dearly.
In the past two years, the company has lost a graphic designer and a salesperson who found the commute too much. The company has to reroute its trucks from I-75 to U.S. 41 because of congestion, especially during its busy season. The company also has incurred hefty "wait fees" — hundreds of dollars a pop — from trucking firms that are forced to wait to load and unload at the Marietta's facility.
When traffic is bad, it can take Bell two hours one way to get to work from her home in Snellville. If the referendum passes, she's eager to see improvements to the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange, one of the biggest items on the $6.14 billion project list.
"You sit in traffic and think to yourself, 'Why isn't anybody doing anything about this?'" Bell said.
ARC officials acknowledge that forecasting the future is tough, but their models still try to predict the projects' overall economic impact. They found that the tax would start creating some jobs right away as construction workers build projects. The impact on the economy would really increase after the projects were completed and in use.
According to ARC, the two biggest jobs beneficiaries of the referendum over the next three decades would be in construction, and in health care as the region's population gets older.
The tax has drawn advocates from lobbyists for those groups.
Local construction, which has endured 40 percent unemployment during the past six years, could see thousands of jobs created during the next two decades, said David Moellering, executive director of the Georgia Highway Contractors Association, which represents about 300 companies in the road and bridge-building business.
The Emory University/Clifton Road corridor would add a $700 million rail line that could give commuters an alternative to congestion and more easily link the area's nearly 33,000 workers, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to other health care and research facilities in the region.
Further, it could open the corridor to the possibility of becoming a research corridor similar to Boston, where biotech firms and business incubators have sprung up along its transit routes, said Betty Willis, senior associate vice president for governmental and community affairs at Emory.
"If you've got scientists and researchers who are able to easily move back and forth and connect with colleagues at other universities in the area, that would increase the potential for more research collaboration," Willis said.
The rail line also could help keep young medical graduates from defecting to other more transit-friendly cities, Willis said.
The logistics industry and countless others that depend on roads would benefit, too, according to advocates.
The referendum's proposed improvements along the I-285/I-20 corridor could bring relief for trucks traveling through the region's freight hubs in Douglas and south Fulton counties, economic development officials there said.
South Fulton is home to the Fulton Industrial Boulevard area, the largest industrial park of its kind east of the Mississippi.
Critics acknowledge the need, but wonder whether the hopes for the referendum are overblown.
The prospects of traffic relief from the referendum projects overall are modest in any case, a testament to how hard it is to improve a region's traffic. The particular roads to be widened — some of the region's most congested — would see an average of 24 percent improvement, according to the ARC.
The ARC, which says it is neutral, measured the future as we know it without the referendum passing, against the future with the referendum passing.
The study found the region would produce more goods and services if the project list is built. In the first year after the projects are complete, 2025, they would increase the region's productivity by more than $1 billion, according to the study. As years progress, the benefit would get bigger. The region currently produces about $241 billion a year in goods and services.
"Think of a truck sitting idling — if that truck can do a little more a little faster, that really adds up over the region over time," said Mike Alexander, the ARC's research chief.
According to the ARC, the total increase in the region's goods and services resulting from the tax by 2040 would be $34.8 billion. The campaign to pass the tax calls it a 4-to-1 return on investment.
The ARC also projects the transportation improvements will put more money in people's pockets.
The ARC projects that each year, an average of 7,100 paying jobs would be added in the region, ramping up to more than 13,000 in 2040 alone. The region now sustains about 2.1 million jobs.
ARC researchers also calculated the ripple effect of spending.
Economists familiar with forecasting were cautious about the ARC's findings.
"It's hard to predict more than 18 months [out] anyway," said UGA's Humphreys.
Another economist took an independent look at the ARC study. He praised the "thoughtful" work but deemed the goal "ambitious."
"Kudos to them for trying to get their arms around the problem of trying to quantify the economic impact, but it is a very tough problem," Mercer University economics professor Roger Tutterow said. "It's important not to overstate the precision with which we can forecast or estimate the magnitude of these effects."
Opponents have taken aim at the findings.
Bob Ross, a co-founder of the Fayette County Issues Tea Party who's also a retired Army logistics officer in Peachtree City, has been doing calculations that provide ammunition for referendum opponents. He notes that the $8.5 billion investment (the $7.2 billion plan, after inflation) doesn't take into account the cost of keeping some of the projects operating after the 10-year tax is over.
Ross also says spending so much money on mass transit doesn't make sense, considering how few people use it overall. Across metro Atlanta's 10 counties, according to the ARC, currently about 4 percent of the nearly 2 million workers take mass transit.
The ARC counters that metro Atlanta's transit is strategically located: Imagine putting all of the Red Line MARTA riders onto Ga. 400 at rush hour.
For some businesses, the concern is personal: Many transportation expansion projects take someone's land.
If the referendum passes, a major overhaul would transform Tara Boulevard into a "super-arterial" thoroughfare in Clayton County. Gary Hall fears that could mean the death of one of his tattoo shops, Ink Wizard Tattoos, which is on that road. His 16-year-old business is in the shadows of a pro-referendum billboard sign.
"I'm against anything that's going to tear up 19/41," Hall said, referring to Tara's other name.
But in the end, maybe the real issue is the symbolism of the referendum.
"If it doesn't pass, it will send a message to our competitors and they will use it [against us]," said Bill Cronin, vice president of economic development of Invest Atlanta, an agency behind the Beltline. "They will say we can't get things done and we can't work together as a community or region."
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