Metro Atlanta mayors and county commissioners on Thursday overcame decades of distrust to finalize a massive transportation project list that — if approved by voters — could bring relief to commuters in 10 counties.
The $6.14 billion in projects will go before voters in a referendum next year. There, residents will consider the project list along with a 10-year 1 percent sales tax to fund it.
If approved at the ballot box, it would be the biggest single infusion of infrastructure dollars in the region in at least 40 years, prompting an avalanche of roadwork and new bus service in the first three years alone.
By 2022, more than 100 projects would be built, or in the case of the most complicated long-haul transit projects, at least under construction.
Advocates say the plan is crucial for the region’s continued growth and quality of life, and they are preparing a multimillion-dollar campaign to pass it.
Some opponents say it’s a wasteful and hurtful tax, and they are ready to fight. Others decried the fate of certain projects.
Still, the mood among officials was hopeful Thursday.
“It’s a good day,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who sat on the panel that chose the projects and was instrumental in passing the law that set up the referendum. “Now it’s up to the people of the region.”
The 18-0 vote capped months of strained bargaining punctuated by moments of graceful diplomacy and occasional anger. In the end, the list gave no one complete satisfaction, leaving out desired road projects and scaling down rail projects into bus lines.
If approved, it would rebuild major interchanges on I-285 and Ga. 400 as well as expand the region’s rail system for the first time since MARTA went to North Springs in 2000.
It has the potential to touch rural Cherokee County truck drivers, downtown Atlanta MARTA passengers and suburban interstate highway SUV commuters alike.
Of the money raised by the referendum, 52 percent would be spent on mass transit and 48 percent on roads. If approved, it would widen surface streets, fix intersections, rebuild highway interchanges, fund buses and likely build new rail lines.
Three rural mayors out of the 21 members of the “roundtable” of mayors and county commissioners did not attend Thursday’s meeting. But each — Ken Steele of Fayetteville, Mickey Thompson of Douglasville and Tim Downing of Holly Springs — said they supported the list and would have voted for it had they been present.
Who favors plan, who doesn't
But for all the unity and congratulations at the roundtable, opponents immediately launched assaults Thursday, from opposite sides.
Tea party leaders assailed the plan as “a mass transit tax targeted at financial Titanic MARTA.”
“We all agree there is a traffic problem in metro Atlanta, and we support infrastructure improvements” on roads, read the statement from the Georgia Tea Party Patriots and Atlanta Tea Party. “The project list is not targeted to benefit the majority of citizens in the areas they need relief the most.”
But transit advocates in DeKalb County said they were “outraged” that the list dedicated insufficient funds to build rail along eastern I-20. DeKalb Commissioner Lee May, who issued the statement, said he had not yet decided whether to campaign against the referendum, but that he did not support the list.
Reed had a message for the opponents.
“For folks who disagree with this work, I just want you to put up your Plan B,” Reed said at a packed news conference after the project list was approved. “Show me what your plan is to deal with the biggest threat to our region and our state, which is traffic congestion.
“We’re losing business .... because of traffic, and we know what our competitors are saying.”
Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, which led the push for the plan, said the list would seriously address congestion, but just the fact of reaching agreement was a leap forward. “I’m doing a jig,” he said.
Even Gov. Nathan Deal vowed Thursday to support it.
“I don’t foresee any other revenue source, in the short term at least, that has the potential of the 1-cent sales tax that is built into this,” Deal said.
The biggest single projects on the list are mass transit: $700 million for a transit line to the Emory University and Clifton corridor area, and $602 million for part of the Beltline in intown Atlanta. Those would almost certainly yield rail lines. But advocates who wanted certainty for rail lines to Cobb County and along eastern I-20 were disappointed.
Those projects received enough money to initiate “premium” bus lines with stations, but likely not enough to build rail without federal grants. Cobb County Chairman Tim Lee said the Cobb line is still a good candidate for a federal grant that could build a rail line, with its $689 million allocation from the regional tax.
Getting down to details
Along Ga. 400, drivers would see major change with reconstruction projects at I-285 and new sorting lanes north of there. But like the transit expansions, those projects probably would not be under construction until the end of the 10-year tax period, between 2020 and 2022.
In an effort to space out the payments and the roadwork, planners divided the projects into three time periods for construction work. The first years from 2013 to 2015 would see dozens of surface street widenings and improvements, as well as new bus services in places such as Clayton County, along with an occasional interstate project such as I-75 at Bill Gardner Parkway.
In the meantime, preparations, design and engineering would be done on larger and less prepared projects, which would go under construction later, said David Haynes, a planner at the Atlanta Regional Commission.
He said project managers at the Georgia Department of Transportation would be in charge of executing the road projects, and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority would oversee the mass transit projects.
Those project managers could tweak the schedules once work begins on projects and planners have a deeper understanding of how shovel-ready they are.
Small amounts of money also go to airports, bicycle and pedestrian projects.
Many roundtable officials noted that some people did not believe that the entire region could come together to agree on anything. “Guess what, we proved them wrong,” said Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews, one of the roundtable’s 21 members.
Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, who chaired the group, likened the transportation effort to the campaign to secure the 1996 Olympics for Atlanta, an analogy echoed by Reed.
“This was tough, it was long, it was laborious,” Reed said, “but I think the juice was worth the squeeze.”
Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this article.
Here’s a look at anticipated construction start dates for a sampling of projects. Some work, such as engineering, may begin on the larger projects years before construction starts, but everything must still be approved by voters next year.
Atlanta: 10th Street from Howell Mill Road to Monroe Drive -- traffic improvements
Atlanta: 14th Street from Howell Mill Road to Piedmont Road -- traffic improvements
Atlanta: Auburn Avenue from Peachtree Street to Boulevard -- traffic improvements
Atlanta: Courtland Street at CSX Rail Line and MARTA East Line -- bridge replacement
Clayton: Local bus service
DeKalb: I-20 East transit corridor investments (commuter bus service that could pave the way for rail)
DeKalb: North Druid Hills Road from Ga. 13 (Buford Highway) to U.S. 29 (Lawrenceville Highway) -- corridor improvements
DeKalb: Panola Road from Thompson Mill Road to U.S. 278 (Covington Highway) -- widening
Fulton: Hammond Drive from Ga. 9 (Roswell Road) to Ga. 400 -- improvements
Gwinnett: U.S. 78 (Main Street) at Ga. 124 (Scenic Highway) -- intersection improvements
Regional: GRTA Xpress System — operations and capital funding for existing services
Atlanta: Atlanta Beltline and Atlanta Streetcar Transit and Trail -- Downtown to Northeast
Atlanta: Atlanta Beltline and Atlanta Streetcar Transit and Trail -- Downtown and Midtown to Southwest
Cherokee: Several projects to widen Ga. 140
Cobb: Ga. 360 (Macland Road) from Paulding County line to New Macland Road/Lost Mountain Road -- widening
Douglas: U.S. 78 (Veterans Memorial Highway) from Ga. 6 (Thornton Road) to Sweetwater Road -- widening
Fayette: East Fayetteville Bypass, two segments -- new alignment and widening
Gwinnett: Ga. 141 (Peachtree Parkway) from Peachtree Industrial Boulevard to Chattahoochee River -- widening
Henry: Bill Gardner Parkway from Ga. 155 (North McDonough Road) to I-75 South -- widening
Clayton: U.S. 19/41 (Tara Boulevard) from I-75 South to Battle Creek Road -- super-arterial concept
Cobb: Enhanced Premium Transit Service -- Acworth/Kennesaw/Town Center to MARTA Arts Center Station
Cobb: I-75 North at Windy Hill Road -- interchange improvements
DeKalb: Clifton Corridor Transit -- Lindbergh Center to Emory University/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (MARTA rail expansion)
Fulton: I-285 North at Ga. 400 -- interchange improvements
Fulton: Ga. 400 from I-285 North to Spalding Drive -- collector distributor lanes
Fulton: Ga. 6 (Camp Creek Parkway) from I-85 South to Welcome All Road -- widening
Gwinnett: Sugarloaf Parkway Phase 2 Extension from Ga. 316 to Ga. 20 (Buford Drive) -- new alignment
Henry: U.S. 23/Ga. 42 from Ga. 138 to Ga. 155 -- widening
Source: Atlanta Regional Commission