Reaction mixed on regional transportation list

As news of a draft list of regional transportation projects worked its way through the 10-county metro Atlanta region, everyone had their own ideas about what should have been on the list.

And what still could be.

The $6.1 billion list that was accepted unanimously by a five-member group of elected officials on Monday isn’t necessarily what voters will see in next year’s referendum on a 1-cent tax to fund a set of projects. The “roundtable,” a 21-member group of local elected officials, must approve a project list by Oct. 15, and the public can weigh in before then.

Opinions already are plentiful.

North of Atlanta, there were still concerns about a central governance agency for regional transportation; while the southern counties were upset about the lack of transit projects designated for their communities. There was also concern about the ratio of roads versus transit projects included in the list. And with the still troubled economy, there remained opposition from residents to any project or program that would add taxes -- even 1 cent -- to already strained budgets.

At some point, there is going to have to be a “coming home” meeting on the split between roads and transit, said Union City Mayor Ralph Moore, a member of the roundtable. “If it’s going to be roads, have a referendum on that; if it’s going to be transit, have a referendum on that,” he said. “I’m not sure having both didn’t do a disservice to both.”

DeKalb County commissioners spent part of their regular committee meeting Tuesday morning griping about the project list, generally about the 55 percent-45 percent split for transit to roads, and specifically about just $225 million being recommended for the I-20 rail project from Indian Creek transit station to Wesley Chapel Road. The $225 million, about a third of the projected price tag, would cover engineering work and park and ride stations for likely later rail stops, according to MARTA CEO Beverly Scott.
“The only way this is going to be a successful program is if we invest in transit, get people out of their cars and reduce traffic,” DeKalb Commissioner Lee May said. “If I-20 is not in there, getting us to Wesley Chapel, I don’t see it. If [DeKalb and Fulton residents] can’t see that benefit from the two pennies [the existing MARTA tax and regional transportation tax] they’re going to be paying, it’s going to be difficult.”

The 10-year tax is expected to raise $7.2 billion, of which $6.1 billion goes to the regional project list. The other $1.1 billion may be spent by counties and cities on transportation projects of their choosing.

Georgia State University student and frequent public transportation user Chloe Hill supports the tax, specifically the roads projects.

“I want more trains, but what really needs to be fixed first is roads and bus service, because both are really bad in this area.”

Still, it’s time for Atlanta to turn its attention to rail, said Cobb commuter Kevin Jones.

“It is past time for Atlanta to have a more expanded rail system,” said Jones, a mortgage banker who lives and works in the Smyrna-Vinings area. If voters approve the referendum and a rail line running from the Cumberland area of Cobb County to the Arts Center MARTA station is built, Jones would be a regular rider. “I agree with funding for transit, but I don’t think they can get it done right here. For some reason, in the South, they are more about roads than rail.”

For a true investment in transit that would jump-start economic development in all parts of the region, the mix of projects should be closer to 60 percent for transit and 40 percent for roads, said Taylor Rice, board chairman of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce.

Officials in Henry and Clayton counties lobbied unsuccessfully for rail projects in their counties, securing instead road projects, as well as revived bus service in Clayton.

"The growth and direct economic impact of commuter rail in Henry and Clayton counties would be explosive, and you can’t put a price tag on that kind of thing,” Rice said.

Two months of public comment, in a dozen meetings across the region, are scheduled to determine whether changes need to be made to improve the project list's chances for passage in 2012.

Transit advocate Nathaniel Smith, with the Partnership for Southern Equity, which works for fairness in growth issues, wants some changes to the list, as does Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker.
“In the absence of significant changes, personally, I'm really struggling with it,” Bodker said. “I see most of the funding is moving toward transit projects, and I'm a big supporter of transit that helps the region. Most of that transit funding is going to the Beltline right now."

Whatever the final list turns out to be, it won’t be enough to sway voters in Cherokee County, said H.T. Bradford.

“We don’t look for this to do anything for us,” said Bradford, a leader of the Hickory Flat Tea Party Patriots, who plans to work on defeating the regional tax. “This is not worth swallowing a 1 percent tax. There is nothing wrong with traffic in Cherokee County that getting up 15 minutes early won’t solve. This will be another sales tax that won’t go away.”

Staff writers April Hunt and Patrick Fox contributed to this article.