Voters get a less-than-grand transportation plan

Now it’s up to you: Are the projects worth the penny?

After months of wrangling and years of talk, regional leaders produced a list of transportation projects dividing $6 billion throughout the 10-county Atlanta region. The list now goes to voters, who will decide in a referendum next year whether to fund the projects with a 1 percent sales tax.

The list of projects — road and rail, bus, sidewalk and airport — will take a whack at some of the region’s most serious highway bottlenecks, and is a first step toward transforming the metro Atlanta commute.

But it won’t come close to solving congestion on its own.

As congratulations flow on reaching regional agreement despite the odds, leaders acknowledge that the compromises they made to get there led to a far less ambitious plan than some had hoped.

It may represent an equally important step in regional governance: metro Atlanta officials may have learned to work together to attack major problems. But the work also showed the limits of collaboration and compromise. Some in the suburbs were left with a nagging feeling roads there were slighted, while some who hoped for a grand suburban rail plan saw even modest efforts such as a line to Cobb scaled back.

The money is big: $6.14 billion over 10 years for projects of regional significance, plus $1 billion for smaller local projects — likely the largest single infrastructure investment in the region in 40 years or more. Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, chairman of the 21-member “roundtable” of local elected officials forming the list, likened passing the list to securing the 1996 Olympic Games, and knowing the investment it would bring. “I had that same feeling today,” he said, moments after unanimous passage.

The tax could build two new interstate interchanges and expand eight others; it could build two new rail lines, possibly more. Suburban and urban commuters would see dozens of arterial roads widened and countless intersections fixed.

Bus service now abandoned or on the chopping block would roll again. New “premium” bus lines could pave the way for rail.

The list would save the region $800 million in wasted time and fuel, according to preliminary figures from the Atlanta Regional Commission, and enable 250,000 additional workers to get to jobs by car in 45 minutes or less. An additional 590,000 commuters would be able to access jobs by mass transit in 45 minutes or less.

While the money is big, the needs are bigger.

As negotiations whittled down the wish list to an affordable size, billions of dollars of road and mass transit projects fell to the wayside, and every county sacrificed much-needed improvements.

Except at interchanges, the plan does not add regular lanes to interstates. There is no guarantee that it would push rail beyond the four-decade-old rail district of Fulton and DeKalb counties. Dreams of a suburban rail system are barely a shadow in the plan, with possible future lines in Gwinnett and Clayton counties receiving only enough money for preliminary work. One proposal could have built a rail line a mile and a half into Cobb, but the construction money was scaled back in order to give more money to roads and to placate some bitter political opposition.

Bicycle and pedestrian projects garnered a fraction of the money that the regional officials once aimed to spend on them.

The list is supposed to serve mobility. But leaders concede that it serves political ends too.

Designed to pass

“It is both,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “I think anyone that has a process pass by referendum and makes the suggestion that it’s not designed to pass is not being candid.”

One of the strongest constituencies for the referendum are Fulton and DeKalb County Democrats, many of whom will be fans of the Beltline. No leader interviewed would say the main purpose of the Beltline was congestion relief or even a mobility breakthrough, but rather, economic development.

And that took $602 million.

And no one would say that the $225 million allocated to eastern I-20 transit will build the desired rail line; the money was allocated after south DeKalb County activists rose up at being passed by.

Advocates for that project as well as a Cobb rail line hope federal grants will fill the gap. But it’s a competitive process nationally, “oversubscribed,” said MARTA CEO Beverly Scott. Now it seems multiple projects within metro Atlanta will be competing against each other as well for the federal grants.

Emory Morsberger, a property redeveloper with projects in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties, for years advocated for a “Brain Train” that would run between the University of Georgia and the Emory/Clifton Corridor area. An important part of that is rail through Gwinnett County, which won only a $95 million study grant in the list. He’s glad to see the Clifton Corridor project funded. But the rest of the list is wanting, he said.

“I give it a “C,” said Morsberger. “This is a political process and some people have political goals. Some of those political goals are being met with this process.”

He was reluctant to criticize any project, but could not praise the Beltline, which takes up $602 million. “I think the Beltline is a cute thing for the city of Atlanta,” he said. By not funding ambitious projects such as rail out into the suburbs, he said, “It means that basically Charlotte and Birmingham and Chattanooga increase their rate of passing us and new employers move there rather than to our town. It means we lose jobs. ... They’re not realizing that having a backward transportation system is noticed by people who are moving businesses into an area.”

However, Gwinnett County Chairwoman Charlotte Nash and Chairman Tim Lee of Cobb County said there was nothing wrong with following the people’s instructions, and they were responding to voter sentiment in making more modest transit choices.

“It’s both a political list and a mobility list,” said Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, which plans to push for the referendum. “It has to be. ... In the end it’s got to be about, do the voters want this and are they willing to pay for it?”

For some voters, the problem with the list is that it has any transit at all.

Not long after the list passed, a broadside from the tea party landed. Leaders of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots and the Atlanta Tea Party said that road projects were worthwhile, but the transit investment was wasteful. “Let’s be frank, this is not an infrastructure improvement plan,” the statement read. “Now that the final project list has been released we are more determined than ever to make sure this T-SPLOST” — the name for the transportation special tax — “is DOA.”

Mark Hodge, a sales executive who lives in Woodstock, said his interstate commute is “an absolute nightmare,” but he doesn’t trust the government to bring projects in on time and on budget. Besides, he said, counties such as Cherokee could do better by raising their own special tax and keeping all the money within the county borders. “With only four projects on that list I give this a 5 percent chance of passing our county,” he said.

A long road

Todd Long, the state’s transportation planning director, conceded that the list was “not anywhere near complete” from a mass transit perspective and “not a fix-all” for roads either, though it opens some important bottlenecks.

“It’s the start of transformative,” Long said. “We said at the beginning we need infusions over a long period of time, not just 10 years. Atlanta has not been underfunded for 10 years, but for a lot longer than that.”

He and others also stressed that the list will combine with the regular budget for projects, as well as toll projects that are coming on line, such as new lanes along I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee Counties.

Robert Broome, government affairs director for the Atlanta Board of Realtors and a Cobb County resident, spoke in favor of the rail project at a forum about the project list. But he said scaling back that project doesn’t change his support for the list.

“The most important thing that I think voters need to understand is if we fail to take advantage of this opportunity to make important investments in relieving traffic congestion, we will condemn following generations to suffer for our mistakes — through an anemic job market, through loss of opportunity, through stagnant property values,” Broome said. “It’s that the catastrophic consequences of the failure to authorize this are too horrific to contemplate.”

Paul Bennecke is setting strategy for the privately funded political campaign to pass the referendum. He said he could “absolutely” sell the list.

“For economic purposes, for quality of life purposes, to reduce that traffic congestion, this project list does that,” Bennecke said. “It does it immediately, it does it over the 10-year period, it does it locally, it does it regionally. So we’re very optimistic that we can sell this to the voters. ... You’ve got places like Charlotte and Nashville and Tampa and Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Seattle, St. Louis, all hoping that this roundtable couldn’t accomplish what they did.”

In the end, the opinion that counts is the voters’.

Lane Tatman, a registered nurse at Grady Memorial Hospital, lives in Decatur and has mixed feelings about the list but plans to vote for it. When he learned that Cobb had scaled back the funding for the rail line, his reaction was that “Cobb County needs to get their heads out of the mud.”

But he thinks it’s “amazing” that officials from such different backgrounds agreed on it.

“What democracy’s about is compromise,” Tatman said. “You don’t get everything now. Sometimes it’s smaller steps that you want, but if it’s going in the right direction, that’s what counts.”