Atlanta Transit Expansion Comes Closer as Region Prepares for Tax Referendum


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Hopes for regional transit funding are lining up.
When it was originally proposed in 1965, MARTA was supposed to be the transit authority serving the entire Atlanta region, then splayed out over five counties. Yet the system required funding to be put in place, and when asked to devote some of their sales taxes to the cause, only people in Fulton and DeKalb Counties — the most central of the region — agreed to pony up. So the rail system that began operations in mid-1979 remains constrained to those counties’ borders. Lacking needed funds, the original system plan has yet to be completed.
That’s in spite of the fact that the ten closest-in Atlanta region counties now house more than 4.1 million people and have grown significantly over the past half century. Partially because of the failure to expand MARTA, the region’s transit mode share of work trips has declined disastrously from 16.8% in 1960 to 3.7% today. New transportation projects have been few and far between: Currently, the only transit program that has its funding secured in the Atlanta region is the short (and, from the standpoint of the region’s larger needs, modest) Georgia Transit Connector streetcar, which was funded by a U.S. Department of Transportation TIGER grant last fall.
Fortunately, the area’s residents will be allowed to vote next year on an increase in local funding for transportation through a 1¢ sales tax, which would extend across the ten counties if it were approved by the population. The referendum, which is expected to raise up to $7 billion in additional resources over the next ten years, was made possible because of the passage of a Georgia state law in June 2010 largely pushed through by new Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
The flow of dollars holds great promise and could be instrumental in aiding the region develop its meager fixed-route public transportation network into something more convenient. Already, cities and counties across the region have submitted $24 billion in potential projects to be funded with the money, far more than could be distributed. (15% of dollars raised will be spent by constituent local governments, with 85% remaining allocated by the regional planning authority for projects determined by a regional “roundtable” group.) The final list of projects that would be funded by the tax will be determined in October.
Despite the clear need for improved transportation in the metropolitan region, though, there is no guarantee that county populations will approve the sales tax increase or that the projects chosen for funding will be appropriate in guiding the area’s growth.
The first problem is serious: The anti-government sentiment currently festering in the United States is likely to negatively affect proposals that would do a lot to expand the commuting options for one of the nation’s largest regions. Though transportation sales tax increase measures have fared well in cities from Charlotte to Los Angeles, whether they can pass in broad sections of the suburbs is a different matter. It seems almost inevitable that the citizens of Atlanta will vote in favor of the proposal, even though it will double their sales taxes dedicated to transport, but getting people to do the same in exurban sections of Gwinnett County will be much more difficult. It didn’t happen 40 years ago.
Second, even if the tax increase is passed, the projects funded will not necessarily contribute to positive change in this sprawling metropolis. Though MARTA has a number of transportation expansions under study, parts of the $7 billion will be distributed to roads projects as well. Outside of Atlanta proper, which contains just 10% of the larger region’s population, there is likely to be more support for highway infrastructure than bus or rail investments.
Some advocacy groups have already begun pushing to ensure that transit gets its “fair share” of funds, which they argue is 60% of the total, or $4.2 billion over ten years. That’s a big sum even for a region as large as this one, but it may also be too optimistic, especially if those making the list want the measure to pass in car-dominated outer sections of the area. The respective influence of these rival factors will be better understood once the list of projects to be funded is finalized later this year.
What seems likely are a serious of compromises, largely involving the extension of transit lines out into the suburbs, investments that return fewer transportation benefits than equivalent projects in the core but which could offer a motivation for voters and politicians from areas outside of Atlanta to support the tax increase. Bus rapid transit or heavy rail extensions from each of MARTA’s current termini have been proposed; these offerings would be heavy on cost but likely limited in spurring new construction around stations and encouraging car-free lifestyles. Their inclusion in the plan, however, may be necessary to acquire the necessary political support for the program over the next year or so.
Nonetheless, the potential for great improvement in Atlanta area transit is exciting. The Beltline, which would ring the city’s core with a light rail route coordinated with transit-oriented development, is a role model for the rest of the country — and the city has appropriately argued that a large percentage of the funding go to that project. In addition, a connection between Lindbergh Center and Emory University, a project that (in a different form) was part of the original MARTA network plans, has been revived as a regional priority and could finally see the light of day.

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