Fundamentally, this vote is about our desire to move easily about in the place we call home. It seems like such a simple goal that when we consider how impossible it is to achieve for most everyone in Atlanta, it makes us furrow our brow in confusion. How did we let it get so bad? Why can't we drive, or ride, or bike, or walk where we want to without a major obstacle like bumper-to-bumper traffic, limited transit, few bike lanes, and few dense walkable neighborhoods? Why does the simple act of getting from here to there leech our enthusiasm for this great American city and increasingly keep others from experiencing its wonder?
It's important to remember it is not a new problem. The fight to untangle ourselves from the tentacles of Atlanta's transportation beast has been going on for decades. It's a battle that has been so exhausting, one that seems so daunting, that we want to win it all at once — nuke the beast.
Despite our fervent wishes, that solution does not exist. There is no magic bullet, no urban planning miracle that will appreciably shorten your commute in this decade. No matter whether you're a road enthusiast (they've worked so well!) or you believe in "smart growth" (MARTA takes me to my favorite mall!), no one wants to hear that solving our debilitating commuting congestion will take decades, cost a lot of money, and will necessarily include your making tax payments to something you will never use. There are no 30-lane roads best experienced at 110 miles per hour, and we've yet to develop maintenance-free rail lines that run on the cheap, abundant power of butterscotch.
Because it is such a complicated, vexing problem, we cannot afford to look at the July 31 transportation tax referendum in the same highly politicized manner we so often view such votes. As a city, as an electorate, we've fallen into an unfortunate and cynical pattern: scan a proposed solution for all that could be found wrong with it, any portion of it that goes against our particular political grain, and vote against it because it has such flaws. And with 157 projects listed, the T-SPLOST has something for everyone to hate.
It's why, for example, the Sierra Club suggests you vote against the T-SPLOST. It — as do we — believes road-building solutions are largely a waste of money, as decades of research show that they not only will fill and clog relatively quickly, but also that they encourage sprawl, which is damaging to the long-term urban health of a region. Too much money to roads in this plan, it says. Therefore, vote against it and force lawmakers to come up with a better plan.
This perfectly exemplifies the stubbornness that has characterized much of the plan's opposition. Ignore, for a moment, that most of those who are aligned against the plan are so because they feel it has too little road money and too much emphasis on transit. (How they'll get more transit into another plan and increase its appeal to those folks involves, we suspect, some heretofore unexplained mass hypnosis option.) Forget, also, that it's likely to be four years before another plan could even be presented to voters. Just concentrate on this fact: There is nothing that suggests lawmakers, particularly those representing the suburbs, would be under political pressure to provide another option. Even if you believe they will magically do so because of a sudden unexplained outbreak of leadership and sanity at the Gold Dome, no one has answered this question: What would the next plan include that increases its support across the board? More transit, Sierra Club? It will die in the 'burbs. More road money to appease the outlying counties? There will be no Atlanta business or political support to give it the backing such a regional plan needs.
This is not to suggest that there aren't real problems with the project list. Of course there are. There are 157 opportunities to screw it up, and that's the one thing you can count on Georgia lawmakers to do. The oversight structure is very troubling. South DeKalb gets screwed, again. Future funding is not spelled out. And so on.
But there is much right about the plan. It is a step, a series of steps, many of them in the right direction. And although there is something for everyone to hate in it, there is much to love for those who care more about the region's future than they do winning small, petty debate points. Accepting that a comprehensive attempt to fix our transit problems will never be perfect is the nature of compromise. It is not weakness to allow such an effort its faults, it's acting like a grown-up.
In a region as fractured as North Georgia — a ring of aging white conservative suburbs and exurbs that draw their relevance from our diverse, youthful city — chances at sweeping solutions are not guaranteed. We should feel proud that we have a chance to begin the process of change, hopeful that we can solve problems as we go. Disagreeing with portions of the tax is not a reason to vote against it, it is instead a reason to become more involved so that, if it passes, you can help course-correct as we take on this arduous task together.
Furthermore, this tax, if it passes, is not all the work that needs to be done. Not by a long shot. State lawmakers next year must lift restrictions on MARTA's funding — which we provide in the form of a sales tax. This could be used to help restore service cuts and shorten wait times for trains. Do not consider your role as a transit advocate to be over simply because we're getting a few new shiny trains and buses.
Because divided we are not stronger than the beast, and even together it will take a million tiny cuts to loosen its grip. But ignoring it and hoping someone will come along to scare it away will not work. The country is slowly being divided into two groups of cities: ones with the collective will to fight urban transit problems, and those that wither and turn stale as they blame others for not arriving at a perfect solution. We believe a "yes" vote on the T-SPLOST puts us on the right path.