Next year's vote to fund new road and transit projects has the potential to be something exceptional. The $3.4 billion designated for transit would be the first significant investment metro Atlanta has made in the 40 years since the original vote to fund MARTA.
But based on successful ballot measures around the country, there are some issues that need to be addressed to ensure that the transportation tax is approved by voters.
There are game-changing projects on the transportation tax list, which must be OK'd by a 21-member "roundtable" of elected officials before Oct. 15. Rail along Clifton Corridor could improve the quality of life for students at Emory and the commutes of CDC employees. Light rail into Cobb County would be a benefit to the region; a line that would, in time, connect to Acworth would open up more options for commuters, as well as aid in job growth and economic development for the region. Rome wasn't built in a day and extensive rail networks aren't built in a decade. But this is the first step toward a real long-term solution to congestion in Atlanta.
What won't benefit the region is throwing only $225 million at what's being referred to as a heavy rail line along the I-20 corridor in DeKalb County.
What would we get for $225 million? Some park-n-ride lots, maybe a bus rapid transit route, a study or two and, if we're lucky, some right-of-way. That's a lot of money for one bus and some pavement. In fact, that's more money than GRTA and Clayton County are getting combined to run two networks of bus service while other projects like the Clifton Corridor are receiving dangerously close to minimal funding. The roundtable needs to reassure voters what that investment would bring.
In order to present a passable referendum, the list needs to include projects that offer immediate relief, such as expanded bus service in Clayton and rail lines that are appropriately funded. Granting only minimal funding to projects sets us up for failure. If the projects on the list are done right, the public will want to continue its transportation investment. If we fail because projects are incomplete or undeliverable, we kill those chances.
The roundtable shouldn't fall prey to the inclination to divide the money up equally. Officials should remind voters that any project that spurs economic development and encourages businesses to relocate to Atlanta would benefit the whole region — even the counties it doesn't run through. It should be honest about what can be done to ensure success while giving voters real investments.
And let's forget the Northern Arc — the controversial road project that was killed by citizen outcry in 2003 and could receive an estimated $296 million from the tax.
Ashley Robbins is president of Citizens for Progressive Transit.