In August 2012, voters will be asked to approve the largest transportation investment the metro region — and the state — has seen since, well, anyone can remember.
The legislation enabling the proposed 1 cent sales tax referendum, which state lawmakers finally passed in 2010 after years of hand-wringing and procrastination, is estimated to generate approximately $7 billion over 10 years to fund much-needed new road and transit projects throughout metro Atlanta. That is, of course, if tax-adverse voters OK the measure.
Elected officials and business leaders patted themselves on the back for finally doing something about the congestion that's choked interstates and made metro Atlanta a poster child for gridlock. (Actually, they just passed the tough decisions to the voters by passing a referendum, but that's another story.) Yet they're woefully mistaken to think they've prepared a tax that voters — especially those who live in Fulton and DeKalb counties — should support in its current form. Particularly when it comes to transit, the best solution to our transportation morass.
Aside from temporarily loosening ridiculous funding restrictions placed on MARTA, the legislation does very little to help the cash-strapped and dwindling transit agency. Any money raised by the tax could not be spent to maintain existing MARTA bus or rail service. Get deeper into the details of the bill and you'll find its 10-year sunset period hamstrings all transit agencies from bonding against the revenues, which makes paying for rail expansions and new bus service extremely difficult. What's more, it's unclear how different parts of the state could cooperate to build large projects, such as commuter rail lines.
Unfortunately, state lawmakers have said they don't plan to revisit the legislation this year. Still smarting from the wounds they suffered during the battle to pass the bill, they've instead hinted they might revisit the issues next year — just months before voters decide the measure at the polls. That'll be music to the ears of business officials who are crafting a multimillion dollar marketing campaign to educate voters about the tax.
Sure, there are serious talks underway to create a regional transit system, one that, if lawmakers are smart, would include MARTA as its foundation. And the Regional Transit Committee, an often-overlooked group of elected officials and transportation wonks, are doing the heavy lifting to figure out how such a system would work. And yes, our concerns might be eased when a five-member panel, which includes Mayors Kasim Reed and Bill Floyd of Decatur, releases its list later this year of projects that will be funded by the tax. Our fingers are crossed.
The tax's chances of passage are already slim. Should lawmakers not address these issues, rest assured the outlook will be even more dire. Give voters something that makes sense to support.