Sitting in MARTA's Peachtree Center Station on this past Sunday morning, Bianca Lambert waits for a northbound train to take her home to Midtown.
The 25-year-old moved to intown Atlanta from Snellville because she grew tired of planning her days around traffic. She's willing to pay for both better transit to move around Atlanta — and yes, roads that would help people commute to the suburbs.
"I think that's amazing," she says.
Jim (he prefers not to give his last name) is the polar opposite. After Sunday church service in Midtown, the 65-year-old lifelong metro Atlantan — "I was delivered by Dr. Crawford Long at Crawford Long Hospital," he says — waits for a southbound train to bring him home to College Park. Although MARTA is suitable for some trips — say, an out-of-the-way excursion for groceries in Doraville if he wants to get out of the house — he says more rail isn't the answer to metro Atlanta's notorious congestion problems and sprawl.
"We need some major road changes," he says.
The question is this: Are there more Biancas than Jims in the 10-county metro region?
You've seen the billboards, collected all the mailers, and debated with your friends. Now it's time to vote on the regional transportation sales tax and decide whether metro Atlanta finally builds more transit — and yes, lots of roads. Or we roll the dice and try again.
On Tuesday, July 31, voters across metro Atlanta will vote on whether they want to spend the next decade paying an extra penny on every dollar's purchase to build more than $7.2 billion of transportation projects.
Bold-named supporters, including Mayor Kasim Reed, Gov. Nathan Deal, and business bigwigs, are lobbying for a "yes" vote. They say the tax — officially known as the Transportation Investment Act but bastardized as the "T-SPLOST" — will give the 10-county metro region, including Fulton and DeKalb counties, an economic shot in the arm, ease its notorious congestion, and support hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Critics, including the odd alliance of the Sierra Club of Georgia and the Atlanta Tea Party, have pegged it as the wrong measure at the wrong time — "the largest tax increase in our state's history," says Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock. The transit advocates who oppose the tax say the project list does not include nearly enough money for buses and rail to start fixing the sprawling mess that metro Atlanta has become. And road fanatics claim it won't ease congestion on the supersized interstates choking the central city.
T-SPLOST proponents and opponents both predict doom if the vote doesn't swing their way. Should voters reject the measure, tax supporters say, it would send a message to corporations and competing cities that metro Atlanta isn't prepared to fix its traffic snarls, invest in transit, and prepare for future growth. And opponents say the measure, if approved, would saddle future generations of taxpayers with rail and bus projects that never pay off. We'll see who's smarting come Aug. 1.
State lawmakers spent more than three years trying to pass similar measures but failed — at least once in spectacular fashion, in the final moments of the 40-day legislative session. This time, thanks to Mayor Kasim Reed, a former state senator who personally lobbied his former colleagues to pass the bill, the proposal succeeded.
On its surface, the TIA — which we will refer to as the T-SPLOST — looks like a good compromise among road and transit supporters. Voters in the 10-county metro Atlanta region, which includes Atlanta and Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Henry, Gwinnett, Cobb, and Cherokee counties, would decide whether they should pay a 1 percent sales tax to fund road and transit projects selected by a 21-member roundtable of elected officials. These projects would be regional in nature —bigger than just an interchange or new bus route.
According to a formula based on population and number of road miles, 15 percent of the revenues would be allocated to local governments to spend on transportation projects. Atlanta, for example, would receive $94 million over 10 years to spend on projects such as new bike lanes and streetscape overhauls. A citizen advisory panel would oversee the project's progress and, by law, its funding and scope can't be changed without another referendum. Eleven other regions throughout Georgia would conduct the same process, though none would generate nearly as much income.
But there were many devils hiding in the details. What's more, the legislation that came out of the Gold Dome that evening was loaded up with poison pills and middle fingers to MARTA.
Revenues from the tax can't be used to fund the operations and maintenance of MARTA buses and rail lines, even though the cash-strapped agency, which Fulton and DeKalb residents have primarily supported for 40 years by adding a penny tax to every dollar we spend, has long been the backbone of metro Atlanta's transit system.
Then there's the fact that the tax lasts 10 years — not good news for transit projects, which usually need to prove at least two decades of operations funding if they want to snag federal cash. Also, Gov. Sonny Perdue, the architect of the plan, insisted the referendum be scheduled during an election when few people would visit the polls. The list goes on.
Pleas from transit advocates to address those issues in following legislative sessions went unanswered. The creation of an umbrella transit agency to oversee the MARTAs, CCTs, GRTAs, GCTs, and so on — considered key to winning the support of Fulton and DeKalb voters being asked to pay two pennies on each dollar for transportation — was shelved when the state balked at allowing local elected officials more control over how their transit funding was spent.
Nonetheless, mayors and county commissioners met at the downtown headquarters of the Atlanta Regional Commission, the multicounty planning agency that crafts metro Atlanta's long-range transportation, water, and land use policies, to whittle a nearly $23 billion wish list of asphalt and rail projects to $6.14 billion.
Horses were traded. Deals were struck in a nearby stairwell. Advocates including the DeKalb County NAACP, transit wonks, and seniors pleaded for their pet projects. Out went money for a new Amtrak station and funding for commuter rail lines — arguably what's most needed to ease congestion and start triggering the development of walkable communities in the outer 'burbs.
On Oct. 13, 2011, the roundtable unanimously approved a list of 157 projects ranging from interchange fixes in Cobb County to a brand-new MARTA line connecting Lindbergh Center to Emory University. A little more than half of the package was dedicated to rail and bus projects. There were also enough asphalt projects to send a road builder's entire neighborhood to an Ivy League school.
Without the tax, the earliest some of the biggest projects, including an interchange at I-285 and Georgia 400 and transit along the Atlanta Beltline, are scheduled to start construction is 2031. For others, such as new connection at I-285 and Cascade Road, bulldozers aren't supposed to move dirt until "beyond 2040."
Roundtable officials heralded the moment as historic. For the first time anyone could remember, Democrat and Republicans representing urban and suburban areas came together to try and solve a congestion problem that had landed the metro region on every terrible top-10 transportation list imaginable.
The DeKalb County NAACP blasted the tax as "racist" after a MARTA rail line to South DeKalb, promised by the transit agency for decades, was downgraded during the roundtable process to a $225 million bus-rapid transit line — a so-called "down payment" on a future rail route, tax supporters say. John Evans, the chapter's president, told CL the group wouldn't believe the promise "unless they come up with a contract guaranteeing they're going to do it and it's enforceable in a court of law."
Some North Fulton mayors and outside-Atlanta officials questioned why the Beltline was allocated $601 million when the project, in their view, wouldn't relieve traffic congestion and was merely an "economic development" project.
And then the Tea Party joined the fray.
"We all agree there is a traffic problem in metro Atlanta, and we support infrastructure improvements like bridges, road improvements, lane widening, traffic lights, etc.," Debbie Dooley and Justine Thompson of the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots, arguably the most organized group in Georgia, said in a statement after the project list was finalized. "But let's be frank: This is not an infrastructure improvement plan. The project list is not targeted to benefit the majority of citizens in the areas that need relief the most. This is a mass transit tax targeted at financial Titanic MARTA."
Even some supporters bemoaned the project list, which they argued didn't go far enough to restore cuts to MARTA service or help retrofit the sprawling mess that metro Atlanta has become.
Missing from nearly all the criticisms was a clear explanation of what should happen next once the measure fails — a very real possibility if recent polls are any indicator. And in each there's a misunderstanding of the political realities not just in metro Atlanta, but under the Gold Dome.
Creating a new list of projects if the tax goes down in flames would require another vote by the Legislature. According to an analysis of the law by the Atlanta Regional Commission, the entire process could take as long as four years.
State and local leaders, including Gov. Nathan Deal and Mayor Reed, have made clear that there's little-to-no appetite among state lawmakers to revisit the issue, which has been time-consuming, public, and brutal, if it fails at the polls.
"If that is what happens, then I don't I believe there will be an immediate effort," Reed told CL the day after the project list was finalized. "This moment in the life of the region is as pivotal as anything you and I have seen in our lifetimes. I think what's going to happen is we'll be chasing Mississippi. That's what my T-shirt's gonna say."
Others have suggested that the state should raise the gas tax, which hasn't increased since the early 1990s. Even if that were to happen, the state Constitution stipulates that gas tax revenues can only be spent on roads and bridges. Efforts by the Sierra Club and other greenies over the years to change that stipulation to allow funding for transit have gone nowhere.
Yet even if the tax passes, it's guaranteed to be challenged in court. At a recent panel discussion hosted by the Fulton County Taxpayers Association, Phil Kent, a GOP pundit and consultant, told the crowd that some anti-tax legal eagles are already preparing a lawsuit.
The T-SPLOST's fate remains a topic of debate. Polls taken during the roundtable process showed approximately 50 percent of metro Atlantans felt something needed to be done to fix the region's transportation mess. But in recent weeks, as efforts to block the measure have begun in earnest, fewer respondents wondered if the project list and the tax was the best way to solve the problem. A steady stream of polls showed support dropping to as low as 36 percent. The bad news helped convince Reed to release an internal poll commissioned by Untie Atlanta that showed support about even. He's jumped into campaign mode to pass the measure.
The reason, to him, is obvious: "I think that it will be very hard for us to maintain our current position as the most significant and leading economy in the Southeast," Reed says. "I really think that's what is at risk."