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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.