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To sprawl or not to sprawl?

I'm for transit, but the proposed sales tax has serious problems. So how the hell should I vote?

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For five years I've been practically begging to pay an extra tax to build sorely needed transit in metro Atlanta. Now that it's a possibility, I wonder if the measure we're being asked to consider this summer is really such a good idea.

On July 31, metro Atlanta voters will decide whether we should pay a 1 percent sales tax to fund new transportation projects in the 10-county region. If approved, the measure would generate more than $7.1 billion for road and rail projects, including: $602 million for transit along the Atlanta Beltline that would link into Midtown; new rail service between Lindbergh and Emory University; and $600 million for overdue repairs to MARTA's aging system.

The Metro Chamber of Commerce, which has helped organize a multimillion-dollar ad campaign trumpeting the tax, and many elected officials say passing the measure would kick-start long overdue road and transit projects that would ease traffic and boost the economy. The sprawling metro Atlanta region could reverse its decades-old myopic approach ("pour more asphalt!") and finally build more mass transit. To vote no would leave us sitting in gridlock on I-75, walking several miles to catch a bus that never seems to arrive, or carrying luggage up a nonfunctioning MARTA escalator. "There is no Plan B," we've been told.

Not so, says the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Several weeks ago, the eco-advocacy group that's long been one of the state's most vocal champions for transit came out against the tax, saying it didn't adequately fund its projects and would fuel sprawl by constructing new roads. They, along with strange bedfellows the Tea Party, argued that voters should reject the tax. Doing so would allow metro Atlanta mayors and county commissioners to restart the admittedly contentious political process: rethink which transportation projects would receive funding from the tax and give the measure another chance two years from now.

Underlying the discussion is a legitimate fear of fatigue on the part of elected officials who might not be able to strike another deal on the list of transportation projects. (Last summer's talks were filled with horse-trading, which helped indirectly lead to some of the concerns progressives have with the bill.)

That doesn't even address the current fatigue of voters who wonder if they'll ever see a workable plan. Another two years might be too long, the tax's supporters claim. But it'd be worth waiting for if we're going to continue to follow the build-more-roads mind-set with only a dabbling of transit projects, say the opponents.

Finally, there's the very legitimate fear of the unknown: If the tax is rejected, what makes anyone think elected officials will allocate any more funding to transit?

Both sides' arguments make sense, and as each side's positions have crystallized, public debate between supporters and opponents has finally started taking place. (CL hosted one such discussion last week at its Atlantic Station offices, which I moderated, between the Sierra Club, the pro-tax Citizens for Transportation Mobility, Atlanta Beltline CEO Brian Leary, and Ron Sifen, a Cobb County community activist opposed to the tax.)

What's pushed me from a tax-me-please radical to a chin-scratching moderate are the long-term consequences the tax could have if passed. The measure's a start, but it doesn't go far enough to protect suburbanites from the inevitable spike in the price of gas or address the real cause of sprawl. It also won't restore the years of service cuts to MARTA, the region's transit spine, or reduce fares — or fund the commuter rail lines that could truly link Atlanta to the hinterlands.

Second, the measure gives the state, which has never paid much interest in anything other than roads, more control over transit. According to the law, the state-controlled Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, or GRTA, would be put in charge of building and operating new transit lines paid for with the tax. That includes the Beltline. Yes, the law says the agency could outsource those duties to the city and Atlanta Beltline Inc., which could then contract with MARTA, which actually has decades of experience building and operating a transit system. MARTA is also a potential transit operator for the Beltline's light rail system. But what guarantee do we have that GRTA — and its board, which is appointed by the governor — will do so? Or that it won't play politics with votes on funding? And when will the state ease MARTA's financial woes and create a regional transit agency to oversee the region's myriad buses and trains — one which gives control to the cities and counties that actually pay for transit, unlike the state, which only funds GRTA's "luxury coaches" into and out of the suburbs and downtown?

By voting "yes," transit supporters are being asked to trust the state, which has failed to properly address these issues for years. I don't. A very clear indication that Gold Dome leadership will meet transit boosters halfway and address these issues could help ease fears. But they need to hurry. Voters visit the polls in less than eight weeks.

I want to help reverse the damage our inaction on transportation has caused to the landscape and quality of life. I want to be able to leave my car at home, ride transit throughout the city, and walk and cycle from neighborhood to neighborhood. But if I'm actually entertaining the notion of waiting for the next funding opportunity — which I must acknowledge that, knowing the state, might never arrive — imagine how other transit supporters feel.

NOTE: This post has been altered to correct an error about outsourcing the building and operating of new transit projects. Under the law, GRTA could contract with city, which could then contract with Atlanta Beltline Inc. ABI could then contract with MARTA just for transit operations. In such a case, the construction of the Beltline transit line would still be under the city and ABI's purview.

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