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Transportation referendum: Some basic questions answered

Last week, a coalition of business and civic groups launched an $8 million advertising campaign to promote "yes" votes in July’s transportation referendum. The campaign’s powerhouse list of corporate donors—among them Coke, Delta, Turner, Siemens, Wells Fargo, and GE —should tell you that city leaders are taking the referendum very seriously.

There’s no shortage of literature on the matter, so we’ve broken it down into some basic questions that, despite the length of this blog post, only scratch the surface:

We’re voting on a penny sales tax for transportation, right?
Right, but it’s a bit more nuanced than that. On July 31, Georgians will decide whether to levy a one-percent sales tax to fund a predetermined list of regional transportation investments. The Transportation Investment Act of 2010 (TIA) divided the state into twelve tax districts, each of which will consider a separate work order. It’s possible for the ten-county Atlanta region to pass the tax while Southern Georgia rejects it. The tax would last ten years.

What’s on Atlanta’s list?
Based on a forecasted $7.2 billion in revenue, Atlanta’s investment list contains 157 line items spanning the major—interchange restructuring at GA 400 and I-285, a MARTA rail line to Emory—to the relatively minor—road widenings and sidewalk repairs across the metro area. The final report and project list (PDF; see appendix A) is required reading.

Additionally, 15 percent of the tax revenue will be reserved for counties and municipalities to use at their discretions. "I can’t imagine there’s not a project on this list for everyone in metro Atlanta," says Paul Bennecke, a strategist for the advocacy campaign.

Who decided on the list?
A roundtable of county chairpersons and mayors throughout the region assembled the list between December 2010 and October 2011. Some 200,000 residents weighed in via surveys and community meetings, according to the roundtable’s final report.

What is the ratio of transit to roadway?
The overwhelming majority of projects are roadway improvements, but about 52 percent of total investment funds, or $3.2 billion, is committed to transit. The Clifton Corridor MARTA line alone has a $700 million price tag, while "enhanced premium transit service" from Acworth to Midtown follows close behind at $695 million. Other key transit projects include an extension of the Atlanta streetcar to connection points along the Beltline and MARTA, full funding for GRTA Xpress for five years (which will run out of funds if the referendum doesn’t pass, says Bennecke), and major MARTA repairs.

That’s not to say there aren’t big-ticket road projects on the list, including interchange improvements at GA 400 and I-285, I-85 and 285, and I-20 and 285 for a combined $652 million. The proposed $296 million extension of Sugarloaf Parkway has drawn flack from the Sierra Club. The list goes on.

I read that less than 5 percent of Atlantans use public transit. Why should we devote half the funds to it?
Several critics of the tax have quoted that Census Bureau figure, but it’s as sound an argument for the expansion of transit accessibility as it is for not investing in it. (Disclosure: The author of this blog post takes MARTA to work every day, usually on a full train car, but rarely uses it for social engagements because it doesn’t go where she needs to go.) Other critics charge that the investment list does not do enough for transit. The DeKalb County NAACP, for instance, is furious about the omission of a rail line along I-20 into the southern part of the county.  

The Atlanta Regional Commission predicts that by 2040, our population will grow to 8 million, up from 5 million today, and that by 2030, one out of five residents will be over the age of sixty. Editorializing for a minute, picture an Atlanta with even more congested roads and a bunch of old people behind the wheel. If that doesn’t convince you of the need for more mobility options, try cruising down the interstate in Miami.

Don’t I already pay a fuel tax for transportation?
Yes, but it’s not enough. The combination of inflation (which erodes the purchasing power of a flat fuel tax), rising costs of building materials, and more fuel-efficient cars has created a shortfall on both the federal and state levels. According to an Atlanta Regional Commission report, 70 percent of the region’s scheduled transportation dollars for the next thirty years will go to simply maintaining the existing network.

Compounding the problem is that by law, Georgia cannot direct any of its fuel tax proceeds to public transit. Transit dollars must come out of the state general fund, which basically means they're unavailable. MARTA is the only major transit system in the country not to receive any state funding—a fact that has caught the attention of the Economist and the New York Times.

I live in Fulton/DeKalb and already pay a one-cent sales tax for MARTA. So I would pay two cents toward transportation while everyone else pays one?
Yes. While the investment list earmarks $540 million for scarily necessary-sounding MARTA repairs such as electrical power rehabilitation and elevator/escalator upgrades, those funds may not go to maintenance and operations and would not replace the MARTA tax.

Critics of this aspect of the TIA, such as Sandy Springs mayor Eva Galambos, suggest "this inequity could be cured" with the creation of an umbrella regional transit agency that would weave together local transit systems and level the tax burden. Recent legislation to do just that fizzled because it empowered the state even as the state contributes nothing to public transit. Alternatives have been proposed but did not reach a vote in the most recent legislative session.

What happens if the referendum doesn’t pass?
No, it won’t be the apocalypse. But it would be a death knell for many of the proposed investments, says Bennecke. "I would say that the vast majority of projects on that list would never be built. There’s just no revenue." Additionally, local governments get an immediate slap on the wrist in the form of an increased match requirement for state grants: 30 percent if the measure fails, 10 percent if it passes.

The region may try again in two years. But with all the time and capital invested in the current campaign, it’s hard to imagine such a quick rebound from what would be a morale-killing defeat. Mayor Kasim Reed summed it up at a recent Atlanta Press Club luncheon. "It took four years to get a bill that you all could vote on," he said, recalling his time in the Georgia Senate. "We then had to have a year for a roundtable where we whittled a list from $23 billion down to $6 billion, and that passed unanimously, and now we’re going out and raising between $8 and $10 million from the corporate community for the campaign. That puts us about six years in this deal. So what happens if we fail?

"If we fail, nobody better come and ask me to do it again."