The road leading up to the July 31 transportation tax referendum, commonly known as the TSPLOST, has been about as harmonious as a Friday afternoon ride on the Downtown Connector. Recent polls show an electorate bitterly divided over the proposed ten-year, 1 percent sales tax—even though its backers swear the measure is our last chance to keep Atlanta traffic from being a perpetual punch line.
At stake in the ten-county Atlanta region is a $6.14 billion list of 157 roadway and transit projects staggering in its specificity and transformative potential. We’ve highlighted seven of the most interesting, expansive—or just plain expensive. (For the full project list, check out the interactive map at transformmetroatlanta.com.)
Buford Highway Pedestrian Improvements — $12 million
Up and Running: 2016-2019
Since the early 2000s, DeKalb County and state engineers have begun making improvements, parcel by parcel, to a thoroughfare where heavy foot traffic and long, unbroken stretches of highway make for a deadly combination. This project provides crosswalks, a raised median, landscaping, and reconfigured bus stops in the five-mile segment between Lenox Road and Shallowford Terrace. Between 2001 and 2009, according to Transportation for America, sixteen pedestrians were killed within that stretch.
I-285 and GA-400 interchange improvements — $450 million
Up and running: 2020–2022
The list’s costliest road project takes on the root of a million four-letter utterances. Alternatives put forth in the state’s Revive285 study (revive285.com) will steer the concept, which may include physically separated toll lanes as well as access roads adjacent to the interstate. The result would reduce congestion at the interchange by about a third, according to an Atlanta Regional Commission study. A handful of the projects—including this one—count on supplemental federal funding and remain in jeopardy until Congress passes a new transportation funding bill. (The last one expired in 2009, but no fewer than nine short-term extensions have prevented a nationwide construction halt.) UPDATE: Congress passed a two-year transportation bill on June 29.
BeltLine and Atlanta Streetcar project — $602 million
Up and running: 2016–2019
This component would get streetcars operating on portions of the Atlanta BeltLine in as little as five years (yes, five), knitting together three transit systems in the process. On the east side of the city, a streetcar line would extend north from the King Historic District—at the end of the separately funded Atlanta Streetcar line—along the BeltLine to Piedmont Park. To the west, a line would run between West End and North Avenue, through a new MARTA station at Joseph E. Boone Boulevard. Two crosstown routes would link the sides and connect the North Avenue and Peachtree Center MARTA stations.
Acworth to Midtown transit — $695 million
Up and running: 2020–2022
This vaguely worded item calls for “enhanced premium transit” along I-75/US-41 in the northwestern part of the region. Just what form it would take, light rail or bus, is the subject of a Cobb study scheduled to wrap up in September. In the immediate future, ten years of operating costs for bus service from Acworth to MARTA’s Arts Center Station would be covered. Fourteen percent of Midtown workers hail from Cobb, according to an Atlanta Regional Commission report.
Keep GRTA Xpress alive — $128 million
Up and running: 2013–2022
The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) operates commuter buses in twelve counties on which, say, a Newnan resident can recline under a reading light en route to Downtown. Call it an Xperiment: The service launched in 2004 with no long-term funding commitment, and the $21.5 million in start-up money is running out. (Fares cover only about a third of GRTA Xpress’s operating costs, despite steady ridership growth.) If the referendum fails, GRTA must seek state and federal funds and faces “a good deal of uncertainty,” says executive director Jannine Miller. If it passes, Xpress buses will run for at least another ten years.
Atlanta to Griffin commuter rail — $20 million
Up and running: Not specified
Though it funds nothing more than a plan, this measure signals Clayton leadership’s commitment to at least the idea of a rail line that could eventually reach Macon. After a $350 million proposal for the rail line failed to make the master list, Clayton commissioner Eldrin Bell got funds from a Tara Boulevard “super arterial” project moved to a planning pot.
Clifton Corridor MARTA line
Up and running: 2020–2022
The most expensive project would fund construction of a light rail line from Lindbergh Center to Emory/CDC. In April, MARTA approved plans for a longer line extending through DeKalb Medical Center to the Avondale station; the sales tax would boost the agency’s chances of funding the rest of the line with federal grants. “Anytime a region can show they have dedicated local monies, that’s going to help,” says Cheryl King, MARTA’s assistant general manager for planning. “We’d have a very, very good shot.”
Who Opposes the Tax?
> The Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club surprised TSPLOST proponents by recommending a “no” vote, stating the project list was “too heavily focused on sprawl-inducing road expansion.”
> Tea Party groups around the state, including the Fayette County Issues Tea Party, shocked no one when they, too, denounced the tax, citing “very expensive, heavily subsidized, and underutilized transit projects.”
> DeKalb NAACP head John Evans called the tax “racist” because the project list omits a rail line along I-20 to the Mall at Stonecrest. (The corridor did receive $225 million for express bus service—plus five bus stations that could become rail stations if MARTA secures additional funding.)
> Mayors in DeKalb and Fulton have decried the lack of a central governing body for the metro area’s many transit agencies, arguing their counties shouldn’t have to pay a separate MARTA tax. Recent legislation to create such an authority fizzled because it empowered the state, which contributes little to public transit.
The Price of Gridlock
The Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report calculates the cost of congestion in 101 urban areas. Among its most recent findings:
- $924 — The average Atlanta commuter’s annual “congestion tax” in wasted time and fuel.
- $53 million — Gallons of excess fuel lost to metro Atlanta congestion in 2010.
- 43 hours — Time the average peak-hour auto commuter spent stuck in traffic in 2010.
- $997 million (2008) & $474 million (2010) — Declining gas tax revenues in the wake of more fuel-efficient cars is a major impetus for the proposed sales tax. After peaking in 2008, Georgia fuel tax receipts plunged by more than half.
9% — Atlanta’s sales tax if TSPLOST passes. It would drop to 8% in 2016, after a sewer tax already in effect expires—unless, of course, the sewer tax gets extended. The highest sales tax in the country is 10% in Birmingham and Montgomery.
50th — Georgia’s ranking in per capita state tax revenues—which includes sales, income, fuel, and other taxes—according to U.S. Census data.
More on TSPLOST
> Q&A Basic questions answered
> Taxes Georgia dead last in per-capita tax revenue
> Coverage Is the AJC being a downer?
> GRTA Express Save it and save your soul
Keep up to date on any future TSPLOST developments by following our Five Points blog.
Photograph: A streetcar on the Atlanta BeltLine would look and feel much like the streetcar system in Bilbao, Spain and would likely be powered by electric propulsion and supported by overhead wire.