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.
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