Better transit in Atlanta? Hell yes! More bike lanes? You bet! Safe sidewalks and shorter city blocks that would encourage people to walk instead of drive? Man, that sounds fantastic.
But how are we gonna pay for it?
That was the conundrum Tuesday night at a mayoral candidate forum hosted by the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, Citizens for Progressive Transit and PEDS at the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Seated before a packed and transit-savvy audience, mayoral candidates Lisa Borders, Mary Norwood, Kasim Reed and Jesse Spikes outlined their positions on how people could move around Atlanta without having to use their cars and what they would do, if elected, to make it happen.
First, the question we're sure a lot of people are probably asking: How do the candidates feel about Georgia gubernatorial candidate John Oxendine's idea of "talking" about a possible asphalt artery that would cut through East Atlanta?
In short, they're all opposed. But Spikes said such proposals shouldn't be immediately shot down.
Norwood: "I oppose. I do not think it makes any sense at all." Norwood added that she's never supported any tunnel concepts during her time on Atlanta City Council.
Reed: "I certainly oppose both...While Mr. Oxendine might be focused on talking about it during the campaign, I don't think the House and Senate would be comfortable with the debt [that the state would have to incur to build the road.]" Reed said the Gold Dome would want to protect its bond rating at a time when five new reservoirs which he stressed are needed to handle North Georgia's water supply are on the horizon.
Spikes: The political newcomer said he knows neighborhoods oppose the concept, but added that every proposal needed to be examined to help manage metro Atlanta's congestion problem.
Borders: "It's nice that the commissioner wants to talk [about the interstate], but all we're going to be doing is talking about it. Not on my watch. We cannot build our way out of the problems of traffic...We will disrupt the integrity of our neighborhoods." (Borders was greeted by applause.)
OK, we got that out of the way.
Longtime business columnist and smart-growth advocate Maria Saporta moderated the discussion, the first that's addressed the candidates' views on mobility issues.
Saporta began by asking the candidates a series of questions: Besides Atlanta, what's your favorite city? Where do you live? Does your neighborhood have sidewalks? Do you ride a bike around time? When was the last time you set foot on MARTA? (Kyle from ABC has a detailed run-down of candidates' answers to all the questions, along with other notes from the event. Transit advocate Joe Winter also attended and had excellent takeaways. Here's his personal take on Tuesday night's discussion. Atlanta Unsheltered's Jeanne Bonner has also posted her thoughts on the evening. All of the above have some good analysis and opinions on the candidates.)
Across the board, candidates gave poor scores to the city's ability to accommodate people who wanted to get around town by bus, rail, bike or foot.
Rebecca Serna of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition asked the candidates how they'd make Atlanta more bicycle friendly, perhaps by emulating such cities as Chicago and Houston. While other cities have hired bicycle coordinators, made bike lanes, and installed bike racks, Atlanta's still lagging.
Every candidate supports improvements for cyclists. Borders said she'd want to appoint a "transportation czar or czarina" to oversee alternate forms of transportation. She also pointed to the future bike-lane miles that would be added with the Beltline and the Connect Atlanta Plan, the city's first-ever comprehensive transportation plan approved by City Council last year. Reed said that a regional transportation funding proposal if the Legislature can ever approve one could help pay for improvements. Norwood said the city should start retrofitting old streets and ran out of time when she started discussing a "bad weather contingency plan." Spikes said that the city is in a "financial crisis." Once those difficulties are resolved, he said, Atlanta could determine how much money is available to make the streets more friendly for cyclists.
Sally Flocks, executive director of pedestrian advocacy group PEDS, told the candidates that the city estimates 25 percent of its sidewalks are in disrepair. Fixing them all would cost an estimated $79 million. She asked the candidates what they'd do about a often overlooked city law that says private property owners must repair sidewalks that abut their property.
The candidates noted that there are many people in the city who live on low incomes, and that the law could be a burden for them. Borders proposed a revolving loan fund, which property owners, neighborhoods or districts could pay back, to fix the sidewalks. Reed agreed with Borders, but made clear that he wouldn't push for such measures in his first 24 months as mayor. The city first needed to have a "sustainable budget," he said. Norwood said the city could possibly float bonds to pay for sidewalk repairs, as it's done in the past. Spikes said sidewalk repair should be City Hall's responsibility. There's no reason the public works department couldn't conduct the services once the budget is straightened out, he said.
The elephant in the room, however, was the state's unwillingness to invest in transit in Atlanta's transportation issues.
That was particularly the case when Lee Biola, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit, queried the candidates about expanding transit in the auto-oriented city. All candidates agreed that the state will have to play a role.
MARTA, which every candidate said they supported, is expected to financial hardship in the coming years thanks to an antiquated and draconian funding mandate which state lawmakers have failed repeatedly to fix. (It's worth noting that Georgia is the only state that doesn't contribute to its largest transit system's operating costs.) A transportation funding proposal that would allow counties to group together and levy a penny sales tax for roads, bridges and transit has also failed multiple times. The ideas to bring "green" transportation to Atlanta are there. The money isn't.
Everyone agreed that good Gold Dome relations are vital to improving mobility in Atlanta. All candidates support the regional transportation funding mechanism that's been proposed in the Legislature.
Borders who added that the region must also have the "political will" to seriously invest in transit says she's already had discussions with neighboring counties about expanding bus and rail lines. She added that she has a good relationship with Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Vance Smith whom she says now realizes the financial hardships MARTA now faces. (Prior to joining the state agency, Smith was chairman of the House Transportation Committee.) It's not just about funding, she said.
Norwood said she would work "hand in glove" with state lawmakers to pass a transportation funding proposal.
Spikes stressed that the problem isn't just Atlanta's problem, but metro Atlanta's problem, and would require a regional approach and partnership with other cities and counties.
Reed, who left the event early for another engagement, has said in the past that he's in a strong position to do so, pointing to his experience as a state representative and senator.
And there's always federal funding. Borders told the audience that she was first to endorse President Barack Obama an act she says the president and First Lady Michelle Obama remember. Norwood said she's avoided playing party politics in the past, which would enable her to work in a "Red statehouse and a Blue White House."
Apologies for the late post. We had to conduct a little housecleaning and blog maintenance, hence the tardiness.
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