Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Transportation tax and MARTA furor arrive at City Hall

Posted By on Tue, Oct 19, 2010 at 4:32 PM

The growing debate — and discord — surrounding Georgia's proposed transportation tax has finally found its way to Atlanta's City Hall.

Late Monday night, Atlanta City Councilmembers took up a resolution — the same one Fulton and DeKalb commissioners are to consider this week — that urges state lawmakers to iron out issues left unsolved in the House Bill 277, the piece of legislation that allows Georgia voters to decide in 2012 if they want to pay a one-cent sales tax to fund new roads, bridges and transit projects.

Normally, such resolutions don't generate much discussion. That wasn't the case last night. With potentially billions of dollars on the line — and uncertainty as to whether voters will approve the measure — the tax has become a sensitive subject.

If passed, the one-cent sales tax referendum, the result of a three-year Gold Dome effort by transportation advocates and the business community, could generate more than $600 million a year in the 10-county metro region.

Even though the vote is a year-and-a-half away, Fulton and DeKalb officials have begun voicing their opposition to the possibility their residents will pay an extra penny for transportation projects after decades of paying a one-cent sales tax to fund MARTA. What's more, elected officials in the two populous counties — whose voters are considered vital to passing the referendum — want state lawmakers to, among other fixes, address provisions widely viewed as unfair to the metro region's largest transit agency.

As it currently exists, the legislation that put the referendum on the ballot only helps keep MARTA afloat. Transit supporters want the so-called 50-50 funding restriction that requires MARTA to spend half its revenues on operations and half on expansion to be permanently lifted. (The current legislation only lifts the restriction for three years.) Another concern: Any revenue generated from the new tax, if passed, couldn't be used on existing MARTA projects.

Fulton County mayors — save for Atlanta's Kasim Reed — have already expressed their concerns. And DeKalb County mayors are expected to do the same. According to the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, other counties in the state have expressed concerns over various provisions of the bill.

The mayor, a former state lawmaker familiar with legislative maneuvers and Gold Dome politics, told Council last night that approving the resolution would send a clear signal to the referendum's opponents and elected officials who are hostile to Atlanta.

"You’re writing down every single problem you have with your bill and publicizing it in October," said Reed, whose personal lobbying efforts this past session proved vital to the legislation's passage. "It's a tactical mistake, as someone who has a pretty long record of passing legislation. It’s more important for us to work on our differences... This is the wrong path."

The mayor added: "People can not have a sense of what’s vital to your interests. In my experience, that’s not the way you win and pass major legislation. And this is the biggest piece of legislation that’s come along in more than a decade."

In other words: It's premature to play your hand. And while you're at, guard your cards.

Representatives from the Metro Chamber and the Atlanta Regional Commission appeared before the Council and, in addition to briefing members on the complex process that goes into selecting what projects would be funded by the tax revenues, also urged councilmembers to allow the process to play out.

Voicing support for the provisions in the resolution were the Sierra Club's Georgia Chapter and Citizens for Progressive Transit, two groups that have long demanded more bus and rail solutions for the metro region.

Councilmembers and transit supporters dropped lots of sports metaphors — there was even a mention of Pirates of the Caribbean. Councilman Michael Julian Bond delivered an impassioned speech about the doom that awaits a region without rail. Support for MARTA was expressed.

In the end, however, Council voted to send the resolution back to committee.

Two things stand out from last night's debate.

First, local elected officials are way behind when it comes to grasping the proposed transportation tax's complexities (of which there are many).

Second, Mayor Reed isn't budging on the stance he's made clear in interviews and speeches: the transportation tax, which he says could pack a double punch by relieving congestion and sparking economic growth, will be even more difficult to pass if voters and opponents known there's restlessness among the ranks. Especially in cities who need the transportation fixes the most.

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