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Monday, August 15, 2011

Panel OKs $6.14 billion transportation-tax project list

Mayor Kasim Reed discusses the project list with Tom Weyandt, the citys transportation adviser, and State Planning Director Todd Long
  • Thomas Wheatley
  • Mayor Kasim Reed discusses the project list with Tom Weyandt, the city's transportation adviser, and State Planning Director Todd Long
A rail line linking Lindbergh and Emory University. Transit along parts of the Atlanta Beltline. And yes, unfortunately, there would be wider roads.

A key panel of five elected officials today unanimously agreed that those transportation fixes and more than 100 other road and transit projects should receive funding from a one-cent sales tax voters will decide next year. That is, provided their colleagues and ultimately the voters agree.

For more than four hours, the "roundtable's" executive committee negotiated — sometimes heatedly — over how to bring the project list's total under $6.14 billion, the amount the tax would generate for regional projects.

It became apparent very early on that members weren't itching to trim their pet projects. Mayor Kasim Reed opted to go first and slice $10 million from the $658 million the Atlanta Beltline was slated to receive. DeKalb County officials followed and agreed to consider cutting its $47-million request to improve I-285 and I-20 in half, with the state contributing the remainder. (Such a deal makes sense, considering the interchange should be the state's responsibility.) Suggestions were offered, time-outs were called, and funding alternatives were considered.

But bus and rail lines were committee members' go-to options for trimming the list, in large part, officials said, because transit projects are more expensive.

MARTA, which could receive $600 million from the tax to help keep the transit system in a "state of good repair," became a favorite target. Reed, along with state Rep. Mike Jacobs, a DeKalb County Republican who chairs the Gold Dome committee that oversees metro Atlanta's largest transit agency, said failing to maintain the system could jeopardize future federal funding not just for MARTA, but other projects, and successfully pushed back against the proposals. Additional chunks were taken from a planned transit line between Atlanta and Cumberland Mall, design and engineering cash for rail between Atlanta and Gwinnett, and the seeds of a rail line along I-20.

Gov. Nathan Deal, upon request by Mayor Kasim Reed, agreed to help officials meet the spending limit by reducing the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority's funding from the tax from $180 million to $100 million — a surprise move which a majority of the five-member committee initially rejected. (Don't start applauding Deal just yet. The governor had originally wanted metro taxpayers to foot the bill for GRTA, the rare state transit agency that receives Gold Dome funding.)

Reed, who called this afternoon's events a "huge day" for the region, said he's quite satisfied with the bus and rail projects that made the cut. But shortly after noting the significance of the afternoon's events — five elected officials unanimously agreeing on how to spend $6.14 billion throughout the entire region? — he warned that the process is far from over.

"It's gonna be hard the entire way," he said. "This is the end of the beginning."

Citizens will now have a chance to pore over the list, which must be approved by the entire 21-member roundtable by Oct. 15. And next year voters will have to OK the proposals. Reed doesn't anticipate the list changing much between now and then, however.

"It might be tweaked in some minor fashion," he said afterward. "But 98.8 percent of what you see will stay."

Here's a screenshot that shows what projects ended up getting trimmed by the executive committee to meet the $6.14 billion spending limit. Keep in mind that no projects listed were cut entirely — only their funding levels were reduced. For instance, the Beltline, which would receive $600 million if the tax is approved, late last week was allocated an additional $58 million, which it lost during today's negotiations.

UPDATE, 9:42 p.m.: And here's a PDF of the projects.

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