In four weeks, voters in the 10-county metro region go to the polls to decide on increasing the sales tax by one penny to fund $8.5 billion in regional and local transportation improvements. One sticking point for critics has been the Atlanta Beltline, expected to get more than $600 million if the tax is approved. Today, we hear from three mayors in north Fulton County who have wrestled with the idea of the intown Beltline as a “regional” project. We also hear from the Beltline’s board chairman, AGL Resources CEO John Somerhalder.
Tom Sabulis is today’s moderator. Commenting is open following John Somerhalder’s column.
By Tom Sabulis
Last year, mayors in some north Fulton County cities publicly protested the inclusion of the Atlanta Beltline on the project list for the transportation special purpose local option sales tax. They said Atlanta’s streetcar circulator and trail — which will receive $601.9 million in tax revenue if the referendum is approved — was a nice economic tool for Atlanta but did little to relieve metro traffic congestion. It wasn’t regional enough. In turn, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed called them “uninformed.”
With four weeks left until the July 31 vote, those mayors are no longer openly criticizing the Beltline in regards to the T-SPLOST — if they’re saying anything at all about it.
Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos, who wrote a column in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution criticizing the Beltline decision, would not be interviewed last week. She issued a statement about the T-SPLOST but didn’t mention the 22-mile loop around Atlanta.
“I am leaving it in the hands of voters to decide the fate of T-SPLOST without the influence of at least one politician,” Galambos wrote. “The voters ultimately carry the burden for the funding of these projects. I encourage all to carefully look at the proposed projects, do the due diligence and vote from an educated stance.”
Roswell Mayor Jere Wood said the Beltline was “not a big issue” for him. “The big issue is that people have not seen a vision of how [T-SPLOST] is going to substantially change their lives. There are a lot of good projects for Roswell, so I’m going to vote for it. But I’m not enthusiastic about it. It’s not something I’m going to put a lot of political capital into. I cannot support all the projects, but I think it’ll help Roswell.”
Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker served as a liaison for north Fulton to the regional roundtable of 21 elected officials who devised the project list. Last year, he was opposed to the Beltline receiving funds.
“I was an opponent of putting $600 million into the Beltline at that time,” Bodker said. “My debate back then was: Is that worthy of the first $600 million versus something else that could have been done with the same money? It was about prioritization. It wasn’t about whether I thought the project was worthy.”
Once the Beltline made the project list, Bodker said he came around. “As imperfect as the list is, as imperfect as the funding mechanism is, we can all agree that we must do something about this problem. If you take the long view, you have to recognize that, if we do not feed the economic engine that is metro Atlanta and the rest of the state, we will never generate funding for anything we want in this state.”
Bodker refrains from openly campaigning for the T-SPLOST.
“The voter doesn’t need my viewpoint as much as they need to come up with their own decision. If they ask me [how I’m voting,] I tell them. I’ve spent most of my time trying to be as objective as I can be because that creates the opportunity to have the most dialogue with the citizens about the referendum.”
Voters, he said, need to learn about details such as the 15 percent of the funds that local governments can use as they wish. In Johns Creek, that’s about $14 million over the 10-year life of the tax.
“We have about a $38 million deficit just in road resurfacing that we inherited since the high-growth days before we were a city,” Bodker said. “I’m only using this as an example, but I can tell you that if you guaranteed folks that their neighborhood would get resurfaced in Johns Creek [through the T-SPLOST] you’d get pretty darn close to 100 percent approval rating.”
He feels people are not paying enough attention to the T-SPLOST. “Are people engaged? It’s the summer — no. Am I fearful that most people will cast uninformed votes? Yes. It’s a complex issue and it’s not the easiest to understand. And I think the default answer for most people when asked the question, do you want to give the government [something]? The answer is no. Especially in this climate.”
By John Somerhalder
Transit investment in Atlanta is not only relevant to the region, it’s also absolutely essential to continuing our success and maintaining our competitive edge. Each day, tens of thousands of employees travel from around the region to Fortune 500 companies such as Georgia Pacific, Turner Broadcasting and AGL Resources.
Hundreds of thousands more employees, students and visitors travel to the region’s major universities, including Georgia Tech, Georgia State and the Atlanta University Center schools. Each year, millions of visitors travel from around the region to cultural attractions such as the Woodruff Arts Center, Piedmont Park, the Georgia Aquarium and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.
The segments of the Atlanta Beltline and streetcar on the transportation referendum project list, including new streetcar connections into downtown and Midtown, are a good start to changing transportation patterns in our region — and moving our economy forward. Our ability to grow and thrive depends on attracting new businesses and employees, and our ability to efficiently move people to their jobs and the places they want to go within and around Atlanta.
According to an Atlanta Regional Commission analysis of Georgia Department of Labor data, more than 140,000 employees work within a half-mile of the Atlanta Beltline and streetcar routes on the referendum project list. This number exceeds the total employment of six out of 10 of the counties in the region. Census data show that 70 percent of these workers travel from outside of Fulton County to get to these jobs.
These projects will connect major centers of employment, education and recreation by extending the reach of our existing MARTA system and expanding the regional transit network — including the Clifton Corridor, I-20 East and Cobb County transit lines.
The projects on the regional transportation referendum can help keep the region moving because of investments in new transit connections in the city of Atlanta. New transportation options linking surrounding counties to Atlanta will work best if riders can reach more destinations within the city. For example, the success of new proposed transit from Cobb or DeKalb counties depends on the ability to connect people to a transit system in the city that gets them where they need to go.
Each part of the region has weighed in, with more than 200,000 people providing input into the development of the project list. The region has much to gain from the city of Atlanta’s contribution as part of the project list. When we build the proposed transit infrastructure in Atlanta, including the Atlanta Beltline and streetcar segments that provide direct connections to downtown and Midtown, the return on investment will be even greater for surrounding areas. Since 2005, public investment in the Atlanta Beltline has totaled more than $300 million. That has, in turn, attracted more than $1 billion in private sector investment to the region. This is a remarkable return on investment in any market — particularly such a challenging one.
Great regions have great cores and invest in great transit connections to and within their job centers. As recently released census data show, growth in cities is outpacing growth in suburbs in 27 out of 51 of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, including the Atlanta region. A balance of new road building and transit investment is vital to maintaining our economic competitiveness and our quality of life. Our residents and our leaders must step up to the challenge of the moment to make sure we can be as competitive as we should be in the future. We can’t afford to let Atlanta fall behind.
John Somerhalder is chairman, president and chief executive officer of AGL Resources and chairman of Atlanta Beltline Inc.