The transportation sales tax vote is two weeks away. An advocate of mixed-use, walkable communities explains how voters acting with a regional mindset can kick-start our economy. On the other side, a policy analyst says a sales tax is not the best funding option, and that transit expansion should not come at the expense of fixing our highway network.
Tom Sabulis is today’s moderator. Commenting is open below following Baruch Feigenbaum’s column.
By Jim Stokes
Living and working in Atlanta has been a wonderful experience for me. For some 40 years, my wife and I have called Atlanta home — raising our family, devoting ourselves to careers and volunteering in our community whenever we can. The city is part of our family fabric. I have watched Atlanta grow and evolve.
This year, I see metro Atlanta standing at a crossroads. Its evolution — potentially, its economic recovery — is the centerpiece of discussion this summer as residents contemplate a ballot referendum to increase the sales tax by a penny for a broad spectrum of transportation options.
By now, most folks are familiar with the July 31 transportation referendum on a regional project list, which will improve our mobility in its many forms.
Some have voiced concern that the measure doesn’t go far enough; others say it goes too far. Some say it should fund more roads; some say it should fund more transit.
At the referendum’s core, though, is transportation choice. Not everyone will use the transit options, and others will never appreciate that an intersection improvement can be vital to a suburban community.
An important part in this vote is the creation of a “regional mind” that recognizes that traffic and transit don’t stop or start at one city or county line. Transportation is multifaceted. In Atlanta, historically, transportation has meant cars and roads. But trends across our country, many as a result of a changing economy, demonstrate that walkable communities are key to economic improvement.
To me, the transportation referendum is all about reinvigorating our economy by creating the future of Atlanta — many walkable, mixed-use communities. Some communities already have.
Smyrna has revitalized its downtown, as have Suwanee, Woodstock, Norcross and Alpharetta. Young and old alike flock to Virginia-Highland and Midtown. Decatur is a walkable community made more successful by its access to transit.
In the late 1990s, high-end outer suburbs contained most of the expensive housing in the United States, as measured by price per square foot. Today, the most expensive housing is in high-density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. Research has shown that both young millennials and baby boomers want to live in walkable, mixed-use downtowns, or pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods or suburban town centers.
The good news is that there is great pent-up demand for these walkable metro Atlanta neighborhoods, particularly those served by transit.
The July 31 transportation referendum provides us an opportunity to give our city a chance to evolve — as we have always done in this great town.
It’s a chance to grow our economy by creating construction and operations jobs, improving our neighborhoods and property values, and providing our residents the transportation and transit choices that a large, regional metropolitan area deserves and demands.
Jim Stokes is executive director of the Livable Communities Coalition of Metro Atlanta.
By Baruch Feigenbaum
With Georgia ranked 49th in transportation spending, the question should focus not on whether the state needs to increase investment in its transportation network, but what is the best, most efficient and politically realistic way to do so.
Given this framework, there are reasons for voting for and against the Transportation Investment Act.
Metro Atlanta needs to solve its congestion issues: Residents waste a significant portion of time — and money — stuck in traffic. Transit service is inadequate; frequency and coverage are below cities of similar size.
Competitors, including Charlotte, Dallas and Houston, have comprehensive transportation strategies, while other Southern states such as North Carolina and Texas have approved local sales taxes for transportation.
Funding transportation infrastructure with a sales tax is not optimal, primarily because such a tax has no relationship to the usage of the transportation system.
It is politically easier to increase a single tax, especially a tax where tourists contribute a significant amount, but it is arguable that a mix of taxes and user fees would be a better solution.
Transit is important for metro Atlanta’s future and deserves some regional and state funding.
But increasing transit service, a laudable goal, should not come at the expense of developing and maintaining a quality highway network — the overwhelmingly preferred travel mode in the region.
Regional projects such as improving the I-285 and Ga. 400 intersection and bringing MARTA to a state of good repair are excellent, deserving projects. But several projects have purely economic development benefits; others have purely environmental benefits.
The biggest problem is the significant dollars allocated to rail projects. Fixed-rail transit is most effective in an extremely dense region, which Atlanta is not.
Compared to rail, bus capital costs are substantially lower, and buses can be easily moved if development patterns change.
Without new revenue sources, the state also may not have enough funds to maintain roads, let alone widen or build new ones. Another vote can take place in 2014 and a tax take effect in 2015, but these are two more years of underinvestment for Georgia. Meanwhile, the advantage goes to competing regions such as Charlotte, Houston and Dallas.
Around the state and in Atlanta, voters have justification for approving or rejecting the penny transportation sales tax.
These are the important questions voters must weigh as they consider the benefits and the costs.
Baruch Feigenbaum is a senior fellow at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and a transportation analyst for the Reason Foundation.