By the AJC Editorial Board
The people have decisively spoken. And that will prove the easy part, as strange as that may sound in the aftermath of the beatdown of the transportation sales tax last Tuesday.
The hard work comes starting now. For something must come next. It must come if metro Atlanta expects to remain what we have been, let alone rise to what was projected for coming years when millions more new residents are expected to arrive. Condemning the T-SPLOST to doom was, in hindsight, not difficult. Most everyone could find fault with the tax, especially the 62 percent of voters who said “No.” Even ardent supporters conceded it was a flawed plan.
Yet, shortcomings and all, the Transportation Investment Act was all we had.
Now we need something better; something more effective at hacking down traffic congestion. That means Atlanta must once again corral smart people around a common goal, devise an innovative game-changer of a new plan and enact it as quickly as practicable. All of us should be part of this process.
We cannot stand still.
T-SPLOST opponents should not be content to gloat victoriously while Downtown Connector traffic continues to consistently crawl — or stall — too many hours of the day and night. Champions of the failed tax plan cannot salve their wounds. They must leap back into the fray with new vigor and tactics. As a community, we must now reason together as we have never done before.
We don’t have to start from ground zero. Nearly to a person, Atlantans who spoke yea or nay about the T-SPLOST shared the broadest of agreements that congestion is choking our local economy and way of life. That view holds true from the executive suites, to the Gold Dome, to meetings of neighborhood organizers in south DeKalb County and tea party groups. This roughest of common ground must prove a foundation upon which to construct future success.
An AJC poll late last month found 70 percent agreement among those polled that traffic congestion was “deteriorating our quality of life.” When asked how important it was to “address the region’s transportation problems,” fully 90 percent of poll respondents said it was either “very important” or “somewhat important.”
If that isn’t the base of a workable consensus, then nothing is. So let’s get on with the task of creating a new transportation remedy that a majority of us can support and drive through to reality.
The combined push of We the People is needed now more than ever because the state General Assembly is likely to want to head for the North Georgia hills and flee even from the memory of the T-SPLOST idea that they passed into being in 2010. Lawmakers didn’t want to directly fund a costly fix for our chronically underfunded transportation infrastructure. That would have cost real money and carried sizable political risk in a time when popular sentiment was to cut, not build and spend, no matter how urgent the need.
Those who’ve argued the Legislature should get cracking on Plan B early next January face a nearly insurmountable climb. Gov. Nathan Deal admitted as much last week when he began outlining the strategy he will begin assembling from the wreckage of the T-SPLOST.
To say his proposal of focusing on the most needed work statewide will be modest is likely an understatement. Yet what comes out of his office will likely be the best we can do in the short run. And something beats nothing.
But it will not be an Atlanta metro-centric plan. No, we will take our place in line with the rest of the state.
So the responsibility for comprehensive fixes still resides within metro borders.
We’ve got a headstart in that a powerful positive coming out of the T-SPLOST process was the impressive degree of unity, vision and political courage shown by the leaders who decided the ill-fated project list. Quibble with this project or that, fine, but the 21 regional roundtable members behaved in a manner worthy of a diverse region of nearly 6 million people that shares a common destiny, like it or not. We can build on that success.
But for now, relatively dinky improvements, if any, are the most likely scenario for the Atlanta area. That should not be nearly good enough for this great metro’s taxpayers.
For we’re in a race. Other cities’ chambers of commerce are now rejoicing over our election result and crafting selling points about why they now are a better relocation mecca than Atlanta. We must keep building if we are to remain competitive.
Given the magnitude of problems that the $8.5 billion T-SPLOST would have only begun to address, any solutions — all-road, all-rail or anywhere between — will remain expensive. More dithering will not make that bill cheaper or any less inevitable. We now must begin analyzing anew what most needs to get done, and how to pay for it. No more, no less.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.
Tea party, Sierra Club agree on solutions
By Debbie Dooley and Colleen Kiernan
Political polarization is at a 25-year high, according to the Pew Research Institute. This surge has resulted in gridlock in Washington and Congress’ lowest approval rating ever. But the Pew study also says that our shared social values haven’t changed much in the last 25 years. Thus, when it comes to local issues, we can reach across the divide and forge common ground.
The Sierra Club and the tea party come from opposite sides of the political spectrum. But we were united in opposition to the T-SPLOST, and we share a common vision for fixing Atlanta’s broken transportation system.
Our first principle is to “Get the House in Order.” We need to restore trust in our transportation agencies by making them more transparent and accountable. As a first step, Georgia DOT board members should be elected to no more than one-year terms at annual public meetings in their respective congressional districts. An equitable transit governance structure similar to the one the Atlanta Regional Commission endorsed in January 2011 should be established.
The Sierra Club calls the second principle “Tie Transportation Revenue to Travel Behavior.” The tea party calls it “user fees.” It’s the same idea. Georgia should scrap the current gas tax and create a single tax that rises and falls with the price of gasoline. This could be started at the current level so that it doesn’t amount to a tax increase. A portion of the resulting revenue should go to all transportation purposes, not just roads and bridges. The Legislature should also allow any two or more local governments to create and fully fund (through local motor fuel taxes, sales taxes, parking taxes and others) transportation projects that meet the needs of their citizens. The tea party calls this “local control.” The Sierra Club calls it “flexibility.”
The third principle is “Provide Georgians with 21st Century Transportation Solutions.” Telecommuting, van pools and flex time are great commute alternatives. So are riding transit and cycling. Before MARTA is expanded, service cuts made in recent years need to be restored and the system brought into good repair. The Legislature should remove permanently the restriction requiring MARTA to spend 50 percent on capital projects and 50 percent on operations. A hotel/motel tax should go toward transit, rather than a new stadium.
Much of the conversation around the T-SPLOST was about fear. Fear that the government wouldn’t be a good steward of additional resources, fear that without it, metro Atlanta would sink further into economic decline. But people are motivated by both their hopes and their fears.
For us to move forward, our elected officials need to tap into our hopes for a thriving Atlanta — for our children and their children — that surpasses our most ambitious dreams.
Debbie Dooley is a co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party. Colleen Kiernan is director of the Sierra Club’s Georgia Chapter.