The Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club released its assessment of the proposed regional transportation sales tax this week. It was harsh, damning and unfortunately all too accurate.
In brief, the report explains:
– The $7.2 billion metro Atlanta project list is weighted too heavily to highway construction, with too little investment in transit. Furthermore, the state has provided no mechanism for maintaining and operating transit assets once the 10-year special sales tax expires.
– State leaders have refused to give the metro region control of its transit future, yet still balk at providing that leadership themselves. Without a governing mechanism, a regional system is a pipedream. And commuter rail, one of the most promising options available to both ease congestion and reorient development patterns, is ignored in the plan.
– MARTA is treated with disdain and contempt, when it should be embraced as the core of a regional transit system. As the report notes, “MARTA is the sole target of an egregious provision that forbids any T-SPLOST revenues from being spent on MARTA’s operations, the agency’s most pressing financial need. No other transportation provider is singled out in such a manner.”
Most of the indictment is correct; I agree with it. And yet, when the time comes in July, I plan to vote in favor of the proposal anyway. Why?
Well, because politics is the art of the possible.
The harsh truth is that it is impossible to correct a lot of the problems identified by the Sierra Club, at least in an acceptable time frame. They are part of a larger, more fundamental debate that has still to be won. Consider the funding imbalance between transit and highways. Even if voters reject the T-SPLOST in July, and even if some other transportation-funding mechanism is created to replace it, the notion that transit would be given greater prominence in a new plan is fantasy.
While public attitudes toward transit are changing in the metro region, we’re probably still a decade away from a political climate in which transit can be funded at the levels that the Sierra Club would find acceptable.
I don’t think we can wait those 10 years. It’s time to take what we can now, and build upon it.
It’s also important to think through what’s possible and not possible should voters reject the July ballot question. In its analysis, the Sierra Club argues that “lower-than-expected support for the T-SPLOST in Fulton and DeKalb — where proponents are counting on their strongest support — would send a message to state and regional leaders that continued political gamesmanship on MARTA and related issues will not be tolerated.”
That’s one potential outcome of a July defeat, but it assumes a level of analysis by state leaders that history says is unlikely. In addition, I just don’t think that those with the power to make such decisions under the Gold Dome are all that concerned about what pro-MARTA voters in Fulton and DeKalb will or will not tolerate.
More likely, state legislators will draw the conclusion that is easiest on themselves. They’ll note that voters rejected a tax increase for transportation and rejected investment in regional transit, and they’ll use that as an excuse for several more years of dithering.
Again, I don’t think we can wait.
So what is possible? Well, some of the problems identified in the club’s analysis can still be addressed and resolved. Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston understand that some form of regional transit governance will be essential if the sales tax is approved, even if they don’t yet know how to build enough political support to create it. The system is unworkable without it; necessity will force its creation.
Admittedly, things shouldn’t be so difficult. The evidence is overwhelming that metro Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure, its governance and the vision behind it have become outdated. But changing that course will require changing minds and ideas, and that’s going to be a slow, lurching process.
In the meantime, an opportunity for progress should be embraced rather than rejected.
– Jay Bookman