We’re beginning to get an idea of how metro Atlanta’s transportation network might change — and how it won’t — if voters next year approve a 1 percent sales tax to pay for new infrastructure.
First, how it won’t change. The $6.1 billion in projected revenues from the tax would not contribute to a bypass to divert freight traffic around Atlanta as it moves between Savannah’s port and the rest of the country. Nor would the money expedite a regional network of variable-toll lanes so motorists can move from A to B quickly if they’re willing to pay a premium.
And, as my more transit-oriented friends note, the money would contribute little to (relatively) low-cost bus rapid transit and nothing to (potentially) high-use commuter rail.
In other words, there are few things on the lists that advocates of either roads or rails would consider game-changers.
Instead, we might fulfill some basic needs: e.g., new interchanges at such bottlenecks as I-285 and Ga. 400 and the development of Tara Boulevard into a southside “super arterial” road to ease gridlock.
Most striking about the trio of possible lists produced by regional experts — one roads-heavy, one transit-heavy and one split evenly between the two — is how similar they are.
Oh, some roads vs. transit questions are evident. For instance, the difference between the transit-heavy list and the roads-heavy list could be reduced to: Do you want a light-rail line from downtown Atlanta to Lithonia (price tag: $814.9 million), or 32 other projects tackling some of the very worst congestion in DeKalb, Douglas, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties (cumulative price tag: $846.5 million)?
But while a debate about modes of transportation is to be expected, a deeper dive shows the question is more complicated than one’s mere preference for roads or rails.
Every project under consideration has been assigned a total expected cost, an amount of recommended funding (which doesn’t necessarily equal its cost), and a likelihood of completion within 10 years.
The roads-heavy list includes 90 projects that are fully funded and could be finished with a decade. The evenly split list includes 71 such projects.
The transit-heavy list: just 52.
The disparity is not just a function of higher costs for transit projects — though, as in the case of the light-rail line to Lithonia, that often is true. It is also because the transit-heavy list simply adds more money to items that, in many cases, would still remain hundreds of millions of dollars short.
For example, the transit-heavy list would devote an extra $150 million on the first phase of a light-rail line from downtown Atlanta to the Cumberland area in Cobb. But the project would still be less than half-funded. Same story for Atlanta’s Beltline, which would get an extra $200 million but remain short by $1 billion-plus.
Then there’s the fact that all three lists allocate more than $150 million to placeholders (e.g., engineering studies) for big-ticket transit items such as light rail along I-85 in Gwinnett, just in case new federal money becomes available. Meanwhile, the lists rely on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal matching funds to complete key projects on 285 and 400.
In case you haven’t noticed, Washington is embroiled in a struggle over how to cut spending, not add to it. That attitude is mirrored, and in part generated, by Georgians who think they’re taxed enough already.
If the transportation tax is to gain approval next year, supporters need to spend less time worrying about whether to hold the tax referendum in July or November, or ensuring an arbitrary share of money goes to transit. They need to worry more about convincing voters they have a feasible, results-oriented plan.
– By Kyle Wingfield