Atlanta votes no on solving traffic congestion, What’s next?
By Chrissy Mancini Nichols
Aug 8, 2011
This post first appeared at metroplanning.org
Did you know? Though Atlantans voted down the penny tax for transportation, the Atlanta BeltLine rail project will move forward.
The Atlanta region is notorious for its traffic gridlock and suburban sprawl. The region’s average commuter spends 127 minutes on the road every day and an additional $924 a year simply because they’re idling in traffic. Last week Atlanta residents had a chance to do something about their transportation problems with a vote on a 10-year transportation special-purpose, local-option sales tax, or T-SPLOST. The one-cent sales tax would have paid for more than $8 billion worth of transit and highway projects, returning $34 billion back in gross regional product and supporting 200,000 jobs. Regrettably, voters said no.
What will Atlanta miss out on? A “yes” vote would have built 157 regional transportation projects, including 29 miles of new rail and improvements at highway chokepoints. These investments would have increased transit options, connected workers to jobs, attracted new economic development, improved the environment, and saved people time and money. New rail and bus capital projects would have increased transit trips by 40 percent overall, with 700 percent more workers able to reach their jobs by rail or bus in some parts of the region.
Instead, absent some other plan to manage Atlanta’s future growth, traffic gridlock is sure to get worse as the region is expected to gain 3 million people by 2040. What’s worse, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) riders will most likely face fare hikes or service cuts in a system that already ranks last in connecting transit with jobs. With no new revenues in sight, it is doubtful Atlanta will be able to leverage new federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loans (TIFIA), which instead will go to other regions.
One take away from the vote is that Atlanta is a much-divided region. While T-SPLOST was an admirable attempt at regionalism – projects were agreed to by county commissioners and mayors from all 10 counties, with input from residents – it was voted down 63 to 37 percent along suburban and urban lines. Voters in Atlanta’s urban core strongly supported T-SPLOST, while it was defeated in the suburbs by people reluctant to support projects outside of their community. That’s the wrong approach in a region with sprawling suburbs; transportation issues do not follow municipal borders and can be more efficiently and effectively dealt with on a regional basis.
One upshot of the T-SPLOST planning process is lessons learned on harnessing technology to engage the public in planning and policy decisions. The TransFormAtl smartphone app, downloaded by more than 8,000 people, allowed voters to easily access information about all 157 projects displayed on an interactive map. The app provided detailed information on the types of projects (transit, road, bike or pedestrian), location, financing, and scheduled completion. Civic and business proponents of the sales tax used the technology to reach voters more inclined to use a smartphone than attend a public meeting.
In other good news, the region’s biggest redevelopment yet, the Atlanta BeltLine, will move forward. The BeltLine includes a 22-mile loop of rail transit along former freight rail lines, through 45 neighborhoods surrounding Atlanta’s urban core, with anticipated daily ridership of 73,000. The BeltLine didn’t depend on T-SPLOST for funding; it is reliant on innovative financing, using $1.7 billion in value capture to fund the $2.2 billion project. Perhaps the T-SPLOST vote is another indication that innovative financing tools are the future of transportation funding.
Absent new revenues, 70 percent of the Atlanta region’s transportation funding will be spent to simply maintain the existing system over the next 30 years – leaving little to expand the network and alleviate congestion. Making matters worse the region must now pay a 30 percent match if they want state transportation funds, instead of the 10 percent it would have had to match if the sales tax had passed. Atlanta cannot hold another vote on the measure for two more years, giving officials the unfortunate opportunity to show voters why investments in one part of the region would benefit the whole – and how Atlantans actually pay more by doing nothing.