This piece originally ran on The Transport Politic.
Getting the residents of the 10-county Atlanta region to agree on anything was always going to be a difficult effort. The newest controversy about which projects to fund with a new sales tax there raises questions about what to do when a lot of money is available for transit—but there isn’t enough for every proposed project.
Back in 1971, when MARTA was formed to run Atlanta’s new federally funded rail system, the agency—and its dedicated funding stream—were restricted to Fulton and DeKalb Counties, which surround the City of Atlanta and which sit at the center of the region. At the time, those counties represented about 70 percent of the region’s population of 1.5 million, so restricting adequate public transportation in those areas was perhaps an acceptable compromise in an area of the country already skeptical of the value of transit.
Forty years and 2.6 million more people later, these same areas account for just 40 percent of the region’s population. Yet MARTA’s rail network and its related buses have expanded only minimally since, and they haven’t left the core counties. MARTA can barely cover its operations costs. Meanwhile, traffic is as bad as anywhere in the country.
Thus the call for a new, dedicated source of revenue to support transportation improvements in the area. In mid-2011, leaders announced they had come to an agreement about holding a referendum in 2012 (it will be held July 31). Later last year, negotiations over how the $6.1 billion in predicted 10-year revenues from the 1 percent sales tax would be distributed produced a project list that would extend MARTA to Emory University, bring a new bus rapid transit line to the I-20 corridor, and install light rail transit along a midtown and suburban route. Every county got a share of the funds roughly proportional to their proposed contribution.
Yet the DeKalb County NAACP has announced it will launch a public campaign in opposition to the sales tax referendum because the list of projects agreed upon does not include a MARTA rail link from Indian Creek, the current terminus of the Blue Line, to the Mall at Stonecrest, a 1.2 million square-foot mega mall in the southeastern section of the county on I-20. While discussions last fall had mentioned such a project as a possibility, the negotiators eventually decided to focus instead on bus rapid transit on the I-20 corridor, which will be far cheaper to build but which in theory could eventually be replaced by rail. This has enraged the NAACP, which contends that South DeKalb is being underserved, since the most expensive improvements in the County—the rail link to Emory—is in the west, where MARTA already runs. Back in August, the organization announced that it would fight the tax if the rail link was not included in the priority list, so its actions this week were not unexpected.
Whatever you think about the proposed I-20 line (to my estimation, it is less valuable than many of the other projects proposed for the Atlanta region) it has led to significant controversy in DeKalb, in part because the County’s CEO is one of the major supporters of the proposed tax. He argues that the County’s taxpayers will get more than their money’s worth—$1.3 billion in projects vs. $800 million in tax contributions—but this has not been enough to placate those who sincerely want rail there.
Credit: Chip Harlan on Flickr
To be frank, this opposition puts the transit tax’s chance of passage in jeopardy. The Atlanta region is relatively conservative, with the population most likely to support increased revenues for public transportation living in Fulton and DeKalb Counties—the densest, most urban parts of the region. The fact that the vote is taking place in the middle of the summer rather than in November means there will be limited turnout. If voters in DeKalb are convinced that the tax will not serve their interests, it stands little chance of passage.
This situation is Atlanta-specific, but its features could be relevant to any metropolitan area considering major investments in new transit lines. The problem is this: Once there is agreement as to the importance of new revenues for transportation, everyone announces that they have an important project they want to fund. The sum of the costs of those projects is inevitably far larger than the amount of money expected to be raised. Eventually, a regional decision-making body must come to an accord about which projects are most important, and which can be delayed for future action. Those who do not get what they want from that priority list—the I-20 rail supporters in Atlanta’s case—become frustrated and may begin to oppose the expansion program, even if other projects benefit them.
Is there a way to avoid this? Unlikely. There are only a limited amount of funds available and a seemingly infinite number of projects that individuals or organizations will latch on to as priorities. Indeed, there is inevitably some opposition in the public discourse to any proposed intervention by the government. The question is how influential each side is, and what percentage of the population will be persuaded by each argument.