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All 21 members of the RegionalTransportation Roundtable today completed their review of four contentious amendments to their project list, a prerequisite before the 10-county Atlanta region can vote next summer on a penny tax to finance a host of transit and transportation projects.
Today’s meeting addressed last week’s most contentious amendments. As roundtable chairman Bucky Johnson noted near the end of today’s meeting, it is clear many of the roundtable members used the weekend to drive resolution on the amendments that threatened to weaken the final project list.
“I appreciate folks for working diligently since our last meeting to try to deal with this,” Johnson said. “Let me thank you on behalf of all the citizens and all the roundtable for what you did to get us over this hump.”
Key among the contested amendments was a proposal to siphon money from MARTA’s funding to bankroll continuing service of several key GRTA Xpress bus routes. Today, the board approved its original 10-year $95 million allocation for GRTA, stipulating that the money be used primarily for operations, with some for capital spending. An accompanying resolution suggested that the state should provide capital funding to fill the equipment gap over the next decade.
An amendment to provide funding to study the potential of a commuter rail line in Rockland County was withdrawn, as was an amendment accompanying the request for greater GRTA financing. Another amendment — to fully fund a MARTA light rail line along I-20 — failed to get a second to bring the issue to a vote.
The issues, which seemed so contentious last week, were resolved in a series of meetings between Roundtable members determined to build a consensus around the project list. The list will go before the roundtable Thursday at 9 am at the Loudermilk Center in downtown Atlanta for a final vote before being delivered to the state by Oct. 15. The issue is scheduled to go before voters July 31.
“It shows what counties and cities sitting down together and working together, listening to each other,” Douglas County Commission Chairman Tom Worthan added. “It shows what we can accomplish.”
The region’s transportation future gained some clarity at Thursday’s Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable.
The proposed Cumberland transit line serves as one example of the compromises the roundtable will seek in negotiating a final project list.
On the other hand, there are other issues outside the control of the roundtable that complicate the negotiations. Those issues became so pronounced that the roundtable voted Thursday to table discussion on the most problematic amendments. At stake is a transportation vision that could bring metro Atlanta into the 21st-century.
And at one point, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed felt compelled to question the direction of Thursday’s proceedings when Douglas County Commissioner Tom Worthan expressed his belief more needed to be done to increase funding for GRTA Xpress buses at the expense of MARTA state of good repair.
Reed also warned that this process is the opportunity to get the right list that best serves cities and counties as the local economy recovers.
The recent transportation public meetings held in each of the ten counties proved critical in driving the amendment process, according to several roundtable members.
And while that public input seems to have delivered a message that a change in focus is desired, it may actually be the 11th hour politics driving the final negotiations as the roundtable works towards the Oct. 15 deadline.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the most recent poll shows a near consensus on metro Atlanta’s transportation problem.
Furthemore, 82 percent of respondents believe it is important to do more to encourage everyone to commute to work by bus or train.
But only 51 percent say they are likely to vote in favor of the referendum today, perhaps indicating the politics of the final list will be a significant factor in helping next year’s referendum pass.
The early talk about regionalism threatens to devolve into a scramble to help local voters determine “What’s in it for me?” Tuesday’s meeting may yet salvage a regional transportation vision for metro Atlanta that answers that question.
The task of identifying the region’s transportation priorities is a difficult one. As much as there has been a call for a spirit of regionalism during this process, the looming deadline to develop the draft final project list and the task of creating a vision that will appeal to voters in next year’s referendum challenges that spirit.
Despite those challenges, at Thursday’s Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable meeting, the roundtable executive committee selected in a 3 to 2 vote the following 6 transit projects for final consideration for the final project list:
- Clifton Corridor MARTA service at $700 million;
- Atlanta Beltline streetcar at $600 million;
- Atlanta to Cumberland northwest corridor light rail at $825 million;
- MARTA state of good repair at $500 million;
- Restore Clayton County bus service at $100 million;
- I-85 northeast corridor preliminary study and planning at $100 million.
With the Aug. 15 deadline looming, the politics of this process have begun to emerge. Several roundtable members voiced the concern that the process mandated by the Transportation Investment Act must yield a project list that not only appeals to voters but offers enough of a vision for the region to ensure next year’s referendum passes.
For Nathaniel Smith, founder and convener of Partnership for Social Equity, it is critical that organizations and citizens remain involved to ensure the roundtable process delivers solutions to all parts of the region.
“All communities are not created equal,” Smith says. “There are opportunities for us to strengthen communities that need additional help.
It is transportation that decides who the winners and losers are in the region.”
Even though the task for the day was limited to transit, the conversation strayed into questions about the intent of the Transportation Investment Act and revived debate about the regional good.
The politics of decision-making, as the roundtable approaches the Aug. 15 deadline raises concerns about the ability of the roundtable members to deliver something to their constituencies. At this time, the referendum will be held next summer, when many of the members of the roundtable will also have to survive primary elections.
The stark reality of voter reaction seems to weigh on the minds of roundtable members, especially those who represent areas on the outer edges of the region.
During the public comment period, several interests urged the roundtable to consider other transit projects, such as the Griffin commuter rail line an expanding transit service along Interstate 20.
Transit advocates continue to tout the long-term economic benefits of transit.
State Rep. Roberta Abdul Salaam is encouraged to see Clayton County bus service reon the roundtable’s initial transit list. More important, though, she desires for the roundtable to establish a vision where transit and roads not only peacefully co-exist but also ensure metro Atlanta remains competitive for the next several decades.
“If you are stuck on Georgia Highway 85 for any length of time, you have the same need for an outlet for transportation, public transportation as everybody else does,” Abdul Salaam explains. “The decisions they make now are going to affect the entire state for the next, 15, 20, 25 years or more.”
ATLANTA – With nearly 1 million residents reached over through a series of tele town halls, the process mandated by the Transportation Investment Act reaches a critical point at which the region’s wishes must be tempered by reality.
As Georgia Department of Transportation planning director Todd Long voiced last week, it is time to get real, “roll up your sleeves and pick projects.”
The Atlanta Regional Roundtable members then voted to assign the task of winnowing the unconstrained list to Atlanta Regional Commission staff.
On July 7, Atlanta Regional Commission staff will present their draft transportation list, reflecting their work in paring the $23 billion unconstrained list down to $11.5 billion- worth of proposed projects.
From there, the Roundtable will have to roll up their sleeves and pick projects.
Each of the tele town halls yielded information that should give the Roundtable members direction – and some political cover.
During the Fulton County tele town hall, an informal poll showed that 24 percent of respondents favored improvements to the I-285 and Georgia 400 interchange, 51 percent favored establishing transit in the BeltLine corridor and 25 percent expressed neither is important.
Clayton County residents participated in the last tele town hall and showed a strong preference (65 percent) for restoring bus service in the county.
These informal results affirm what many other polls have found: metro Atlanta residents have come to accept that transit is important to the region’s future.
The challenge for the Roundtable will be to select the right transit projects that offer the most promise to the entire region while also serving the entire region.
Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker seems to understand that point well.
“What I learned very quickly [as mayor] is that we [residents of Johns Creek] are really part of a bigger eco-system – that eco-system being metro Atlanta,” Bodker said during the Fulton County tele town hall. “I believe all of our quality of life will collectively be improved if we can fix the system and make it work better.
That’s my goal in this process.”
If the Roundtable selects the right projects for the October 15 deadline, then metro residents may pass the one-cent sales tax in a vote scheduled for summer 2012.
If the Roundtable does not, metro Atlanta’s world-class transportation aspirations will collapse, for a skeptical public is already wary of another tax.
As a WSBTV poll shows, currently only 33 percent of metro Atlanta residents favor passing the tax.
Like everyone else, the Atlanta BeltLine is trying to read the tea leaves.
Will metro Atlanta defy the model that made it an economic powerhouse in the Southeast and embrace transit?
If you spend a few minutes with Atlanta Beltline president and CEO Brian Leary, you start to believe it could happen.
According to Leary, “There are places in Atlanta right now that have transit demand, a mobility demand that cannot be met by the current road network.”
“What is the next idea that brings us all together to raise the level of quality of life?” Leary asks. “The more time I spend on this amazing project, the more I think the Atlanta BeltLine is it.
The unique thing [about Atlanta BeltLine] is that it will be city-serving and city-shaping.”
As part of the process mandated by the Transportation Investment Act, the City of Atlanta included Beltline projects in their transportation wish list. If the one-cent sales tax referendum passes in summer 2012 and the BeltLine projects are included in the final transportation list, the BeltLine will deliver a project that has failed to materialize to date: the BeltLine will create a rail transit connection between the City of Atlanta and Cobb Co.
“I am hard-pressed to find anywhere inside the core of the region where you can significantly add mobility capacity by building or extending roads,” Leary notes. “If we are real thoughtful about our transportation investments and economic development decisions, we will be much more sustainable and livable going forward.”
Sometimes it is the simple things that make all the difference.
As the region works towards identifying projects that will help improve mobility, advocates maintain that a “fix-it-first” policy is needed to enhance existing infrastructure, improve safety and get Atlanta moving.
According to Flocks, the region must make a significant investment in improving sidewalks and crosswalks.
“Right now we have system that is very unsafe for its users because you can’t use transit without at least crossing the street once,” Flocks notes. “Over half of pedestrian accidents occur within 300 feet of transit stops.
“If you can get more people using more transit - which safe access will do - it’s going to be a very positive thing for the financial health of our transit system.”
If the 2012 transportation tax referendum, passes experts estimate the tax will generate approximately $8 billion to fund transportation improvements throughout the region over the course of the ten-year life of one-cent sales tax.
Referendum guidelines suggest that 1 – 5 percent be spent on pedestrian and bike improvements. Advocates like Flocks and Serna are adamant that the number needs to be 5 percent.
Metro Atlanta may have a more robust transportation future if polls are any indication.
The Livable Communities Coalition conducted a poll last May to see how residents of metro Atlanta felt about transportation and what was needed to improve the area’s transportation infrastructure.
In the second podcast of our Fair Share for Transit podcast series, Livable Communities Coalition communications director interviews the Ray Christman, the Coalition’s executive director, and Citizens for Progressive Transit president Ashley Robbins about the area’s shifting attitudes towards transit.
Christman notes that poll results generally show that residents feel that roads are not the solution to improving traffic; rather, residents acknowledge that other options like transit are needed.
Citizens for Progressive Transit spearheaded an effort last fall in Clayton Co. to generate support for a non-binding referendum that would help restore transit in the county. Robbins shares her observations from that experience and how they generally apply to the metro area.
Visit The Atlanta-Journal Constitution has provided ongoing coverage of the transportation referendum process.
Highlights include information about polls that suggest metro Atlanta desires more transit, discussion about the actual impact of ozone and decreasing reliance on foreign sources for fossil fuels.
To share your input with members of the Regional Transportation Roundtable, visit the Atlanta Regional Roundtable online. The website provides information about the members of the Roundtable and whom you should contact as your local representative.
The Atlanta Regional Commission has also made an online survey available, allowing residents to provide input on the proposed projects for their communities.