by Phil Schaeffing, urban designer and planner
Today is the big day. Residents of Atlanta and the surrounding ten counties vote on whether to approve the Transportation Investment Act (TIA), a ten-year, one-penny sales tax to fund a defined list of regional road, transit, bike, and pedestiran projects. Atlanta’s traffic congestion is well-known: the metro ranks fourth nationally in total hours the average commuter spends on the road daily. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority is the country’s only major transit system not funded at the state level. The Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (T-SPLOST) would raise $7.2 billion (in 2011 dollars) over its ten-year life for transportation projects in a state that ranks 48th in per-capita transportation spending, while creating or retaining 200,000 jobs and generating a 4-to-1 return on investment.
The debate over the sales tax has been intense. Like any proposed tax in 2012, it faces intense scrutiny—and skepticism. Depending on who you ask, the list of TIA projects either devotes too much to transit (52% of funds) or it relies too heavily on Atlanta’s road-building tradition ($2.9 billion allocated; an additional 15% of the money raised would flow to municipalities to spend on priority local transportation needs). Opponents have questioned the choice of specific projects and whether the final list of projects even-handedly allocates transportation investments across the region. Some groups have opposed a sales tax hike on principal, and, counterintuitively, opponents include the DeKalb County NAACP, which cited equity concerns, and the Georgia Sierra Club, dismayed by the limited number of bike and pedestrian projects. Proponents include Republican Governor Nathan Deal, Democratic Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, the Atlanta Regional Commission, and two dozen environmental groups. Atlanta’s business community has acted as a leading and vocal proponent.
The T-SPLOST vote is being promoted as a congestion-reduction effort, but it will likely reshape economic development and housing choices if it passes. Passage would signal that the region is actively addressing its transportation challenges to keep pace with competitors like Charlotte, Houston, and Dallas, which have all recently invested in transit. More transit would create more opportunities for transit-oriented development that can reduce the cost of getting to work, increase the number of accessible jobs for residents, and create more livable, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.
T-SPLOST will not solve all of the region’s transportation problems, but it would begin to shift transportation priorities toward those of young and educated workers who represent a key component of economic growth. Surveys show that many don’t want to sit in traffic every day, and growing numbers prefer to take transit, walk or bike to work. Atlanta’s success does not ride on any single decision, but success or failure of T-SPLOST could significantly influence perceptions—and the reality—of the region’s future growth. Stay tuned for the results.