Earlier this legislative session, the Republicans controlling the Georgia legislature unveiled their solution to Georgia’s transportation woes. Their proposal would phase out the existing sales taxes (state and local) on gas and replace them with an increased excise tax. Local governments would need to levy their own gas taxes to replace this lost revenue. Meanwhile, users of alternative-fuel vehicles would pay an annual $200 fee that would fund transit projects specifically. The plan also includes a $100 million bond issue for transit. Due to concerns about local governments losing out on their own gas-tax money, this proposal has been amended.
Good on them for proposing a solution to a growing problem. An Urban Institute study cited in a recent WABE 90.1 article stated Metro Atlanta’s population is slated to grow by 1.3 million people by 2030 at minimum — and possibly by as much as four million. If you think traffic is bad now, just wait. If something isn’t done, it’s going to get a whole lot worse.
One way to deal with this is expanding MARTA rail--buses can get caught in traffic--to keep as many people off the roads as possible. Plans on MARTA’s website include the Clifton Corridor light rail to the Emory area, underserved by MARTA and, according to my CDC friends, Bermuda Triangle at rush hour. Another possibility is extending rail eastward to the Mall at Stonecrest, relieving traffic on I-20E. As far as outside the Perimeter is concerned, MARTA has proposed extending the existing heavy rail line from North Springs into Alpharetta to take traffic off Ga. 400. Clayton County’s recent incorporation into MARTA would allow for rail all the way to Lovejoy, where I lived when I was a reporter for The Griffin Daily News. It’d be a lot easier for Clayton County residents lacking cars to get to work or school in Atlanta if they could get on the train south of the airport, believe me.
Problem is, these projects cost money — the Clifton Corridor light-rail $1.12 billion, the Alpharetta heavy-rail project $1.6 billion. The Stonecrest MARTA expansion would be the most expensive of them all at just over $2 billion. And given how projects often go over-budget, I could imagine things getting more expensive before they’re done.
MARTA is the largest urban mass transit system in the country not receiving operational funds from its state. It does not receive very much in capital funds either. If the state is going to use the 50/50 rule on how MARTA spends its own money, it should contribute more. No representation without taxation, after all. Not only would state monies allow MARTA to operate its existing assets more effectively, but in sufficient quantities would facilitate improvements to keep Atlanta’s growing population from choking its freeways into uselessness.
Of course, where would all this money come from? The plan would raise $1 billion for needed improvements, but as I said earlier, it would also revamp the gas tax in ways that would cost local communities. It would also discourage the use of alternative-fuel vehicles with a ridiculous tax.
Rather than just complain, however, I would like to offer another suggestion. Increase the gas tax — which won’t be noticed too much given the recent price crash — and amend the state constitution to allow it to fund transit alongside roads and bridges. In 2011, the tax provided $675 million to the Georgia Department of Transportation. Though four years of less driving and more fuel efficiency have no doubt reduced that figure, gas-tax revenues could still allow significant improvements to MARTA. If this money can secure additional funding from the federal government (since it would help CDC employees) or stakeholders like Emory University or back bonds, even better. This alternative would not cost local communities or penalize the adoption of alternative fuels.
Given Atlanta’s rising population and how MARTA, in the words of a transit skeptic near and dear to me, “doesn’t go anywhere,” keeping our city from choking on traffic will require thinking big. The $100 million stopgap will help, but a long-term expansion of the system to meet the coming demand — and the money to pay for it — need a more ambitious solution.
Since constitutional amendments must originate in the General Assembly, the ball is in the legislature’s court. Although constitutional amendments can only be voted on in even-numbered years, the TSPLOST failed in the legislature the first time it was proposed. If we want to get started on building a transportation system to accommodate Atlanta’s coming millions, we’ll need to get started now.