Opinion - T-SPLOST failed but Atlanta hasn't

Don't start packing your bags just yet

Last week, the regional transportation tax dubbed the T-SPLOST failed in a spectacular fashion. By a nearly two-to-one margin, voters in the 10-county metro region, including Atlanta, rejected the sales tax measure that would have built more than $8 billion of new roads and transit projects, including streetcar segments along the Atlanta Beltline and a new rail line between Lindbergh Center and Emory University.

Depression immediately set in among business leaders, transit advocates, and progressive intowners. Things got worse for ITPers when they heard Gov. Nathan Deal's austere follow-up plan: basically, anoint himself transportation czar and build a few road projects aimed more at moving goods rather than making metro Atlanta a better place.

Think toll roads — not new rail. "Yesterday's vote slams the door on further expansion of our rail network any time soon," Deal said in a press release. "Neither I nor the Legislature has much of an appetite for new investments until there are significant reforms in how MARTA operates."

To anyone hoping metro Atlanta and Georgia would finally start actually investing in transit and easing congestion, like countless metros around the country have been doing for years, it looked as if we were yielding to the rest of the nation. But it doesn't have to be that way.

If there's anything to learn from last week's vote, it's that Atlantans and a good number of DeKalb County residents are willing to pay extra to build new transit, turn speedy intown roads into walkable areas, and synchronize traffic lights.

According to unofficial results, the 1 percent sales tax measure fared quite well in the urban core. Fifty-eight percent of Atlantans supported the tax. Nearly 74 percent of Oakhurst voters gave the measure the thumbs up. A few precincts in South DeKalb County, where T-SPLOST opponents said voters were apparently irate over not receiving funding for a long-planned rail line, voted in the mid-40 percent range in support.

And while Clayton County voters rejected the tax, don't forget that in 2010 nearly 70 percent of its voters OK'd a nonbinding referendum asking if residents wanted to pay a 1 percent sales tax and join MARTA. (Residents in the northern edges of Fulton and DeKalb, where support for the T-SPLOST measured as low as 20 percent, well ... they're another story.)

If the suburban outer counties fail to see the importance of linking with Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton, then those three counties, home to the world's busiest airport, the state capitol, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among others, should partner and build projects. According to state revenue estimates, an additional 1 percent sales tax in the three counties could generate an additional $3.1 billion or so over 10 years — which could be used to build the Beltline transit segments, rail to South DeKalb County, MARTA expansions into Roswell, or other projects.

Such a proposal would require legislation under the Gold Dome, but local leaders would be bringing a tempting proposal. Two of the state's most populous counties — and the engine of the metro region's economy — would pay two pennies on each dollar for transportation. In exchange, the General Assembly eliminates restrictions on MARTA's funding, giving us control over the transit agency we, not they, have funded for 40 years.

Taxing parking spaces in the city limits, the closest Atlanta will ever get to a commuter tax, is another option. Not just on-street spots, but also those in the city's massive parking decks and employee lots. Exempt the first 15 spaces so you don't hinder small businesses. Give a pass to homeowners and neighborhoods.

Sound crazy? The city's considered the measure before, and found that, in some scenarios, a parking tax could generate as much as $75 million each year. Use that cash to restore cut MARTA bus service or fund other transit. Sure, it'd be politically difficult, but these are different times.

We can issue bonds to build bike lanes, fix sidewalks, and fix potholes. We can use surplus TAD funds, where it makes sense, to extend our streetcar system, rebuild bridges, or retrofit streetscapes to be more friendly to bicyclists, pedestrians, and people using public transit.

And we can tell Arthur Blank that, we're sorry, but considering this T-SPLOST loss, that $300 million we were gonna give you to help build a new football stadium in downtown Atlanta is suddenly needed for a different project — investing in the city's long-term vibrancy and vitality.

What will be much harder to do is regaining the public's trust to make some of these changes happen. "The vote was not against regionalism," one local transportation planner said to me last week. "It was a vote against elitism."

Not intown, urbanite elitism, mind you, but top-down government led by the same-ol' lawmakers who they think have favored special interests over the public. Or simply not listened and can't be trusted. Regaining that trust — perhaps offering critics a seat at the decision table, passing ethics reform legislation, including pay-to-play — takes time.

But waiting only makes matters worse. And elected officials, including Mayor Kasim Reed, should start now — and close to home in Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton counties.

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