DeKalb County and state leaders at a transportation tax forum May 3 said a proposed one-cent sales tax is the region’s best shot for expanding its transit system.
“We all must go out to vote for this wonderful project that has regional cooperation,” said Liane Levetan, a citizen member of the Atlanta Regional Commission board and former CEO of DeKalb County.
“If we don’t exercise the privilege that we have here today to go out and vote in July, we are going to be behind,” Levetan said. “We will be that Southern state that’s going to be low on the totem pole.”
Voters in the 10-county Atlanta metro region have the chance in July to vote on whether they want to pay a penny sales tax to fund various transportation projects, including transit, roadway, safety, bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
The tax is expected to collect approximately $8 billion regionally for transportation projects approved late last year by a roundtable of leaders from around the region.
If the measure is passed, DeKalb County would receive an estimated $1.1 billion from the tax. Among the proposed projects for DeKalb are the extension of Clifton corridor MARTA rail from Lindbergh station to the Emory University area; a $12 million Buford Highway pedestrian safety and accessibility project; and improvements to North Druid Hills, Rockbridge, Glenwood and Panola roads.
The $225 million that would be set aside for establishing MARTA park and ride lots along the I-20 East corridor to Stonecrest Mall has been a point of contention for DeKalb leaders who wanted funding to construct heavy rail there.
DeKalb Commissioner Lee May, who has been an advocate for more funding for the project, said a heavy rail transit system along I-20 “is absolutely critical for this region.”
“All the new development that is occurring in DeKalb County is occurring along that I-20 corridor,” May said.
“The reason why I’ve been so vocal …is because I clearly understand the importance of us really beginning to act regionally,” May said. “If there is ever an example of a regional project, this is that project.”
Levetan, a longtime proponent of MARTA, said the region’s future is tied to a viable transit system. She likened the proposed transit expansions to the former Atlanta mayor William Hartsfield’s efforts to expand Atlanta’s airport into a major international transportation hub.
“Where would we be if Mayor Hartsfield had not extended that runway?” Levetan asked. “We’re not doing this for ourselves. We’re doing this for the future of our children and our grandchildren.”
MARTA Executive Director Beverly Scott said Atlanta was once heralded as the beginning of the renaissance of modern rail transit in the United States.
“This was a region of the country 35 years ago that was a leader,” Scott said. “We got stuck.”
MARTA has only constructed half of what the original plans called for, she said. At one time a leader, MARTA has long been surpassed by Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit system in the nation’s capital.
Leaders in those cities “had the tenacity, the leadership, the chutzpah to keep moving and we got stuck,” Scott said. “If we don’t get started now, we will continue to lag behind.”
Scott said the passage of the regional transportation tax will be “one of the most important decisions” in the Atlanta region.
“There is always a Plan B and failure to pass this is not pretty for anyone,” Scott said.
That secondary plan is to stay on “the current course we’re on today—waiting on Congress to give us more money or less,” said Georgia Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Todd Long.
Scott said waiting on the federal government to fund transit projects is risky.
“The federal government is not the one that’s going to wind up bailing out local areas that don’t have the guts …to invest in themselves,” Scott said.