Atlantic Cities

Fixing Atlanta's Transportation Mess, with Pennies

Fixing Atlanta's Transportation Mess, with Pennies
Flickr user FLC, licensed under Creative Commons

If travel in and around Atlanta improves over the next decade, residents may well see October 13, 2011, as a day to remember. Yesterday 21 leaders from 10 Atlanta-area counties, acting as the Atlanta Regional Roundtable, unanimously—though far from easily—approved a $6.14 billion list of projects eligible for funding under the Transportation Investment Act of 2010. Having achieved this difficult compromise, regional officials have done all they can. The rest is in the hands of the Atlanta people, who next year will vote on a referendum to fund the list with a 10-year, 1 percent sales tax increase. Who says pennies are useless?

That the city can improve its transportation system is beyond question. According to the latest Urban Mobility Report, Atlanta drivers suffer the longest daily rush-hour travel time, at 127 roundtrip minutes. The city's transit authority, MARTA, has problems of its own. Less than 4 percent of Atlanta area residents commute to work by transit, according to a recent analysis of Census data, and a Brookings report released this summer concluded that the Atlanta region has the worst transit coverage for "zero-vehicle households", at 68.5 percent, among all major metro areas in the United States. 

Precisely how Atlanta intends to improve regional travel has been the source of much debate. Since June, roundtable members have whittled the project list from roughly $23 billion down to $6.14 billion, the amount they estimate can be covered by the penny sales tax over 10 years. The task involved navigating those shaky waters where city transit interests and suburban road desires meet. Still, the final list [PDF] reflects an impressive understanding of the need for a balanced transportation system: roughly 52 percent of the funding will go toward transit projects, reports the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, with the rest going toward road work. 

Some of the most intriguing projects on the list include more than $600 million for streetcar, transit, and trail projects on the Atlanta Beltline; hundreds of millions in general upgrades to MARTA, including $354 million for an electrical rehabilitation; $700 million for a long-awaited MARTA link along the Clifton Corridor into Emory University; and $695 million for premium transit service, including express trains, from the metro area's northwest corridor to the MARTA Arts Center Station. Suburban bus service and bus rapid transit projects will be funded as well. The largest individual road project is $450 million for interchange improvements to I-285.

Of course not everyone came away pleased. Tea party leaders see the referendum as a "mass transit tax," reports the AJC, while some transit advocates worried the list didn't go far enough in their direction. Aside from the Beltline upgrades, little funding was dedicated exclusively to pedestrian-bicycle projects. But with federal and state money for transportation hard to come by, and getting harder, Atlantans seem to recognize, like Los Angeles residents before them, that improving regional transportation means ponying up some pennies. A poll from late September shows that a slight majority of metro area voters, 51 percent, support the referendum; even in Cobb and Gwinnett counties, typically opposed to transit funding, support is at 48 percent. What they all appreciate is something has to give: nine in ten believe addressing transportation problems is critical to the region's future.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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