In the Atlanta Region, Disagreements about Investment Priorities Spur Discord Over a Planned Transit Tax

» DeKalb County NAACP announces intention to attempt to thwart passage of transit tax this summer.

Getting the residents of the 10-county Atlanta region to agree on anything was always going to be a difficult effort. The newest controversy about which projects to fund with a new sales tax there raises questions about what to do when a lot of money is available for transit — but there isn’t enough for every proposed project.

Back in 1971, when MARTA was formed to run Atlanta’s new federally funded rail system, the agency — and its dedicated funding stream — were restricted to  Fulton and DeKalb Counties, which surround the City of Atlanta and which sit at the center of the region. At the time, those counties represented about 70% of the region’s population of 1.5 million, so restricting adequate public transportation in those areas was perhaps an acceptable compromise in an area of the country already skeptical of the value of transit.

Forty years and 2.6 million more people later, these same areas account for just 40% of the region’s population. Yet MARTA’s rail network and its related buses have expanded only minimally since, and they haven’t left the core counties. MARTA can barely cover its operations costs. Meanwhile, traffic is as bad as anywhere in the country.

Thus the call for a new, dedicated source of revenue to support transportation improvements in the ten-county area. In mid-2011, leaders announced they had come to an agreement about holding a referendum in 2012 (it will be held July 31). Later last year, negotiations over how the $6.1 billion in predicted ten-year revenues from the 1% sales tax would be distributed produced a project list that would extend MARTA to Emory University, bring a new bus rapid transit line to the I-20 corridor, and install light rail transit along a midtown and suburban route. Every county got a share of the funds roughly proportional to their proposed contribution.

Yet the DeKalb County NAACP has announced it will launch a public campaign in opposition to the sales tax referendum because the list of projects agreed upon does not include a MARTA rail link from Indian Creek, the current terminus of the Blue Line, to the Mall at Stonecrest, a 1.2 million square-foot mega mall in the southeastern section of the county on I-20. While discussions last fall had mentioned such a project as a possibility, the negotiators eventually decided to focus instead on bus rapid transit on the I-20 corridor, which will be far cheaper to build but which in theory could eventually be replaced by rail. This has enraged the NAACP, which contends that South DeKalb is being underserved, since the most expensive improvements in the County — the rail link to Emory — is in the west, where MARTA already runs. Back in August, the organization announced that it would fight the tax if the rail link was not included in the priority list, so its actions this week were not unexpected.

Whatever you think about the proposed I-20 line (to my estimation, it is less valuable than many of the other projects proposed for the Atlanta region) is has led to significant controversy in DeKalb, in part because the County’s CEO is one of the major supporters of the proposed tax. He argues that the County’s taxpayers will get more than their money’s worth — $1.3 billion in projects vs. $800 million in tax contributions — but this has not been enough to placate those who sincerely want rail there.

To be frank, this opposition puts the transit tax’s chance of passage in jeopardy. The Atlanta region is relatively conservative, with the population most likely to support increased revenues for public transportation living in Fulton and DeKalb Counties — the densest, most urban parts of the region. The fact that the vote is taking place in the middle of the summer rather than in November means there will be limited turnout. If voters in DeKalb are convinced that the tax will not serve their interests, it stands little chance of passage.

This situation is Atlanta-specific, but its features could be relevant to any metropolitan area considering major investments in new transit lines. The problem is this: Once there is agreement as to the importance of new revenues for transportation, everyone announces that they have an important project they want to fund. The sum of the costs of those projects is inevitably far larger than the amount of money expected to be raised. Eventually, a regional decision-making body must come to an accord about which projects are most important, and which can be delayed for future action. Those who do not get what they want from that priority list — the I-20 rail supporters in Atlanta’s case — become frustrated and may begin to oppose the expansion program, even if other projects benefit them.

Is there a way to avoid this? Unlikely. There are only a limited amount of funds available and a seemingly infinite number of projects that individuals or organizations will latch on to as priorities. Indeed, there is inevitably some opposition in the public discourse to any proposed intervention by the government. The question is how influential each side is, and what percentage of the population will be persuaded by each argument.

Image above: MARTA Station Platform, from Flickr user Chip Harlan (cc)

16 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • EBATL

    Interesting to juxtapose south Dekalb and the NAACP – raising hell because they want the rail link that’s not in the final plan – and many in Cobb County who are raising hell because they don’t want a proposed rail link.

  • DBX

    I’ve had little time for the NAACP ever since they failed to endorse a constitutional amendment in Alabama eight years ago that would have made massively progressive changes to that state’s tax code. In an age where racial discrimination still persists on a large scale, the NAACP has managed to obsolete itself and yet undermine progressive goals. Quite a astonishing achievement for a civil rights organization, and yet here they go again failing to see the forest for the trees. I’d be interested to see if there’s a class dimension to this, since I get the sense in general that the NAACP is far more attuned to the professional middle class than those farther down the income ladder.

  • Billy Bob

    Hopefully they will overcome this, but if it doesn’t, tough tiddlywinks. And only the NAACP will be to blame for this. I’m black and generally support the group’s mission, but this is silly.

  • A. Nym

    It’s not a transit tax.

    As you detail, it’s a 10 year, 1% sales tax to fund a transportation project list. The project list for Atlanta includes many new lane-miles in support of exurban development.

  • Tom Marney

    The tax program doesn’t include rail to Cobb County. It does, however, include suburban sprawlways that counties can’t fund themselves, e.g. freeway conversion of GA 316 and Sugarloaf Parkway, the resurrected Northern Arc, both in Gwinnett County.

    I’ll probably vote for it, but only because I know there’s no way it’ll pass.

  • Neil

    Transit fuels mobility, it fuels the economy. There are people who will benefit greatly from having mass transit in their communities on many levels. The underlying issue surrounds racism and prejudice which is SAD SAD SAD. If transit lines can criss cross other regions around the nation through a variety of income neighborhoods, why can’t it be implemented in Atlanta? MARTA already does this? At the end of the day, slamming every transit project that comes Atlanta’s way is going to continue the decay in quality of life. Adding lanes to congested roadways, changing signal timings at traffic lights, and focusing just on the personal vehicle is NOT THE WAY OUT. This is one of the reasons why Texas and other poster child boom cities are starting to forge ahead of Atlanta in terms of growing in a smarter way through transit oriented developments and accessibility to transit. Learn from them because if not you’re all going to suffer, and fall behind. Atlanta could end up like Detroit in a way if these issues aren’t solved and the residents don’t stand behind one another for transit projects. You need it, end of story.

  • I really want to like the NAACP. They have a good history and a good mission.

    But I have yet, in my limited experience, to see them do anything progressive, or really even anything that benefits anyone, including people of colour.

    Here in Cincinnati they have have been on the silly reactionary side of every transportation issue they’ve taken a stand on. How does an organization dedicated to the advancement of people of colour seriously campaign against transit serving the central neighborhoods of a city like Cincinnati? Our central neighborhoods are packed with poor people of colour who rely on the bus for all of their transportation needs!!

    *facepalm*

    • Nate Wessel wrote,

      “But I have yet, in my limited experience, to see them do anything progressive, or really even anything that benefits anyone, including people of color”

      I would’t over-generalize. The NAACP has done progressive good for our society, but like any organization, it does not bat 1000. In the case of transportation, it is more accurate to state that they have made good steps and missteps. To only highlight their missteps is misleading.

      A larger issue driving some of what appear to be NAACP transportation missteps by some, is that America underinvests in Transit. As a result, metro transit departments have a content tension between how much to spend for regular bus service vs. BRT & rail service. That tension is heightened by regular bus service primarily benefiting urban commuters, while BRT & Rail primarily benefit suburban commuters. Many, not all NAACP supporters are urban and suburbanites who care about urbanites getting to school, college and jobs. The NAACP has mostly lobbied for these benefits that any healthy society should want.

      Nevertheless, suburban commuters also have a valid point to make for investment to expand rapid transit for its metro area benefits. Hence, I would like to see the NAACP and other organizations who care about mass transportation consistently fight for larger federal transit funding, rather than the false choice of pitting regular bus vs. rapid transit funding.

  • Lewis

    Maybe planners should do a better job visualizing the BRT project for the stakeholders in Dekalb. BRT is generally unfamiliar outside of South America. The residents might feel les neglected if they understood the service differential b/w BRT and traditional bus service.

    At a higher level, isn’t this what cost-benefit analysis is supposed to resolve? If the BRT line passes but the rail link doesn’t, we shouldn’t care what color the people served would be. How would a super-diverse city like Oakland ever build anything if planners had to worry about whether expenditures benefited every ethnic group? I seriously doubt the NAACP’s demands are tempered by the cost or ridership of the rail link. If it cost 3x as much and carried 1/3 the current ridership projection, they would still want it built, because for them it is a symbolic gesture rather than an investment. It’s politics like this that prevents America from building large projects, with healthy and sustainable ridership, in a reasonable time frame.

    • Planners in Oakland _do_ have to consider how transportation investments benefit and burden different demographics. In fact, all agencies that receive federal funds have to undertake exactly that analysis under Title VI of the civil rights act, Executive Order 12898 and supporting state law. See the LA Bus Riders Union Lawsuit and more recently Darensburg v. MTC.

      Also, B/C analysis is a ruse. MPO board members argue for their projects whether they score 1 or 61, and the underlying modeling is inconsistent at best. I can share recent audio from public meetings that vividly illustrates this point, if you’d like.

  • Eric

    “The residents might feel les neglected if they understood the service differential b/w BRT and traditional bus service.”

    That’s the problem. Services are often branded as “BRT” when there is little difference between them and regular bus service. In my city, the only difference between “BRT” and regular buses is that the “BRT” buses have an extra door in the back. I was on one such bus today, there was traffic and it had an average speed of 2mph over a couple miles. Obviously not all BRT is like that, but the brand has been quite devalued.

    • cqholt

      THE I-20 BRT will have dedicated bus lanes separated from the interstate. MARTA is hoping that federal dollars will be contributed to develop this as a HRT extension. The BRT is just a plan B, plan A is for federal dollars contributions. South DeKalb does have limited services, but don’t shoot the whole county in the foot because your not getting a rail line

  • ScottNATL

    I feel quite certain that they dont have an understanding of what BRT really is, but also adding salt to the wound is the Emory line is in the north part of Dekalb which is less of a minority population. I think they (NAACP) would better serve people by getting behind the tax and shooting off their nose to spite their face. If this does not pass there will be no projects for at least 2 years as a penalty is written into the legislation that set this vote up

  • Ex-Atlantan

    MARTA has completely destroyed any sort of confidence that they can do anything right with BRT, when it designated the 520 and 521 buses down Memorial Drive in Dekalb County as BRT. Those buses don’t have separate lanes, or anything to improve the level of service between Stone Mountain/Tucker and Kensington. Their website has a testimonial BRAGGING about making the 6 mile trip from Stone Mountain to Kensington station in 25 minutes. And oh, by the way…

    The buses only run from 5:45 to 9 AM and 3 to 7-7:20 PM.

    So yes, I’m skeptical about any idea of MARTA running BRT with ANY form of success, and if I was a resident of southern Dekalb County, I’d want the real line or nothing.

  • Nathanael

    Unfortunately, the racial politics in the greater Atlanta region mean very little will ever get done; the urban-rural and rich-poor fights have a very nasty historical racial component to them.

  • Marc G

    Ex-Atlantan, you have missed the point here. The NAACP wants to build Black middle class membership in Dekalb and adjacent Rockdale County. It doesn’t just want to, from a financial standpoint it MUST. Therefore it is wants to be seen as having gotten this I-20 rail line for those folk.

    Obviously the racial dynamics here in Georgia, the Deep South, haven’t fundamentally changed and opposition to the line is decades old so the NAACP understands it can appear to be on the right side of this from a racial and historical standpoint while doing what it really wants to do is be a powerbroker for the purposes of building its membership base in a financially difficult period.

    As for MARTA mismanagement, when I hear someone mention that but not mention how rural Georgia has leeched billions of dollars out of MARTA over the past 40 years, it is difficult to keep listening.

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