By Matt McWilliams
The transportation sales tax vote is still months away, but it is likely voters will have plenty of opportunities to ask questions before July 31.
Fundamentally, voters will have to determine whether it’s worth it to them to levy a penny sales tax – for ten years – to fast-track transportation infrastructure investment.
Complicating matters, the Georgia General Assembly may not be able to pass transit governance legislation that will help voters understand how these new investments will be managed.
Last week the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that proposed transit governance legislation has rankled some because of its intent to change representation guidelines by granting more influence to north Metro Atlanta.
And while that issue brews in the background, DeKalb County may prove critical to this summer’s vote, as dividing lines have already emerged. The DeKalb NAACP has already announced their intent to tell south DeKalb residents to vote no. On the other side of the issue, the DeKalb County Chamber of Commerce argues that approval of the penny sales tax is critical to the region’s – as well as DeKalb’s – economic health.
In the City of Atlanta
Despite the uncertainty of transit governance, the City of Atlanta has already begun its effort to tell its residents about the Transportation Investment Act, the proposed transportation projects and how the penny sales tax is likely to affect them.
And as much as transportation may be on the minds of most metro Atlanta residents, last Monday’s informational meeting at Atlanta Mission in northwest Atlanta – one of four public gatherings hosted by the City – was only attended by a handful of residents.
But that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of interest; nor is there an unwillingness to ask tough questions.
As one attendee asked, “Who will manage this humongous amount of money?”
A City of Atlanta senior transportation policy advisor, Tom Weyandt, provided answers to those difficult questions. Whether the penny sales tax referendum passes may depend on answering the big question about accountability.
In the case of oversight of the $7.2 billion the tax will generate over its 10-year life, the answer is complex.
“It is a rather convoluted process,” Weyandt acknowledged. “A group called the Georgia State Finance and Investment Commission will actually receive the money from the State Department of Revenue.
“They will in turn contract with either Georgia DOT for the road projects, or GRTA, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, for the transit projects.
“[And] they in turn will contract with the sponsor agencies, either local jurisdictions like the City of Atlanta or MARTA.”
“It is important to note that there will be a citizen’s oversight panel which the law requires be appointed, that will make regular reports on both the progress of building the projects, as well as the annual financial reporting and how we will be reporting that to the legislature and the public,” Weyandt said.
The panel will ensure that the projects on the $6.14 billion project list, unanimously approved by the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable in October, get built within the legislatively-mandated 10-year window.
The final list, which includes $3.2 billion for transit, also provides 10 years of anticipated operations and maintenance costs.
But even this $6.14 billion cannot comprehensively address all of the region’s transportation needs.
“We are very aware that even in the city there gaps,” Weyandt acknowledged.
While the final transportation project list the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable approved last October focuses on large projects, there is a little something for everyone. The tax will also provide additional monies (15 percent of the total revenues collected) to work on other, more localized transportation infrastructure. These projects could include construction of new sidewalks, intersection improvements, or other similar local projects that the final project list does not address.
With the addition of these projects, the effect of the Transportation Investment Act could still at least have a profound impact on city residents.
According to Weyandt, “three out of four people who live in the City of Atlanta are within a half mile of one of those projects.”
While the debate has yet to fully shape, the bottom line for voters will come down to whether enough residents can expect to experience a direct impact in their daily commutes and in their daily lives. In the City of Atlanta, at least, impacting 3 out of 4 seems to fulfill that promise.
Matt McWilliams is an emerging media consultant with more than 15 years of non-profit experience in metro Atlanta.