Today’s Courier Herald Column:
I’m sure the non-Atlanta area readers of this column probably wonder why so much coverage is given to a regional squabble over transit in Atlanta when there are so many other problems that affect the state as a whole that could be addressed. Those who live below the gnat line are rightfully much more concerned with whether there will be sufficient labor willing and available to pick crops this year than how MARTA is funded. Growth problems in the Atlanta area most likely do not resonate in some parts of the state which have seen stagnant population growth and in some cases, population declines.
There are a few reasons why these battles matter to Georgia as a whole. Transportation policy has long been guided by rural legislators, with the DOT being a de facto “roads only” agency. Their mission was as much about using four lane highways for rural economic development as it was ensuring the mobility of Georgians. Asphalt has long been political currency under the Gold Dome.
Over the last decade, shifts in party and population have concentrated political power in the Atlanta suburbs and exurbs. Many of the voters in these areas who have watched their region become gridlocked faster than the state can build new roads have often looked at the DOT’s rural development efforts as “four lanes to nowhere.”
For towns in rural Georgia who have pegged their future on creating access via road building, that may sound harsh. It is important for rural areas to understand that this mindset exists, however. They should also know there is somewhat of a resentment from suburban areas that were Republican during the 80’s and 90’s that continually saw State tax dollars go to not only road widening projects which they found somewhat dubious, but to band uniforms and other pet projects routinely doled out from supplemental budgets to districts represented by key Democrats, mostly in rural areas.
The mindset behind the construct of the regional T-SPLOST votes was to diffuse an outright confrontation over existing transportation dollars and policy. The idea was to keep the tax revenue that is produced in the metro Atlanta area within the region to fund long neglected infrastructure upgrades. Thus, rural transportation interests which still maintain significant clout would not have to be confronted of matching the funds spent in and around Atlanta with additional less critical rural projects.
Yet while many in central and south Georgia may look at Atlanta as a single entity, it remains a region at war with itself. The central city is urban and transit dependent. The state, quite notably, does not contribute to MARTA funding at all, however. MARTA is the largest such transit system in the country that does not receive support from the state in which it operates.
The suburbs are also divided among themselves. The inner and more populous counties have urbanized quite a bit over the past few decades. Gwinnett and Clayton counties are much more receptive to transit solutions than they were a decade or so ago, but also face immediate needs for road improvement. Cobb County is having a fierce internal issue over rail, but that battle in and of itself is progress. Ten years ago, the debate would have been considered settled before it even began.
Atlanta’s exurbs, however, do not want transit, and will oppose the T-SPLOST. Their residents are generally anti-tax, and it would be doubtful that many would vote for a regional tax if it were just for roads. Many residents feel the T-SPLOST is just a vehicle to expand transit into their communities and will oppose it on that ground alone.
Problems within the design of the program became clear this week when the model for governance of a regional transit program was revealed. Fulton and DeKalb residents were surprised to learn that despite their $6 Billion investment in transit and their continued payment of a one cent tax above the T-SPLOST to pay for MARTA, they will lose control of the board that governs regional transit to suburban interests which still oppose transit. They are asked to trust the state will still fund MARTA adequately. This is the same state that currently provides no transit funding, and has a political power structure that is adamantly anti-transit.
Maria Saporta, longtime Atlanta business reporter and now publisher of The Saporta Report, points to the first sign of fracture between the team of Atlanta Mayor of Kasim Reed and Governor Deal over the proposal of transit governance. The two have been a bi-partisan tag team on Savannah’s port expansion, T-SPLOST, Atlanta Public schools, and other thorny issues needing a coalition to implement a solution.
While the Mayor’s words were guarded, he clearly does not approve of the plan, with Saporta quoting him as saying “This is not the path to success” and “I think it will be harmful.”
Thus, in order to make transit acceptable to the suburbs, a governance model has been proposed that is frankly, insulting to those who have invested in and constructed the system’s core over the past 40 years. It is becoming increasingly clear that to appease one bloc of voters within the Atlanta region, another bloc is offended. Finding the calculus to get to 51% of the vote remains a long shot.
And thus, if Atlanta’s T-SPLOST fails, the plan B everyone claims does not exist will be perhaps even more painful, and possibly require funds that would otherwise be headed to more rural parts of the state. While Atlanta’s passage of T-SPLOST may not affect rural areas of the state directly, its failure may have a direct financial impact.