Well, the Atlanta region has spoken. The proposed one-cent sales tax hike to support $7.15 billion in spending on transit and roads was roundly defeated Tuesday, with 62 percent opposing. Though approved by Atlanta city voters, none of the 10 counties considering the measure gave it the thumbs up, according to unofficial results.
The defeat “leaves the Atlanta region’s traffic congestion problem with no visible remedy,” wrote Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Ariel Hart. “It marks [a] failure not only for the tax but for the first attempt ever to unify the 10-county region’s disparate voters behind a plan of action.”
The immediate implications are huge. The most urgent is the funding situation at MARTA, Atlanta’s already threadbare transit system, which sees half a million daily boardings.
MARTA will most likely see fare hikes or service reductions in the next fiscal year, said Ashley Robbins, executive director of Citizens for Progressive Transit, which advocated for the spending package. The region’s transit agency, which receives no state support, has been spending down its reserves. Even with the $600 million earmarked for MARTA in the referendum, the agency was still facing a $2.3 billion shortfall over the next 10 years.
In addition, the region’s suburban express bus service, GRTA, which serves about 10,000 daily, will most likely be forced to close. And Clayton County, a largely urban county south of Atlanta that lost its transit service altogether two years ago, will have no means to restore service.
And Atlanta can forget about expanding rail service in the short term. By state decree, the entire $600 million for MARTA in the package was for capital needs, not operations, according to a MARTA spokesman. The referendum’s failure is a major setback for the Beltline, Atlanta’s innovative plan for a greenways and rail corridor that would circle the central city (though the region’s downtown streetcar project is moving forward with federal funds).
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal told the AJC this morning that he had no interest in reviving the transportation spending package in any way, although he had campaigned heavily for its passage. He also rejected the idea of seeking new tax revenue elsewhere.
In light of the defeat, Deal said he would focus existing resources toward plans to add an interchange at I-285 and Georgia 400. He said other projects would have to be delayed, and he indicated he was not eager to do anything to shore up MARTA.
“MARTA needs to be fixed, and before the taxpayers are going to spend any more money on MARTA, I think they’ve also sent a message that they’re not going to put more money into something they perceive is not functioning appropriately with the revenue that’s available,” he said.
With that, it seems the Atlanta region’s fate as one of the most congested cities in the country is sealed.
The Georgia Department of Transportation, which ranks 49th nationally in per-capita transportation spending, is mired in debt. Roughly half of Georgia’s existing gas tax revenues must be put toward debt service, said Robbins. Without the revenues that would have come from the sales tax, the state may find itself returning federal funds, for lack of a 20 percent match.
“We have no money for roads, no money for trains, no money for anything now,” Robbins said.
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