Traffic in Atlanta. Photo by Flickr user Matt Lemmon.
Though it won’t come as news to residents – or anyone who has visited the region – metro Atlanta has some of the worst traffic congestion in the country. The worst, in fact, according to a 2006 ranking by Forbes. Metro Atlanta residents spend an average of 43 hours per year stuck in traffic, costing individuals an estimated $924 per year in lost productivity and wasted fuel. Moreover, years of auto-oriented suburban growth and lack of investment in the regions’ MARTA transit system means that commuters looking for an alternative to the gridlock are largely out of luck. The region’s rail system currently serves only a small percentage of metro Atlanta’s 4.1 million residents.
That could soon change, however. In what is being billed as a watershed moment for metro Atlanta, voters in the 10-county Atlanta region will go to the polls on Tuesday, July 31, to vote on a referendum to raise an estimated $7.2 billion for transportation projects aimed at relieving Atlanta’s congestion and building out its transit network. The Transportation Special Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST) would raise the region’s sales tax by 1 cent for ten years. 85% of the funds raised would be spent on a list of regional transportation projects developed by a “regional roundtable” of elected officials. Approximately 52% would go to transit projects, including an expansion of the MARTA heavy rail system and the Beltline Light Rail. The remaining 15% would go to each county for local projects.
The importance of the TSPLOST referendum is hard to overstate. As LOCUS President Chris Leinberger put it in a recent op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the ballot measure is “the early 21st century Olympic moment for Atlanta.” Without it, traffic congestion in the region will continue to get worse and Atlanta’s economy will continue to languish; in spite of gaining population, Atlanta has fewer jobs today than it did in 2001.
Moreover, without renewed investment in transportation, particularly public transportation, Atlanta risks losing out on the pent-up demand for walkable urbanism. Millennials – those 20- and 30-somethings who make up a significant portion of the knowledge economy and creative class – increasingly favor neighborhoods that offer transportation choices. If Atlanta fails to diversify its transportation network, these young and upwardly mobile members of the workforce, and the economic development they bring, will likely look to live elsewhere, including places like Charlotte, Dallas and DC, which have all invested heavily in rail transit in recent years.
While the ballot measure represents a critical juncture for the Atlanta region, its implications go far beyond Northern Georgia. Cities all over the country are coming to terms with the new realities of transportation: fewer people are driving and transit ridership is rising all while less money is available from the federal government. Referendums like TSPLOST that seek to raise local revenue for transportation spending will be even more important under this new paradigm. Already regions like Denver, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles are seeing the benefits of taxing themselves to pay for new transportation investments, a strategy which has allowed them to finance significant expansions of their transit systems.
Given the importance of the Atlanta referendum, both LOCUS and Smart Growth America have invested considerable time and resources to promote its passage. Several years ago, Smart Growth America provided resources and technical assistance to our Atlanta partner the Livable Communities Coalition as the organization worked to ensure the list of projects to be funded by the measure lined up with the region’s needs. More recently, LOCUS President Chris Leinberger has been on the stump in metro Atlanta supporting the passage of the ballot measure in numerous speeches, interviews and op-eds.
The Atlanta region owes much of its success to its transportation infrastructure. At its outset, Atlanta rose to prominence and prosperity by virtue of its location as a railroad terminus. More recently, its network of interstate highways and world-class airport helped it become the “Capital of the New South”. Now, the TSPLOST referendum offers metro Atlanta the chance to take the next step in its evolution as a transportation hub by investing in a range of transportation choices that will help residents, and the economy, out of gridlock.