Step Up for Atlanta: The Living Transit Fund and a Path to a New Atlanta Way
By: Alex Trachtenberg, Project Manager, Community Sustainability Services and Policy, Southface
Atlanta has long struggled to provide sustainable infrastructure and transit options to all residents, businesses and commuters, particularly its most vulnerable communities on the west and south sides of the city. Historically, underinvestment in public transportation has left communities cut off from centers of commerce, employment, entertainment and recreation – essentially requiring reliance on single-occupant vehicles to function throughout the city and region. Civic and business leaders alike have known this for decades, but the problem persists: even as the metro Atlanta region is projected to grow by 2.5 million residents by 2040, infrastructure investment remains low. Atlantans continue to suffer some of the longest average commute times in the country, with a significant income burden and environmental impact.
The reality is that high-quality infrastructure and transit are critical for our most vulnerable communities. Low-income communities and minority communities rely on public transportation for daily needs, especially when it comes to connecting with strong employment centers. Forty percent of low-moderate wage workers live below I-20, while 75 percent of low-moderate wage jobs are north of I-20 (Reconnecting America). These challenges inspired the collaboration of the TransFormation Alliance (TFA), a partnership of organizations and agencies including Southface, who are dedicated to ensuring that opportunities and benefits provided by transit investment in communities are made available to all residents. Since its inception, the TFA has advocated strongly for Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (ETOD) in the region. Transit Oriented Development is an approach that prioritizes the preservation and creation of housing, schools, jobs and health services around transit. ETOD combines the TOD approach with an equity lens, to ensure that the development serves vulnerable communities.
ETOD can improve income mobility and affordability by lowering the total combined cost of housing and transportation. As a baseline, housing costs should not comprise more than 30 percent of income and transportation costs should not be more than 15 percent, for a combined 45 percent. Working families in metro Atlanta, with incomes between $20,000 and $50,000, spend more than 60 percent of their annual budget on housing and transportation costs (Center for Neighborhood Technology). Simply put, this is unaffordable for a majority of Atlanta residents. Atlanta places an unjust burden on many of our working families who have invested in the transit system without a fair return on their investment by not efficiently or equitably connecting services and activity centers via public transportation.
Atlanta faces a particularly important opportunity to pursue the benefits of ETOD, and the TransFormation Alliance (TFA) has a plan make it possible. The city of Atlanta Transit Sales Tax Revenues represents a catalytic moment for the city and MARTA to invest in transit. This is a unique opportunity in both scale and flexibility to develop policies and funding mechanisms for ETOD in MARTA service areas in the city of Atlanta. ETOD will improve Atlantans’ experience and relationship to MARTA while benefitting the MARTA system through increased ridership and revenue. Further, ETOD will improve the city’s resilience—just ask drivers impacted by I-85… or I-20… or 5th Street. A more resilient Atlanta relies less on polluting car culture and more on multi-modal transportation and interconnectivity accessible to everyone, while bringing economic prosperity to the region.
The TFA recommends that MARTA and the city of Atlanta allocate a percentage of sales tax funding for ETOD through the creation of a new “Living Transit Fund” (LTF), similar to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority Metro Affordable Transit Connected Housing Program.
The TFA suggests that the LTF could be structured as a low-interest investment fund for transit supportive development or ETOD. Using just five percent of the projected sales tax revenue from the November 2016 referendum could generate approximately $125 million in capital investment for ETOD. The fund could enable the development of thousands of affordable rental apartments on both MARTA and non-MARTA-owned properties, with easy access to schools, hospitals and employment centers.
The LTF would provide for strategic investment in property along transit corridors (see map). The investment fund could be administered by MARTA in partnership with the city of Atlanta to focus on projects that would increase MARTA ridership and revenues while complementing or expanding upon MARTA’s 20 percent affordable housing goal. Eligible uses of the fund could include:
- subsidizing affordable housing units included in multifamily residential developments on MARTA-owned property; and
- supporting pre-development activities, gap-financing, land acquisition and development of affordable housing within the Atlanta Regional Commission’s “Equitable Target Areas” on non-MARTA-owned property within a ½ mile walkshed of transit stations and high-frequency service.
Additionally, the LTF would enable MARTA and development partners to engage in comprehensive real estate acquisition around new high-frequency transit lines for joint development including affordable housing on MARTA-owned property. The acquisition of property would allow for effective land banking of property for short and long term development.
The TFA is proposing the LTF due to the looming potential for displacement of working and vulnerable city residents and communities as a result of infrastructure development. These vulnerable communities that voted to approve the Transit Sales Tax Referendum deserve a return on their investment. LTF pursuits should include increased capital to support MARTA and the Atlanta BeltLine, ETOD and affordable housing, keeping residents and communities in place rather than displacing them. This will equitably strengthen metro Atlanta’s economy by increasing transit accessibility to both job and housing options, and position Atlanta to be highly competitive in pursuing federal funding for transit expansion. It will make our region more attractive to business and development interests and allow our city to be as “world-class” as we want it to be.
Infrastructure has limited the economic and transportation mobility potential of many Atlanta residents for too long. As long as large proportions of our neighbors are unable to live a full, vibrant, high-quality and affordable lifestyle, we will always lag behind our peer cities with better transit connectivity and access to affordable housing and transportation options for all people. Without solutions like the Living Transit Fund, we will never unlock the full potential of our greatest asset—our people.