By Nick Juliano of Advance Atlanta
I was born and grew up in Atlanta. For those of us who have spent our lives here, it’s no secret that we’ve seen the region change. Yet, as new companies have moved to town, new cities have popped up out of old unincorporated regions, the BeltLine has remade parts of the city limits, and many other developments, one thing has remained a constant complaint of longtime residents, transplants, and visitors alike: the lack of comprehensive regional transit.
In a nutshell the complaint goes like this: you cannot move about the metro region as quickly and efficiently as you need to be able to in order to live, work, and play. As a city that was founded as a transportation hub, we are the home of the world’s most-traveled airport, the nexus of several major interstate highways, and just hours away from the busy port of Savannah, through which goods enter the southeastern United States to be carried through our highways and railways. These commercial factors, plus decades of sprawling development, have created a situation in which traffic ranks as the lead complaint of people in the metro area.
On February 8th, I was standing in the packed basement of the Georgia Capitol next to State Senator Brandon Beach and looking into an array of cameras gathered to capture the occasion. Past the media scrum in front of us, residents from across the metro Atlanta area were jammed together with the usual mix of legislators, curious staff, and government affairs folks you find day-in and day-out under the gold dome. We were gathered together to say, with one voice, that the time had come to give residents the transit solutions they want, and deserve, and to enhance our competitiveness by expanding MARTA rail through the Clifton corridor to my alma mater at Emory University and the CDC, up to North Fulton, and to Stonecrest Mall along I-20.
Since the founding of Advance Atlanta months earlier, and since the press conference that day, I have been both humbled and amazed by the commitment and dedication shown by the unpaid, volunteer advocacy efforts of residents of all ages and from all corners of the region we call home to advance the message that Atlanta needs regional transit and to support Senator Beach’s Senate Bill 330. Not a day has gone by that we have not been contacted by residents asking how they can have their voices heard at the capitol to help break through the political gridlock.
Unfortunately, the bill that we were gathered that day to support, SB 330, was defeated. It failed not because the residents of metro Atlanta don’t want it, they very much do, but because the old politics of division and balkanization reared their heads at the capitol once more. While residents move about the region oblivious to where various state house and senate districts begin and end, and where municipal lines are drawn or not-drawn, we still have too many lawmakers who use these as reasons to oppose the consensus of residents. That needs to change, and it’s incumbent upon us to change it.
Because of the voices of residents, MARTA expansion has remained on the table this session in the form of SB 369. What this bill does is enable supporters of transit to get results during this legislative session. Some $2.5 billion can be raised in the City of Atlanta via a half-penny sales tax to support BeltLine light rail transit, MARTA stations along existing rail routes, improving our bus service, or other projects. The process for that will involve a city council vote and public ballot referendum.
The bill also gives the option for Fulton County to pursue up to a .25 percent sales tax to fund future transit. That authorization would also involve a ballot referendum.
The last rail expansion to MARTA was 15 years ago, and since then, new competitor cities like Dallas and Denver have added over 100 miles of rail. MARTA remains just at 48 miles of rail at a time in which we know that access to top-notch transit brings in new talent, let’s us retain existing talent, raises home and commercial real estate values, reduces congestion, and makes us more efficient people.
The key to moving the needle on transit is in the hands of every resident of metro Atlanta. Our lawmakers will respond to the voices of their constituents. If you want to live in an Atlanta region that connects its citizens to one-another and to economic opportunity through a world-class transit system, and you want this region to be the best place that it can, then we at Advance Atlanta want to have you join us in our ranks.
Atlanta has become the capital of Henry Grady’s New South by making big, bold decisions and striving for consensus building rather than divisiveness. SB 369 should be passed, and then the next question on transit expansion should be, “What’s next?”