Town Hall meeting examines transportation referendum

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | May 2, 2012

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"Decision Time: The Clifton Corridor & Atlanta's Transportation Future," offered a chance to learn more about the referendum, which goes to voters July 31. Emory Photo/Video.

Long-range funding, the need for bike lanes, and the future of MARTA services were among issues raised April 25 during an Emory town hall meeting to discuss a regional sales tax referendum that would fund transportation improvements throughout metro Atlanta, including light rail service along the Clifton Corridor.

"Decision Time: The Clifton Corridor & Atlanta's Transportation Future," sponsored by Emory's Office of Governmental and Community Affairs, Office of Sustainability and Bike Emory, offered a chance to learn more about the referendum, which goes to voters July 31.

The meeting drew government and transportation leaders and about 100 area employees and residents to examine a proposed 1 percent regional tax referendum that would generate $7.2 billion for transportation projects within the 10-county metro Atlanta region over a 10-year period.

The plan would also fund the Clifton Corridor Transit Initiative, allocating $700 million to create the first phase of a light rail line that will run from Lindbergh Center to Emory's campus. Funding will be used to leverage additional funds needed to eventually extend the light rail line from Emory to Avondale.

An additional $25 million would be used for improvements along Clifton and Haygood roads, including a new bridge over the CSX railroad tracks.  Another $5 million would support  bike, pedestrian and road improvements between Decatur and the Clifton Corridor.

"We are doing our best to educate voters so they are informed and can also educate their friends and colleagues on the importance of this referendum," says Betty Willis, senior associate vice president for governmental and community affairs.

"The future prosperity and quality of life everyone wants — not to mention what generations to come deserve — depends upon their vote," she adds.


Reduce traffic, grow opportunities

Opening the forum, Mike Mandl, executive vice president for finance and administration, acknowledged the impact of traffic congestion upon the Emory community and neighboring employers, as tens of thousands of workers struggle to negotiate daily commutes.

 "As the largest employment center in metro Atlanta without direct access to either the Interstate or passenger rail, getting to and from jobs and homes is highly problematic," Mandl explains.

"This referendum is about ensuring the metro region's economic vitality, creating jobs, giving people transportation choices, and improving the quality of life for all of us," he adds.

A panel addressing the impact of the referendum included DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis; Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd; John Crocker, director of development and regional coordination at MARTA; and Mike Alexander, chief of the Atlanta Regional Commission's research division.

Ellis and Floyd worked with mayors and elected officials from 10 counties to create a final transportation project list, based on the funds expected to be raised through a 1 percent sales tax.

"It was an important task, an incredible opportunity for the region," Floyd said. "I'm convinced we will not get this opportunity again. I don't think the Legislature will ever allow us to have a regional vote again on a transit tax."

Ellis noted that the final plan would ease traffic congestion and reduce stress for drivers, improve air quality, create jobs and attract new industry. In addition, passing the 1 percent sales tax referendum will help Atlanta better compete for federal transportation matching funds.

"The key is to let people understand what's at stake here," says Floyd. "Who do you think is going to be cheering if this doesn't pass? It's going to be Charlotte, Dallas, Phoenix — everybody we compete with for jobs on a daily basis."

Following the meeting, Ciannat Howett, director of sustainability initiatives, called the referendum a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," describing it as "the single most important variable in whether or not Emory is able to achieve its sustainability vision."

"Projections for the referendum are that it will be an extremely close vote, so every vote will matter a great deal," she adds, urging the University community to submit absentee ballots if they will be out of town July 31.


Public poses questions

Following are highlights from the public question-and-answer session:

Why a 1-cent sales tax? Couldn't you ask for a half-cent tax instead?

Floyd: "We never had that choice. The law set that up. We're dealing now with what was given to us (through the Legislature's Transportation Investment Act)."


We've been paying a sales tax on MARTA for years. Will that MARTA tax be repealed?

Ellis: "Not unless the state Legislature acts."


Why tax the bare necessities? Why not a gas tax or a toll?

Alexander: "Raising the gas tax to generate the same amount of revenue would mean (an increase of) about 25 cents. If you're a working household, a gas tax could actually cost you more (than a sales tax)."


Who's paying for all of this publicity around the referendum?

Ellis: "Campaigns are supported by people who believe in a cause. The money is being raised through private funds, businesses and individuals who feel this is the right thing to do because they are invested in the region."


In the last 10 years, bicycles at Emory have grown tenfold. Is there money in these projects to look at right-of-ways?

Ellis: "Yes. Not only will there be these ($6.14 billion) region-wide projects, the other 15 percent goes to local governments. A portion will go to each city within the 10-county region, a portion will go to each county. It's all based on population — the larger the population, the more they'll get. Within DeKalb County, we're talking about approximately $12 million a year that will be given to the board of commissioners (to vote upon). We anticipate part of that will include some road surfacing … we also intend to use it on pedestrian projects and bike paths."


Year after year, I see MARTA raise rates and reduce service. Is there anything in this that will help us keep the service we have?

Crocker: "The MARTA fare is determined by the board of directors, and is voted on, usually, at a public hearing in May. What it (the tax) will do is help us preserve the base level of service we have today."