What's next for the Clifton Corridor?

Tax defeat not end of the line for Clifton rail

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Aug. 10, 2012

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The one-cent sales tax that was voted down recently would have brought light rail to the Clifton Corridor.

It would be a mistake to assume that the light rail project has lost all momentum, says Betty Willis, Emory's senior associate vice president for governmental and community affairs, despite the defeat of a one-cent sales tax that would have brought the rail to the Clifton Corridor.

Metro Atlanta voters defeated a one-cent sales tax that would have supported $7.2 billion in road and transit improvements over the next 10 years, including to the Clifton Corridor.

By a margin of 24 points, voters rejected the regional transportation referendum (also called T-SPLOST), which would have funded 157 transit projects across a 10-county area — the largest single investment in transportation infrastructure in Atlanta's history.

During the campaign, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) cautioned that if the referendum didn't pass, it could be years before funding would be available to bring light rail to Emory and the Clifton Corridor.

Harnessing an energy for change

To date, the Clifton Corridor light rail project has attracted more than $2 million from federal and local funding sources for completion of three out of six phases required for federal funding, including feasibility, alternative analysis and locally preferred alternative studies. The project remains a top priority in the ARC and MARTA regional transportation plans for the future, Willis adds.

"We've come a long way, we've invested a lot, and we're further along than other transit projects in the region," she says.

 "People recognize the Clifton Corridor as a unique place — with infamous congestion," she adds.

"We've needed a light rail line and no one has ever argued against that. Our project is still looked upon as very important, critical to maintaining the vitality of this huge employment center that has managed to weather the recession quite well."

Moving forward, the University must now put together a strategy that continues to advance the light rail line and its importance to the Clifton Corridor, which remains Atlanta's largest employment center without direct access to an interstate or rail transit service, Willis adds.

"There is a lot of energy and a solid foundation of community, business and political support do that," she says.

"We need to harness that energy, stepping up our efforts to convince our governor, our congressional delegation and others that this remains a critical project, and to do whatever we can to find the local, state and federal funding to support it.

"Unfortunately, with the failure of the T-SPLOST, local governments who are already cash strapped, will now have to come up with a 30 percent match for state funds — a punitive measure built into the T-SPLOST as an incentive to pass it.  Additionally, the state stands to lose hundreds of millions of federal transportation dollars that otherwise could have been matched and leveraged by the T-SPLOST funds," Willis added.

Willis notes that even as Atlanta voters were heading to the polls, Gov. Nathan Deal was already meeting with state transportation officials to consider what would happen if the measure failed; he has declined putting another regional transportation tax before voters.

Instead, the governor will ask regional transit planners to resubmit transportation proposals in need of funding. Deal is expected to reprioritize that list, directing resources to the most essential projects.

Making the case for rail transit

But where does that leave Emory and light rail?

"The governor has an appreciation for the research universities in our region and understands the significant economic benefits and scientific discoveries that emanate from Emory and the CDC," Willis says. "The improved connectivity, access and congestion reduction the rail line would bring to the Corridor is essential to ensuring the vitality of the Corridor and we have a very compelling case to make for transit."

In the end, Willis believes the transportation referendum created "a lot of positives," including educating voters, bringing critical issues into focus, strengthening alliances and regional cooperation, and elevating community dialogue about transportation challenges.

"Now is the time to capitalize on that momentum," she adds. "This is a thriving employment center and we must seek new and creative funding resources. We have a great opportunity to make our case, to weigh in with elected officials about just how important this is, not only to those of us who work and live in the Corridor, but for those throughout the region and the state who are served by these institutions."

Emory's Office of Sustainability Initiatives, which hosted on-campus educational forums around the referendum, remains "completely committed to working towards more alternative transportation options for students, staff and faculty," says Emily Cumbie-Drake, sustainability programs coordinator.

"We'll continue to do what we're doing in terms of sustainability and transportation," Cumbie-Drake says. "Emory has a lot of strength in our numbers and our reputation throughout the city and the state. We'll keep moving forward."

In the meantime, she encourages Emory employees to take advantage of the many existing alternative commute options offered through the University, from car and van pools, park-n-ride shuttles, zipcars, a bike share program, MARTA transit passes, and Zimride, Georgia's first social media-based ridematching service.