One of the remarkable things about this election year is that a referendum on expanding MARTA has drawn so few remarks.
You would think a bid to raise taxes by $2.5 billion over the next four decades would prompt some debate, or at least some raised eyebrows. Yet the absence of any organized opposition is noticeable. It’d surely be different if the issue were on ballots outside Atlanta. But even if in-towners agree to being taxed, you might expect some squabbling about how the money should be spent. Not a peep that I’ve heard.
Maybe that’s because Atlantans think the city has so many mass-transit needs that $2.5 billion is just a start. Maybe that’s because they look at all the things that might be built — there’s more on the list than the money could buy — and assume their pet project(s) will eventually make the cut. Maybe they’re just too busy listening to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Whatever my fellow city residents have thought about this question, I invite them to think about the implications of this referendum. Given the silence surrounding the issue, everyone should know what’s coming.
This referendum is best understood as a big bet on a population boom in Atlanta. Yes, there are transit additions that make sense for Atlanta as it is today; the Clifton Corridor line is one. But probably not $2.5 billion worth (a number that could grow substantially with federal matching funds).
Atlanta has one of the smallest shares of its broader region’s population of any major metro area in the country: less than 10 percent. Our region is forecast to add 2.5 million people by 2040. If, say, 1 in 5 of them move to Atlanta proper, the city’s headcount will more than double.
What would that look like? Take the fairly large influx of people we’ve seen over the past five years … more than double it … and then extend that trend unabated for the next two and a half decades.
Such a change would bring much more density to a place that famously lacks it. Atlanta’s population still wouldn’t be as dense as Chicago, but no longer would it be more sparse than Norfolk, Va. That would be a very different city than the one we live in now.
It might also be a city that could justify a whole lot more transit. But what kind?
There isn’t a hard-and-fast list of projects to which MARTA must adhere, as in SPLOST votes, just a more exhaustive list of projects that may be built. That makes some sense, as there are many unknowns (whether neighboring jurisdictions also raise more transit funding, whether the feds kick in some money, and so on). But it also means we’re relying on MARTA and city planners to choose wisely after the tax is created.
For example, does a network of streetcars really make sense as ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft expand to serve the proverbial last mile? Might buses make more sense even on the Beltline, where they don’t appear to be under consideration even though the usual complaints about rubber-wheeled transit (gets stuck in traffic, serves routes that are harder to understand/aren’t permanent) don’t apply? Will the “off the shelf” plans discussed for years continue to make sense two decades from now?
I anticipate voters will pass the tax in spite of all these questions. But they ought to recognize the answers are TBD.