Government officials and corporate representatives convened for the Atlanta BeltLine Quarterly Briefing June 19 at Trees of Atlanta to rally community support for the T-SPLOST referendum, a transportation funding initiative that if passed, will help fast track the BeltLine project.
The panel of speakers at the briefing included: Kathryn Lawler, manager of external affairs at the Atlanta Regional Commission; Bucky Johnson, Norcross mayor; Tom Weyandt, transportation policy advisor for Mayor Kasim Reed; Brian Leary, CEO and president of Atlanta BeltLine Inc., and H. Lamar Willis, an Atlanta city councilman.
Each panelist attempted to persuade attendees why voting in favor of the referendum, a provision outlining a proposed tax increase, would reap immediate and long term benefits for Atlanta residents via transportation development projects like the BeltLine.
T-SPLOST, short for “Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax,” is a proposed one percent sales tax derived from the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, legislation included in Georgia House Bill 277.
On July 31, citizens of 10 counties representing the Atlanta metro and beyond will vote on the 1 percent increase in sales tax to support transportation development.
According to Paul Bennecke, a member of the Metro Atlanta Voter Education Network who spoke at the briefing, only 15 percent of eligible voters are expected to vote, a minority that has the potential to affect Atlanta’s future for the next 10 years.
If the majority of voters check “yes” on the ballot, every single county will incur the sales tax increase even if the majority of citizens in a single county vote “ no.” The tax will last 10 years. Eight-five percent will be allocated to the regional investment list and the remaining 15 percent will go to local transportation projects, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission.
The list includes funding for road expansions, highway upgrades and bridge repairs.
According to Lawler, revenues raised by the gas tax don’t meet the need for transportation development, and T-SPLOST will hasten such development.
The Atlanta BeltLine, a project on the list, will receive approximately $600 million if the tax increase is implemented, according to BeltLine.org.
“You are not supposed to love the whole list, but you’re supposed to find something on the list to love,” said Lawler.
Johnson, roundtable chair of the Atlanta Regional Roundtable, expressed support for the BeltLine and referendum. The ARC, comprised of county officials from the 10 counties part of the Atlanta region, drafted the proposed transportation projects.
“I’m 60-years-old, this is the most historic thing in my lifetime,” said Johnson.
The BeltLine attempts to address one of Atlanta’s biggest problems — traffic congestion. The project encompasses transportation improvements such as road expansion, a commuter rail and the Atlanta Streetcar. Additional initiatives like affordable housing and “green” development are secondary to the transportation ones.
Not everyone supports the referendum, nor the BeltLine.
“T-SPLOST–Vote No” and “TrafficTruth” are blogs voicing disfavor with the referendum and exposing problems like the recent controversy over the biased language of the ballot preamble.
“Provides for local transportation projects to create jobs and reduce traffic congestion with citizen oversight,” as stated in the preamble conveys a bias that has rankled many citizens and officials alike.
Despite the critics, community support for the BeltLine is visible.
The BeltLine Partnership, a collaboration between the BeltLine and private entities, hosts community engagement activities to raise awareness about the project.
“They are the hard side, we are the soft side,” said Valerie Wilson, executive director of the BeltLine Partnership, referring to the difference between Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. and the BeltLine Partnership.
The BeltLine has the support of a diverse number of Atlantans, said Wilson.
“We are doing something with the communities, not at the communities,” said Wilson.
As an Atlanta resident, Tilly Hatcher, a woman who navigates Atlanta streets in a wheelchair, expressed a primary concern for upgrades to pedestrian walkways.
“At anytime, 20 percent of the intersections don’t have curb cut outs,” she said.“On my way here one section of the road had no sidewalk. I had to actually go into the road.”
Hatcher represents one member of a special group, seniors and disabled citizens, who will benefit from a potential $17 million transportation investment. New pedestrian walkways, trails and expanded transit services will make travel easier for this group.
According to Lawler, the investment represents “…the single largest investment in transportation services for older and disabled adults we ever had in this region.”
Echoing the negative outcomes of a failure to pass the transportation referendum by speakers of the briefing, Wilson explained why the proposed tax is critical for development.
“It’s not just about going from one place to another. It’s about economic development. If we don’t do this we will starve, ” she said.