Atlanta government and transportation officials discussed a regional sales tax transportation referendum at an on-campus Town Hall meeting on Wednesday. The referendum, which will be held on July 31, will support the development of a light rail service connecting the Emory/Centers for Disease Control (CDC) complex to Lindbergh station.
Emory’s Office of Sustainability Initiatives, Bike Emory and the Office of Governmental and Community Affairs sponsored the event, which featured officials including DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, Mayor of the City of Decatur Bill Floyd, Director of Development and Regional Coordination at Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) John Crocker and Chief of the Atlanta Regional Commission of the Division of Research Mike Alexander.
Panelists gave a brief introduction followed by a question-and-answer session afterward.
If the referendum passes, Georgians will face a one-percent sales tax during the next 10-year period to fund a series of regional transportation projects. The one-percent sales tax is expected to generate a total of $7.22 billion in the 10-county region during a 10-year period. Eighty-five percent, or $6.14 billion, will be used to finance regionally significant projects, according to the Atlanta Regional Roundtable website. The Regional Roundtable was the group responsible for creating the project list.
At the meeting, Crocker explained that the rail line would be 3.7 miles long with five stations and would provide high capacity transportation access to people entering and exiting the Emory area.
Emory Executive Vice President of Finance and Administration Mike Mandl related to the crowd of mostly local residents.
“For too many years on a daily basis, tens of thousands of people have endured the limited and congested roads that lead to the Clifton corridor going to work, classes, clinics or hospital or just trying to get home from other areas,” he said.
Mandl said that the Emory area is the largest employment center in metro Atlanta without direct access to an interstate or a MARTA rail line. People commuting to the CDC, Children’s Healthcare, Druid Hills High School, Emory, Emory University Hospital and Emory Clinic all commute on two-lane roads as opposed to rail line access or major highways.
“Emory is committed to sustainable living through its campus operations, academics, patient care and outreach programs,” Mandl said. “Healthy commute options are essential to achieving this solution.”
Specifically, the Clifton Corridor Initiative — the name given to the rail project — is scheduled to receive $700 million. An additional $25 million would be used for a new bridge and road improvements at Clifton and Haygood roads.
At the Town Hall meeting, residents lined up to ask panelists questions regarding the project and its implications. One local resident stood up to ask Ellis about bicycle space near Emory but not before cracking a joke about the slow and endless traffic that currently congests North Decatur Road.
“I live on one of the longest parking lots in Atlanta,” he joked. “It is called North Decatur Road.”
“There is another one,” responded Ellis. “It is called 285,” referring to the interstate.
Another attendee was concerned with lower-income families being taxed on their “bare necessities,” referring to the tax being a sales tax, as opposed to a tax on gasoline, which would increase the gas price. For a lower income family, an additional tax can be painful when purchasing groceries and other basic items, he argued.
Alexander gave a thorough response by explaining that to generate the same revenue, it would take 25 cents worth of gas tax.
“If you are a working household, a gas tax will actually cost you more and be more painful to you than your household expenses,” he explained, based on statistics obtained from his department.
Floyd also emphasized the importance of stimulating the economy through the project. He also said that it is important for people to understand what is at stake and to realize that if the referendum does not pass, cities Atlanta compete with for jobs will be cheering.
“As we compete with other regions throughout the nation for jobs to bring industry to the metro Atlanta region, oftentimes we are counted out not because we don’t have a quality airport ... and not because some of the other wonderful amenities that we have to offer, but because of the traffic congestion problem,” Elis said. “We have an opportunity to do something about it.”
Others expressed concerned with one-cent taxes adding up. However, the panelists emphasized that the rate of return for this project would ultimately be greater than the required investment.
According to the Atlanta Regional Commission’s analysis found on its website, there would be a four-to-one return on investment, which means that the investment made would be rewarded four times more once the projects have been completed. Additionally, the analysis predicted that the transportation investment would either create or support an additional 200,000 jobs in the local area.
“It will be much more costly to the citizens and employers if the investments are not made,” Mandl explained in reference to the fact that the tax would only last for 10 years.
By the end of the event, many attendees said they were almost sure as to how they would be voting.
Bill McClellan, who is a local resident, said he felt the session was less informative than he had expected because of subsidiary questions asked by the audience and the lack of visual elements to illustrate the plan. Still, he noted that he was in favor of the tax.
“It is clearly going to disrupt traffic and travel on Clifton Road which will be an inconvenience, but overall it will improve things dramatically,” he said.
Director of Sustainable Initiatives Ciannat Howett explained that having healthy commute choices other than single occupancy vehicles that have less impact on public health is part of Emory’s sustainability initiative. She said she thought the event went very well, and she was impressed by the level of detail the audiences’ questions involved.
“The vote is projected to be extremely close,” she said. “Every vote will matter a great deal. We want to make sure everyone has their voice in, so we are promoting registering to vote, absentee vote, and the kind of educational forum that happened last night.”
She explained that, although students will most likely be away during the referendum, they can still register to vote and receive an absentee ballot through mail or email if a student is abroad. Stands to register and request an absentee ballot will be situated around campus.
Floyd said he believes that the referendum is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“People want more time with their kids, they want more time to do things they want to and they want that 40-hour work week back, and that is what this is about: quality of life,” he said.
Mandl wrote in an email to the Wheel that the initiative would have a tremendous impact on the Emory community by alleviating traffic congestion and facilitating access to the area through road, sidewalk and bicycle pathways and light rail improvements.
— Contact Daniela Viteri