The metropolitan Atlanta community voted on July 31 to reject the highly contested Transportation Investment Act (TSPLOST), a referendum that would have funded several transportation projects in the area with a one percent increase in sales tax. For Emory, the referendum would have enabled the construction of a MARTA rail line connecting main campus to Lindbergh Station.
Despite Emory administrators' support of the referendum, TSPLOST failed on a 64-36 percent margin. The referendum included provisions to construct additional highway interchanges and new train lines, and smaller projects at the discretion of particular counties and municipalities. The Transportation Investment Act, a bill that the Georgia state legislature passed in 2010, authorized the referendum.
“The Clifton Corridor continues to be seen as one of the most important and largest employment centers with no direct access to MARTA or the interstate system,” Betty Willis, Emory's senior associate vice president of governmental and community affairs, wrote in an email to the Wheel. “There is also a well-known recognition of our infamous traffic congestion.”
More than half of voters in DeKalb and Fulton counties in particular voted in favor of the referendum, according to Willis. She said she was “deeply disappointed” the referendum failed to pass.
“[I] was expecting a much closer vote,” she said. “[This means] continued and increase traffic congestion, no transit options, aging infrastructure that will continue to get worse, [and] increased reputation throughout the country as a city unable to come together to fix its notorious traffic problems.”
The one-cent sales tax, which would have been used to fund all transportation projects under the act, influenced some Emory students to vote against the referendum.
“I personally was against the referendum because it disproportionately benefited some of the most privileged populations in Atlanta while most heavily burdening low income consumers,” said Matt Schmidbauer, a student in the Laney Graduate School.
Schmidbauer noted that the one percent sales tax, which he called a "regressive tax," dissuaded him from supporting the referendum. He also criticized the initiative for “[benefiting] many corporate entities, such as Emory, while not costing Emory a dime and not focusing on the big picture.”
For College sophomore Samantha Grayman, who voted in favor of the referendum, TSPLOST would have not only improved what she believes to be Atlanta’s traffic and circulation problems but would have also brought the city an important opportunity for expansion.
“When you look at other big cities such as New York, Paris and London, you see a transportation system that works way more efficiently,” she said. She noted that she feels Atlanta’s lagging system of public transportation has damaged the city’s ability to grow.
Grayman said the metropolitan area’s shortage of transportation options has also limited residents of neighboring suburbs from easily accessing the center of the city.
“It’s pointless to live 10-15 minutes outside of a city that offers so much both historically and culturally, and yet have no other ways of direct access besides an unreliable and lengthy bus ride or an overpriced taxi ride unless you have a car,” she said.
In addition to the construction of a rail line leading directly to campus, the referendum would have funded construction to replace the Clifton Road bridge and improvements to Haygood Drive.
Several University administrators and student government leaders have shown their support of the referendum through various emails, initiatives and a forum on campus during the past few months. This past spring, the Student Government Association (SGA) partnered with Emory’s Office of Sustainability for an initiative to encourage University students to vote in favor of the referendum.
“If you are registered to vote in the 10-county metro-Atlanta region … I cannot urge you enough to vote on this referendum,” College senior and current SGA President Ashish Gandhi wrote in an email to the student body on July 25.
Emory also displayed its support for the referendum to the public this past April, when the Office of Sustainability Initiatives, Bike Emory and the Office of Governmental and Community Affairs held an on-campus forum regarding the sales tax included in the bill.
Willis wrote in an Aug. 1 email to University administrators that she hopes both the University and the city will continue to pursue efforts to “resolve [Atlanta’s] transportation challenges,” particularly those in the Clifton Corridor area.
"As I work with my colleagues both at Emory and throughout the region on our strategy for 'Plan B,' I will seek your input and keep you abreast," Willis wrote.
For the rail line in particular, Willis and other administrators will seek “federal funding opportunities as well as any local or state sources that may become available” to support construction.
“Other major cities across the country failed the first and sometimes second attempts to pass similar referendums but continued their efforts until they were successful,” she said. “We will not give up on our region and will continue our efforts, even more strongly and wiser than before.”
Area leaders who supported the referendum will also move forward by seeking other sources of funding to support the transportation and infrastructure improvement, according to Emily Cumbie-Drank, the coordinator of sustainability programs at Emory.
"Metro Atlanta will continue to build upon the strong foundation of regional cooperation that has been established with the political, business,and civic leaders in the 10-county Metro area," she said. "[We will] work harder to find funding sources for the Clifton Corridor light rail project as well as other transportation needs in the region."
— Contact Stephanie Fang and Jordan Friedman