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Urbanist publications blame State of Georgia for Atlanta’s transit pitfalls

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The funding discord between Atlanta and the state has attracted national attention

Traffic streams in and out of downtown Atlanta on a recent, cloudy night. Jonathan Phillips, Curbed Atlanta

It’s no secret that metro Atlanta isn’t exactly renowned for its mass transit capabilities. Conversely, the region can be a source of depression for local city planning wonks and observers near and far.

National urbanist publication Streetsblog USA has posted an article titled “Atlanta’s Transit Flaws Are State’s Fault.” It’s an indictment of the transit expansion efforts of local politicians—one that spotlights the pitfalls and opportunities for transit growth within the metro Atlanta region.

About a year ago, MARTA officials finalized the project list for the $2.7 billion More MARTA expansion plan, which, among other things, would use more than $500 million to outfit parts of the Beltline with light-rail lines.

But it’ll be decades before that dream is realized, Streetsblog USA points out, “because the [transit] authority isn’t getting state or federal funding.”

Urbanist blog ThreadATL weighed in, too:

The amount of federal support Atlanta might get for those [More MARTA] projects is a complete unknown. But we can make a fair guess that state support will add up to $0. That leaves us squabbling with each other locally as we try to get favored transit projects prioritized for tax-revenue spending.

The More MARTA program hasn’t bore much fruit since voters approved it in 2016, largely because the agency has to wait until it collects tax revenue in order to work through the project list.

“MARTA hasn’t applied for federal grants which could pay close to half of the [Beltline rail] project, and the state legislature—notoriously loathe to fund transit—hasn’t bothered to pony up any money,” the Streetsblog USA piece says.

Additionally, when organizing the More MARTA project list, other high-profile expansion efforts, such as bringing a streetcar route to Ponce City Market’s stoop and building the Clifton Corridor light-rail line to Emory and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, took precedent over a full 22 miles of Beltline rail.

Then, there’s the matter of Georgia’s “decentralized system” for spending money on transit infrastructure: Rather than using state cash to fund expansion efforts, counties and cities vote on whether to tax themselves to support new transit systems.

It doesn’t help that years of systemic racism has left many predominantly white suburban counties with a distaste for mass transit because they worry it could desegregate their communities, the post reads.

All of this is compounded by the fact that Georgia’s constitution doesn’t allow gas tax revenue to be spent on transit projects, “leaving about $1.9 billion in the 2019 budget off the table.”

There is a silver lining, it seems, for a few historically transit-averse suburbs, though.

After Gwinnett County voters shot down a referendum in March that would have brought MARTA to Georgia’s second most populous county, its government has put together a Transit Review Committee to flesh out future possibilities—perhaps another vote next year.

Cobb County is also teasing the idea of charging itself a whole or half-penny in new sales tax to help fund local transit initiatives.

Plus, metro Atlanta’s regional transit authority, The ATL, recently unveiled an ambitious wish list for transit expansion, which includes about $15 billion worth of projects—including full Beltline rail—that could receive some state funding.

“The real test of its viability will occur at the end of the year, when the authority will finalize its list of recommended transit projects for the state to consider,” per Streetsblog USA.