by Glen D. Bottoms
On July 31, you, the good citizens of the Atlanta metro area, get the opportunity to vote on a measure that would raise more than $7 billion (over a 10-year period) for highway and transit projects throughout the 10-county metropolitan area.
This is a momentous occasion that may determine whether Atlanta moves forward to invest in critical transportation infrastructure or begins to slide toward mediocrity and despair over its inability to achieve a simple 50 percent consensus to address what may be the nation’s worst traffic congestion.
Growing up 90 miles from Atlanta, I have always had a keen interest in Atlanta affairs. I’ve followed the city’s robust journey through the years, from the emerging years of the 1950’s to the congestion filled region that it has become today.
I despair over the decision of the local chapters of the NAACP and the the proposal because it does not address their parochial concerns. Indeed, they have proven the adage that “perfect is the enemy of good.” If it doesn’t give me everything I want, then I won’t support it. WII-FM (What’s In It For Me) is always broadcasting. I despair over the attitude that many Atlanta residents complain that the list of projects painstakingly chosen do not affect them or serve their neighborhood or community. No person (or community) is an island. Atlanta’s future will live or die on the health of its transportation arteries. As the transportation network becomes increasingly sclerotic, Atlanta will wither and stagnate. Am I too pessimistic? Maybe.
Atlanta is in competition with countless other cities in this nation and around the globe for business opportunities, relocating firms, and expanding economic activity. Those cities that “get it” and make the necessary transportation investments to insure the mobility of their residents will prosper. Atlanta is in great danger of missing that train. Need I mention the progress that Charlotte is making?
Many Atlanta residents lament that they don’t trust their governments to spend this infusion of funds wisely, that promises made in the past haven’t been kept. I note that Gov. Nathan Deal has recognized this feeling and moved to eliminate tolls on Georgia 400, which had been promised over twenty years ago when the highway opened. I applaud his bold move. Voters also see what the one cent increase will buy. Not vague promises, but concrete ones.
Atlanta didn’t get in this mess overnight and it won’t climb out of this mess quickly. But, this referendum can be the start of something good. Transit in the Atlanta area has clearly been underfunded for decades. MARTA is the only major transit system in the nation that receives no state money. When I hear residents say that transit doesn’t benefit them, that they don’t have access to transit, I think, well, what would you expect when the overwhelming transportation investments in this region have been for highways?
Now, the automobile isn’t going away and will remain the preponderant mode of transportation. The suburbs aren’t going away either. An economically strong Atlanta requires transportation investment in all areas of the region. The mix of projects (52 percent transit; 48 percent highways) may not meet the goldilocks test but it does reflect what thousands of citizen meetings across the region have pounded out. Sounds like democracy at work to me.
To those who say no to raising taxes for any reason, I say this is a recipe for disaster. I’m for low taxes, a friendly business environment, and less government. I also think that transit is good for our national security, reducing our dependence on foreign oil over the long term. Yes siree. But let’s be realistic, if we don’t have the necessary resources, critical transit projects won’t get built, critical highway improvements won’t get built. And getting around Atlanta in the not too distant future will make today look like a cakewalk.
As a conservative and if I lived in Atlanta, I’d vote for a future that contributes to the economic strength and vitality of the region. That means a YES vote. You, the residents of the Atlanta region, don’t need to vote on July 31 like your lives depend on it, just your livelihoods and future prosperity.
Mr. Bottoms, a native southerner, is executive director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, which is based in Arlington, Va.