Legally, the state DOT is allowed to spend gas tax revenue only on roads and bridges. Even when it gets money it can spend on transit, as with federal earmarks dedicated for a commuter rail line through Clayton County, the DOT's roads-and-bridges focus has sometimes thrown up roadblocks there, too. A DOT board member in an open meeting once asked of that rail line, "What do we need to do to kill it?"
There's no such restriction against transit with the proposed sales tax.
The 21 mayors and county commissioners who are drawing up the project list have decided that if the tax passes, 15 percent to 60 percent of the money should be spent on mass transit. Transit advocates and groups including the Livable Communities Coalition argue that the figure should be at least half, to serve pent-up demand resulting from the state's inability to fund transit with the gas tax. Transit opponents say roads are a better investment.
Jannine Miller, director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, noted that there has not previously been a major source of regional transit funding, and "the sales tax revenues, if the voters approve, would be able to give the transit buildout a shot in the arm that's not likely otherwise."
While MARTA has endured cuts that scaled back its planning ambitions, said Cheryl King, MARTA's assistant general manager for planning, that helped the agency focus on practical projects that faced fewer obstacles, she said.
Among the 15 transit projects that the state evaluated in a report released Thursday, all nine that the state declared a lower risk of busting the 10-year deadline were MARTA submissions or came from MARTA planning. Many of them had the extra advantage of a head start, having already been in preliminary phases for a couple of years.
To be sure, many factors influenced whether a project could be done in time. The major ones for suburban lines include geographical obstacles like rivers, or conflicts that require negotiation with other agencies or railroad companies. That's what stymies the western end of the I-285 line, which had a big head start thanks in part to funding from the Perimeter CIDs and a related DOT study.
Whatever the difficulties, there will "absolutely" be rail transit on the project list, said the chairman of the regional group picking the projects, Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson. "In what form or fashion or direction I don't know. But in my opinion, there will be some rail projects."
About this report
As next year's vote on $8 billion in transportation improvements nears, our team of journalists is committed to bringing you every angle of this ongoing story. Our unmatched coverage continues today.
Getting it done
Projects that could likely be done within the first eight years of a transportation tax, with "medium" risk, according to the state:
Four sections of the Atlanta Beltline streetcars
MARTA expansion from Doraville to Norcross
MARTA line to Turner Field
MARTA extension from Indian Creek Station to Wesley Chapel Road
MARTA extension from Holmes Station to I-285
MARTA line from Lindbergh Station to Emory University
Projects that would likely take more than 10 years, or have "medium-high" risk of a stumbling block. In some cases, a smaller section could be done:
Commuter rail south through Lovejoy*
I-285 light rail from Perimeter Center to Doraville*
Light rail along I-20 corridor to Candler Road
Light rail through Gwinnett County
MARTA extension up Ga. 400 to Holcomb Bridge Road
Light rail through Cobb County
*Project could take less than 10 years, but has a risk of a stumbling block.
Source: Georgia Regional Transportation Authority
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