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May 15, 2012

Getting it Right

AtlantaMetro Atlanta (and Georgia) can do better -- that's why Sierra Club's Georgia Chapter opposes ballot measures that will fund transportation projects set to come before Georgia's voters in July. The Chapter noted that its decision to oppose the measures -- Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (T-SPLOST) -- in 11 of the state's regions was easy; the decision to oppose the T-SPLOST for the Atlanta region was more difficult and therefore the Sierra Club backed up its decision with a detailed Plan-B.

While the Sierra Club notes that no plan is perfect, the Chapter leaders concluded that the list of projects that the Atlanta transportation ballot measure would fund was flawed to the point of outweighing its benefits. Concerns range from a lack of a cohesive vision for the area's transportation system, a failure to have an equitable and representative regional transit governance in place, a failure to address the core need of the existing transit infrastructure, and that even transit projects that the Club supports in concept are vaguely defined and underfunded.

The Chapter is calling for voters to hold out for Plan B to stop Atlanta's transportation future from heading in the wrong direction, and questions tax booster's claim that this must be passed because it's the only option. The Sierra Club points out "that there is indeed great potential for an alternative plan that achieves meaningful progress on commute alternatives for Georgians without needlessly subsidizing another wave of sprawl." It is hard to make a tough decision on a ballot measure that includes transit funding. As my colleague, Colleen Kiernan, notes in her op-ed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, this is not a first for the Club:

A major American city faces a hotly debated referendum to expand its road and transit network. The local business community is solidly behind it, claiming that passage is vital to the region’s economic competitiveness. Meanwhile, a motley group of community organizations, including the state chapter of the Sierra Club, are opposing the measure.

The reaction to this opposition from proponents is fierce. "There is no Plan B!" they loudly proclaim. "This is the only chance we'll have for a generation!" others cry. "The political climate won't allow anything better!"

This may sound like Atlanta today, but the city in question is in fact Seattle, and the year is 2007. That city's "Roads and Transit" referendum, an awkward mixture of popular transit projects and sprawl-inducing road construction, would eventually go down to defeat at the polls.

Despite predictions that another chance was a generation away, a Plan B was put to voters the very next year, this time focused entirely on expanding and enhancing the region's SoundTransit rail and bus network — without the massive road expansion. The 2008 "SoundTransit 2" initiative passed handily, and Seattle is now actively building out an ambitious regional transit vision.

We can look further back to 1998, when the Club's San Francisco Bay Chapter opposed Measure B, a transportation ballot measure that was similar to those in Atlanta and Seattle. When the ballot measure failed, the then head of one of the involved transit agencies (AC Transit) said optimistically, "It just means we have to try and try and try again until we get it right. We'll fine-tune Measure B and put it back on the ballot."

And that's what happened. Two years later an improved Measure B passed Colleen's op-ed notes, "While the tax would fund initial segments of some popular transit projects like the Beltline, every new track-mile of light rail built would be matched by 16 lane-miles of road expansion — enough asphalt to cover Turner Field more than 200 times."

For the Sierra Club that was too much of a bad thing. Like San Francisco and Seattle, Atlanta can get this right. This position has disappointed some and created a vigorous debate. But we will continue to work to increase transportation choices that will help Americans literally move beyond oil -- in Atlanta and everywhere.

-- Ann Mesnikoff, Director of the Sierra Club Green Transportation Campaign

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