Atlanta Transpo Referendum Draws an Unlikely Opponent in Local Sierra Club

One of the most exciting transit expansion dramas unfolding in the United States right now is Atlanta’s transportation referendum: the Transportation Investment Act, or TIA, for short.

The Atlanta Beltline, shown here in an artist's rendering, would be funded by a one-cent sales tax referendum to be considered by Atlanta area voters in July. But the local Sierra Club is urging its members to vote against the proposal. Photo: FHWA

This one-cent sales tax would raise more than $7 billion for local transportation projects — at least $3.14 billion of which would be dedicated to transit. This issue — up for vote in July — will determine whether Atlanta can move forward with the rail portion of its groundbreaking, ring-shaped “Beltline.” It would help bring relief to some of the country’s most harried commuters.

This plan would give a badly needed boost to transit funding. And that’s why a recent announcement by the local Sierra Club was so jarring.

Yesterday, the Sierra Club of Georgia announced it was urging its members to vote against the proposal in favor of what it calls “Plan-B.” The Sierra Club hopes that after the referendum is defeated, a new proposal funded by the gas tax with “a fix-it-first roads strategy” “that emphasizes transit expansion and improvement” will emerge, according to a statement from the group printed in the local alt-weekly, Creative Loafing.

The Sierra Club plan sounds like great transportation policy, but it currently lacks the political and organizational support underpinning TIA. And compared to the region’s current transportation, TIA is pretty good policy. If Atlanta lets the current moment slip by, there’s no telling when the region will have another good opportunity to raise billions in revenue for transit.

The Sierra Club is planning a joint press conference with — oddly enough — local Tea Party officials this week where they will discuss their concerns further.

Meanwhile, more mainstream groups were quick to criticize the Sierra Club’s position. Citizens for Transportation Mobility, a group of business interests that is pushing for TIA’s passage, responded with “dismay.”

“We find it highly unusual that an organization charged with preserving and protecting our environment would oppose a transportation investment that has the potential to do exactly that,” Che Watkins, campaign manager for CTM, told Creative Loafing. “The Regional Transportation Referendum holds more promise of relieving congestion and reducing air pollution than any plan in decades.”

“If the Sierra Club has its way,” he continued, “more harm will be done to the environment as the state continues to fund roads to the exclusion of transit.”

Ashley Robbins, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit, which is leading the campaign for TIA’s passage, said that her group “respectfully disagrees” with the Sierra Club on many points.

This Sierra Club diagram assumes the 15 percent of the TIA money allocated to local communities would all be spent on roads, something that Atlanta and the city of Decatur have disputed. Photo: Sierra Club

The money expected to be raised by the new sales tax is to be divided up into three pots. Fifteen percent of the money will go towards local communities to use at their discretion. The rest of the money will be divided among road and transit projects — with 52 percent supporting transit, and 48 percent supporting roads.

Robbins allowed that the road projects will lead to some sprawl but said “this is a step forward for the region.”

“This will be the first [transit] expansion we will have built in over a decade,” she said.

The Sierra Club asserts that all of the 15 percent for local communities will be spent on road projects. But Robbins says both Atlanta and the nearby suburb of Decatur have said that they will spend the money on bike, pedestrian and transit projects. As for the rest of the communities, it’s not yet clear.

“To me, that’s making assumptions that can’t be made right now,” she said.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution noted that the rest of the region’s environmental groups were either supportive of the referendum or were keeping mum. The Sierra Club has about 5,000 dues-paying members in the Atlanta metro area, according to the paper.