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.

  • Brent Buice

    just wanted to add that TIA is a statewide referendum. there are 16 other regions of GA that will be voting on their own TSPLOST packages, and many of these regions worked hard to include transit, bike, & ped projects in their project lists. 

  • guest

    Not a surprise at all. The Sierra Club in NJ spent years opposing the ARC tunnel (the largest transit project in the country at the time) because it wasn’t good enough for them. Now they have nothing except more congestion and crowded trains, which is the exact thing they’ll get in GA if this referendum doesn’t pass.

  • This tax maybe a a good opportunity to raise transportation money, but it includes NO opportunity to address the underlying problem behind Atlanta’s traffic woes: unchecked, car-dependent sprawl. Along with the very desirable transit lines for intown Atlanta, the list of tax-funded projects includes many items that continue to subsidize sprawl in the outer regions. Almost 50% of the projects involve widening roads and generally improving the situation for single car commuters. Where’s the impetus to turn the sprawl ship around when the region is collectively funding it?

    The refusal of the Atlanta region to reign in decades of sprawling, car-oriented development, despite decades of warnings about it’s damage to the environment and to peoples commutes. has resulted in horrible traffic and the outsized transportation needs.

    If people in the City of Atlanta (like me) are going to have our taxes, already high, raised to fund road improvements in the sprawl-burbs, I want to know that there’s a commitment by regional leaders to undo the damage and make our region’s built environment more sustainable. Make plans to retrofit sprawling suburbia and reduce its car dependency.

    Otherwise we’re only treating the symptoms without addressing the core disease: the Atlanta region’s addiction to car-dependent sprawl.

  • Al

     – “will determine whether Atlanta can move forward with the rail portion”

    It may affect how _quickly_ Atlanta “can move forward with the rail portion,” but the report places construction in 2016-2019 for both the streetcar and Beltline segments.  A replacement project list could reach voters in 2014.

     – “a new proposal funded by the gas tax”

    I believe you are mistaken or have confused separate things.

     – “more mainstream groups”

    Like a “group of business interests that is pushing” for public spending… well… I guess, since we linking to Forbes.

     – “asserts that all of the 15 percent”

    They don’t.  I probably would.  With the promise of a 9:1 match from the roads department, that’s where I would want my portion spent.

     – “and the city of Decatur”

    At least you made me laugh at the end!  00.05%

  • Atlgal1

    I just withdrew my membership from the Sierra Club.

  • Patrick McGrath

    In 2007 the Washington State Chapter of the Sierra Club led the opposition to a large Puget Sound roads & transit package that had funding for light rail but significantly increased carbon emissions and worsened sprawl through new highway construction. It was defeated, and the Sierra Club pointed out to the media and local representatives that the roads portion–and by extension the Club’s opposition–had pulled it down. Contrary to the dire predictions of nearly every elected official and transportation advocate who supported the 2007 measure (“We won’t have another chance like this for a generation!” “The political climate does not support a better plan” “We need to swallow hard and support this bill” “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”), the very next year, which was a presidential election year like this one, electeds brought back a revised package that included $18 billion for rail and no new highways. Sierra Club supported it, and it passed handily. Funny how the political climate can change.  The key question for transit/smart growth advocates in Atlanta is: what are the outcomes you’re trying to accomplish? New transit is great, but only if the package is a net positive on those outcomes.

  • Anonymous

    I think the Sierra Club is right on this one. The idea that any
    environmental group would support freeway expansion in 2012 is a bit
    weird. Transit and freeways together are a great way to greenwash
    freeways and cook the planet, and this plan puts more money towards roads that to transit. Thanks for taking a strong and principled stand Sierra Club!

    Note that there are no big name environmental groups supporting this, just ones that sound like typical road lobby / big oil astroturf groups.

  • idw

    I am afraid this piece sounds like it was written by the local chamber of commerce. The other – and in my mind biggest – reason to be against the splost is that the ability to increase the sales tax any more after this increase would be nill and the competing use for such funds in GA is EDUCATION. We may need transit, but we need education $ more.

  • CT

    The Sierra Club also unofficially opposed a BRR project in CT that will use an old rail-right-of-way because they wanted a rail service instead (which has no chance of happening and wouldn’t serve the area as well as BRT).

  • Muse


    I attended the meeting, Talking Traffic: A Public Forum on
    the July Transportation Referendum at Georgia Tech yesterday. It is clear from
    the one-sided presentation and discussions that our officials in charge want to
    increase the traffic flow into Atlanta, not alleviate it. For elected officials
    this would increase the tax base. For businessmen like Mark Toro,Managing
    Partner – North American Properties and MAVEN Representative,  who was on the panel, it is an opportunity
    for personal gain through real-estate development. The pro-referendum
    proponents referenced New York and Chicago several times as their model for
    public transportation. They would like to turn Atlanta into another crowded,
    gridlocked, dirty northern city. I believe we should be moving traffic out of
    the beltway to technology parks in the surrounding areas, decreasing traffic
    flow into Atlanta. There are several options not being considered which would
    cost nothing to help the traffic problems like encouraging businesses to let
    employees telecommute from home, provide flexible hours or even a four day work
    week. Another option would be to provide green car tags for fuel efficient
    two-seater automobiles, or even like the Democratic Senator Doug Stoner’s
    foreign Mini Cooper which he bragged about last night while talking about
    creating American jobs. These cars would be eligible to use the green lane
    (renamed from the HOV lane and Express Lane). I call the Express lane, which
    Mark Toro subscribes to, the Elitist Lane since one must pay extra to use it
    even though it is paid for by all taxpayers.

    Finally, the new tax is not needed to fund the road projects
    we actually need. Many are already underway and are already being funded. The
    project list for the referendum started as a $27 Billion money grab by the
    counties and was whittled down to a $8.5 Billion pile of pork. If additional
    funds are needed they could be easily obtained by reducing the size of the
    Atlanta area’s governments, which on average employ twice as many government
    workers as other cities with comparable populations. This would also help
    Atlanta’s traffic problem.

    Citizens should realize that no matter what government
    officials and referendum supporters say, the tax increase will be permanent.
    After all, the toll booths are still on GA 400 even though we were told they
    would be removed when the project was paid for, which was long ago. Which
    reminds me, did the additional flow from GA 400 help or hurt Atlanta’s traffic

  • RS Muse


    It is critical that everyone understand what they are really
    voting for or against. It is clear from examining MARTA’s 2010 and 2011 “Annual
    Report” that MARTA is broke and going under. The situation is so bad that they
    do not even include any financial statements, like a Balance Sheet in their
    Annual Reports. MARTA already gets 60% of its revenue from sales taxes, only
    22% from ridership (fares) The rest is from Federal revenue which is decreasing.
    They need to make up the rest of their $300M per year shortfall on the backs of
    the neighboring counties.

    Check it out for yourself, MARTA’s 2011 “Annual Report”,
    page 37:


    MARTA’s Sales Tax revenue comes from a 1% sales tax levied
    in the City of Atlanta and the Counties of Fulton and DeKalb. Revenue comes in
    at $436M while expenses top $727M (page 39). Now they need yet another sales
    tax for revenue.

    The coming TIA Transportation Referendum is an $8.5B pile of
    pork with half the revenue for failing MARTA. Examples are a bridge at Lake Altoona
    and sidewalks in Lawrenceville. These projects will supposedly help alleviate
    Atlanta’s traffic flow.  This is another
    obvious bailout and redistribution of personal income.

    Will we join the City of Atlanta, Fulton, and DeKalb
    counties in funding MARTA in perpetuity?  MARTA will never be solvent because we would
    need at least five times as many riders just to break even. Atlanta would need
    to have the population density of New York, which is why real-estate developers
    favor the referendum.

  • MSL

    I guess the state needs more tax dollars to add to their bogus tolls on 400.


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