Atlanta BeltLine Could Get Millions From Tax Referenda | WABE 90.1 FM

Atlanta BeltLine Could Get Millions From Tax Referenda

Nov 2, 2016

Atlantans will vote on two sales tax referenda on Election Day that would fund transportation projects. 

The Atlanta T-SPLOST would run for five years and provide four-tenths of a penny in taxes. SPLOST stands for "special purpose local option sales tax." The "T" means the money would go to transportation. 

The MARTA referendum would give a half-penny sales tax to that agency for 40 years. 

If both pass, one big winner could be the BeltLine.

The BeltLine is just a patch of trails now. The most developed is on the east side, near Ponce City Market.  Erin and Austin Igleheart walk their dog there. 

“It's accessible. It's off the road. Late at night, it's relatively shady and cool,” said Erin Igleheart. 

“You don't have to stop at a bunch of intersections, so you can just get on the trail and keep walking," said Austin Igleheart.

That’s true – at least for these two developed miles of the 22-mile proposed loop.

The Atlanta tax would bring in $66 million to buy the rest of the land for the full BeltLine. The MARTA tax could fund light rail along the BeltLine and connect the downtown streetcar to what is now just a walking path.

It's a prospect that makes Rob Brawner pretty happy. He's executive director of the BeltLine Partnership, the fundraising arm for the project. 

“We have not had an opportunity like this to significantly advance the BeltLine and transportation, really, throughout the entire city like we're going to have in November," he said. "And we can't afford to let this opportunity slip by."

Erin Igleheart is one voter on his side. She said the taxes would even help people who don't live near the BeltLine.

“It still has the opportunity to remove a lot of cars from the road and give people opportunities to get to work and get around town in different ways,” she said.

But, not everyone is happy with the direction of the BeltLine Partnership. 

Ryan Gravel dreamed up the trail project, and he recently stepped down from the BeltLine Partnership board.

He told WABE then that he still supports the BeltLine and tax money for it, “but, all I'm asking for is that, as we do that, we follow through on the policies and make sure that the people who made this thing possible in the communities that are along its route get to stay and enjoy its benefits, just like everybody else.”

Real estate prices and rent have shot up along the developed Eastside trail. BeltLine organizers are supposed to build 5,600 affordable housing units along the trail, but Gravel wants that to be a priority. He also wants people who live along the proposed BeltLine route to see some of the money from businesses that spring up there. 

Other critics say it's time for the state to pitch in money for transit. Atlanta is the only major city in the country that doesn't get such funding.

And, some people worry about paying for the BeltLine with a sales tax. 

Georgia State University Professor Alex Sayf Cummings slams BeltLine funding in a blog he co-edits with colleagues. He said sales tax disproportionately affects people with low incomes. 

“If you're poor, you spend a bigger percentage of your income in sales tax than the person who makes a lot of money and saves and doesn't spend all of their income every week,” he said.

Still, Cummings said he supports the ballot measures because they're the only options. 

MARTA General Manager Keith Parker sees things differently for low-income residents. 

“If you have no cars whatsoever, and you're paying, let's say, 15 cents per day into sales tax, but you're using the transit system multiple times a day, it does turn out to be a great return on investment for you,” he said.

Parker knows funds from the half-penny tax, which should net about $2.5 billion, wouldn't be enough to pay for everything on the wish list. The BeltLine-related projects alone cost about $2 billion. But, Parker said, at least some of the MARTA tax money would go toward transit for the trail. If voters approve the tax money, he added, the federal government could offer matching dollars. 

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