Everyone agrees that Atlanta has a terrible traffic problem, but opinions differ on whether levying a 1 percent sales tax for the next 10 years to fund road and public transit projects is the solution.

Both grassroots and business groups have been holding forums to explain what Atlantans will get for the penny tax, which metro voters will approve or reject on July 31. On Tuesday, McGuireWoods invited Brian Leary, the CEO of Atlanta Beltline Inc., to tell its lawyers and clients what the tax would do for metro Atlanta.

Some opposition to the transit tax comes from those on the right, such as the tea party, who don’t want to pay more taxes, while other criticism is from those on the left, such as the Sierra Club, who think it allocates too much for roads and not enough for mass transit.

Leary and his host, Brad Alexander, a vice president of state government relations at McGuireWoods Consulting, said the transit tax is Atlanta’s best shot at getting any significant new transportation funding.

The penny tax is projected to raise $7.2 billion in 2011 dollars for the metro Atlanta region.

The 2010 Transportation Investment Act, also known as T-SPLOST, paved the way for the referendum, allowing voters in 12 Georgia regions to decide whether to tax themselves the extra 1 percent for a decade to pay for new road and transit projects in their areas.

The transit law specifies that 52 percent of the revenue from the tax will go to mass transit and 48 percent will go to road projects.

Historically the state Legislature hasn’t supported mass transit funding for Atlanta. Revenue from the state gas tax can be spent only on roads and bridges, not transit, said Leary. The state government doesn’t fund MARTA — making Georgia the only state that doesn’t spend any money on its urban transit system. MARTA is instead funded by a 1 percent sales tax from Fulton and DeKalb counties.

Leary said transportation funding in Georgia comes almost exclusively from the state gas tax, and the state ranks 48th in per capita spending on transit, while Atlanta ranks ninth-worst in traffic congestion among U.S. cities.

Getting the state Legislature to fund transit directly is not likely, said Alexander, who was involved in the lobbying effort to pass the Transportation Improvement Act and is the former chief of staff to Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle.

“We decided it was easier to try and get 50 percent plus one of 9 million voters to vote for this than to get the Legislature to change the law on the gas tax,” said Alexander, whose clients include MARTA and the Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Leary pointed out that the gas tax rule is a Constitutional amendment, so any changes would require a two-thirds vote from the Legislature, plus a referendum.

For the Atlanta area, 85 percent of the money, projected at $6.14 billion, would fund a list of more than 100 transit and road infrastructure projects unveiled last fall, while 15 percent, or $1.08 billion, would be allocated to cities and counties for repaving roads, fixing potholes, building bike paths and improving sidewalks and traffic signal timing.

Leary highlighted some of the transit projects the penny tax would fund — most notably a 10.1 mile streetcar network with a spine stretching east-west across Midtown to connect opposite sides of the Beltline. The $602 million streetcar project, linking to three MARTA stations, would attract 4 million riders annually, said Leary. It would also jump-start the Beltline development.

The tax would also fund a $700 million rail line connecting the congested Emory corridor to the Lindbergh MARTA station.

Other transit improvements are more basic, such as restoring bus service to Clayton County and adding bus service to Cobb County and south DeKalb County.

A rail line along eastern Interstate 20 and another to Cobb County didn’t make it into the final project list, which has irked some transit advocates.

Leary said the current gas tax is not sufficient to fund big highway improvement projects. The penny tax would rebuild major interchanges, such as the ones at I-285 North and Ga. 400 and at I-85 North and I-285. Road-widening projects on Old Milton Parkway (SR 120) and Buford Highway (US 23) are also part of the package.

WILL ATLANTA CATCH UP?

A big regional investment in Atlanta’s transportation system will make Atlanta more competitive with other cities in attracting federal transportation money, said Leary, as well as new businesses and major events such as the Super Bowl.

He pointed out that two years ago, Georgia lost out on big federal dollars for high-speed rail, which instead went to Charlotte, N.C., and south Florida. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said at the time that “Georgia needs to get its act together,” and commit more money to transit if it wanted federal dollars, according to news reports.

“Cities that are winning federal funds are ponying up more money themselves,” said Leary. “You have to compete by having more skin in the game.”

If voters approve the transportation tax, said Leary, it would make Atlanta more competitive with cities like Charlotte and Houston, which have pulled ahead on transit.

He reminded the audience at McGuireWoods that when Atlanta successfully won the federal funding to build MARTA in the 1960s, the city didn’t have a traffic problem. Instead, it wanted a mass transit system to compete for big sporting and cultural events, which led to Super Bowls and the 1996 Olympics. “To do that, you have to be a city with public transit,” said Leary.

The tax is strongly supported by Atlanta’s business establishment, who say relieving traffic congestion is good for business and an improved transit network will spark development.

The Metro Chamber of Commerce is backing two nonprofit marketing campaigns for the transit tax, the Metro Atlanta Voter Education Network, or MAVEN — for which Alexander is the treasurer — and a related entity, Citizens for Transportation Mobility.

A list of donors to Citizens for Transportation Mobility published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in March is a who’s-who of the city’s business establishment, including Fortune 500 corporations, real estate developers, construction and engineering companies: UPS Inc., The Home Depot Inc., Turner Broadcasting System Inc., The Coca-Cola Co., SunTrust Bank, Cousins Properties Inc., Jamestown, Carter, Duke Realty, Piedmont Office Realty Trust Inc., Selig Enterprises Inc., Skanska, Transwestern, Georgia Power and AGL Resources Inc.

Major law firms are also contributors, including: Alston & Bird, King & Spalding, McKenna Long & Aldridge, Sutherland, Troutman Sanders, and Greenberg Traurig.

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