Business leaders, regional planners, elected officials and others spent time Tuesday networking and educating themselves on transportation and economic-development issues in the south-metro-Atlanta region, at the "9th Annual South Metro Development Outlook" conference.
The influential gathering, hosted annually the Collaborative Firm, LLC, was held at the Georgia International Convention Center, in College Park. It is considered one of metro Atlanta's premiere development forums.
Several key figures in the Southern Crescent and the City of Atlanta served as panelists, during the discussion of transportation issues centered around House Bill 277, which was passed last year the General Assembly, and allows communities to ban together into regions to address common transportation needs.
The discussion, entitled "House Bill 277: Georgia's Transportation Policy," included Todd Long, director of planning for the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT); Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis, chairman of the Henry County Board of Commissioners, and Eldrin Bell, chairman of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners.
Long said the reason the state of Georgia doesn't have a passenger rail system is because there aren't enough funds to support it. "There is no dedicated funding source for rail," he said.
House Bill 277, also known as the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, will allow the public to vote on a one-percent sales tax for transportation projects in their corresponding regions, which may include a commuter rail line, if proposed local government officials, according to Long. There are 12 regions in Georgia, he added.
Currently, GDOT's planning division is accepting transportation-project requests from local governments –– until March 30, he said. The 12 regional organizations will develop a refined list of the projects Aug. 15.
Long said, if Georgians refuse to vote on the one-percent sales tax for the projects, the state is back to square one on bettering its transportation system. "This is it," he said. "There is no Plan B."
Henry County Commission Chairman "B.J." Mathis said her county has mixed responses to the bill. "We certainly have our work cut out for us," she said. "We [Henry County] are in an anti-tax environment."
She said the bill will benefit the county directly, relieving traffic congestion and spurring economic prosperity, and that she is educating her board about the bill, and its importance to Henry County.
"The five board members that are with me, don't understand why we are a part of a region in the first place," said Mathis. Henry County, she explained, has grown rapidly in population over the years, and traffic congestion has become a serious issue. Henry residents need to be assured that the one-percent tax they will be contributing for transportation projects are going to directly benefit the county, she said.
"We're paying the extra penny, we want to see it in our own backyard," said Mathis.
She said she is urging voters to remain positive and have trust in the politicians who are behind the bill. "We don't have to give it the kiss of death before the project lists come out," she said.
She said transportation projects being considered for her county include: the entire Highway 42 corridor, and Highway 155 from Interstate 75 to the Spalding County line.
Those roads, she said, are so congested, they need to be modified for drivers of tractor trailers and regular vehicles. The county houses a lot of industrial warehouses, she said, and it "wouldn't be good for the county, if the roads and traffic congestion repel these businesses."
Eldrin Bell, Clayton's commission chairman, said politicians aren't educating the public enough about the bill. He would like to see the member governments of the 10-county Atlanta Regional Commission, which includes Henry and Clayton, deliver the information to their residents. "Yes, it costs money, but how much will ignorance cost?" he asked.
He said public transit has always been a hot topic among Georgia politicians. "There are mixed feelings about funding transit, but there are no mixed feelings of our public wanting it," he added.
Bell said several transportation issues in Clayton County need to be addressed, including the interchange from Interstate 75, to Interstate 285, the numerous bridges in disrepair, and a source of mass transit for the county's residents.
"I have MARTA [Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority] working on a plan to include local transit [in Clayton County], with ... east and west corridors," said Bell. "Lovejoy must be included, and seniors must be given high priority."