Denver, Atlanta, trains, and taxes

I’ve been writing a lot lately about transportation issues. In today’s column, I follow up to last week’s column about the proposed new regional sales taxes to fund transportation infrastructure projects.

That proposed 1% regional sales tax, which will is generally referred to as T-SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax for transportation), will either be voted on next July in the primary or in November’s general election.

Today, the AJC has a great piece — the first of many I hope — about that proposed tax (since it’s a regional tax, Atlanta could approve it while other areas of the state may not). Today’s piece — In Denver, a metro Atlanta map — tells how Denver used Atlanta’s failures to add capacity fueled decision-making and politics half a continent away.

Now, however, Denver’s vote is an example for the Atlanta region — of a success at the polls that metro leaders hope to emulate, of grievous missteps that they hope to avoid, of a $6.8 billion plan that transit advocates envy and of a new government program that anti-tax forces view with skepticism.

Since then, Atlanta’s regional leaders studied Denver’s vote and witnessed its transportation system, and Denver’s campaign consultants will try to repeat their success here. As the 10-county metro Atlanta region prepares for its 2012 vote on a 10-year, 1 percent sales tax to fund transportation projects, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this month traveled to Denver to report on that region’s path to inking a multibillion-dollar check for trains and buses, and on lessons Atlanta can take from Denver.

Whether Atlanta should follow Denver’s path is an open question, but the two regions grapple with the same core problem: traffic congestion so bad it threatens the region’s vitality. As in Denver, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Phoenix and other regions where voters have levied regional transportation sales taxes, Atlanta leaders see transportation investment as a key weapon in an all-out battle to get companies to move jobs to the area and keep them here.

It’s worth noting that Denver’s sales tax is not 1% but .4%, which would be a much easier sell. And Denver has used the tax in large part for its FasTracks rail:

Where Atlanta’s project list will have roads and mass transit, Denver’s 2004 list was almost all transit, aiming to produce a rail system more than three times as big as Atlanta’s 48-mile MARTA, for a metro area less than half as populous.

And you can see its beginnings: Across from Mile High Stadium where the Denver Broncos play, a new station is going up to serve a new rail line. Approaching a towering center where 6,000 federal employees work, a new light-rail bridge now spans Sixth Avenue — a major highway prone to rush-hour stop-and-go molasses. Workers are pouring concrete passenger platforms at a massive park-and-ride lot near St. Anthony Hospital, a big employer which has just expanded and relocated near a future stop.

In the western suburb of Lakewood, resident Keith Dameron has picked up and moved from downtown Denver so he could buy a house between two future light-rail stations. And downtown near Union Station, health care company DaVita Inc. is building its new world headquarters, partly to be near a vibrant transportation hub that is under construction.

The existing Denver light-rail lines run in their own tracks, but often at street level, alongside cars. Near the stops — some at special station platforms, some on sidewalks like bus stops — the street rings with “dings.”

Atlanta leaders, even those who would love to fund more transit, recognize the politics in trying to please drivers:

Metro Atlanta’s referendum will address the region’s “crying need for transit” by including mass transit projects, said Tad Leithead, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, but the list being drawn up now has to be balanced with road projects for the referendum to pass in a region with so many drivers. A fierce debate is under way over what that balance should be.

According to officials from the RTD and other advocates for FasTracks, the decision to concentrate on mass transit stemmed from a feeling that Denver was farther behind in mass transit than in roads, and the fact that advocates had a transit referendum ready to go.

The AJC piece notes some of FasTracks’ detractors, but makes particular note of a few key economic development arguments for light rail, including this nugget:

And a local real estate company, Your Castle Real Estate, found that along existing light-rail lines, property values had resisted the decline found elsewhere in the metro area. But improved transportation will provide a rising tide lifting boats across the region, advocates insist.

There’s much more in the piece.