At this past week’s Regional Transit Committee meeting, the Atlanta Regional Commission’s David Emory made an interesting presentation.

A total of eight light rail projects are included in the Concept 3 plan. They would cost about $8 billion to build, and they would have an annual operating cost of $200 million.

Coincidentally, if metro Atlanta voters pass a regional sales tax for transportation, it would raise about $8 billion over 10 years.

I couldn’t help myself. I began to think about how wonderful it would be if the Atlanta region would spend most, if not all, of the new sales tax revenue on transit projects.

The eight light rail projects in the Concept 3 Plan actually would be a good starting point.

The first project was building the 22-mile loop for the Atlanta Beltline, now being planned by MARTA and Atlanta Beltline Inc.

The second light rail project was the Clifton Corridor light rail line that would connect MARTA’s North lines with the East line and Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control along the way.

The third project would be building light rail along the I-20 East corridor, a line that could extend to Rockdale County.

The fourth project would be to build light rail along the top end of I-285 between I-75 and I-85 (a transit specific study for the corridor is supposed to be done in 2012).

The fifth light rail project would be along the Northeast corridor going from Doraville, Norcross to the Gwinnett Village and the Gwinnett Area. That feasibility study is supposed to be completed later this year.

The sixth project would be to have a light rail line along the Northwest corridor in Cobb County, going along U.S. 41 from the Cumberland Mall area up to Town Center.

The seventh proposed line would be a fixed rail line along the Georgia 400 corridor — either extending the existing MARTA heavy rail line or building a light rail line towards the northern parts of Fulton County.

The eighth (and last) light rail project in the Concept 3 Plan is the Atlanta streetcar project that would go from downtown to Buckhead, and connect the tourist attractions around Centennial Olympic Park with the King Center.

The Regional Transit Committee, now chaired by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, passed a resolution this past Thursday to endorse establishing a permanent transit governing body for the Atlanta region.

The resolution was part of a “quad party” agreement between the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, the Georgia Department of Transportation and MARTA.

Never before has there been such a level of consensus among all the 10 ARC counties and all the major transportation-related entities in the state and the region. And that can only be a welcome development for the region.

But then on Friday morning, metro Atlanta leaders launched a campaign to build a “big tent coalition” to support a regional sales tax for transportation. They unveiled a plan to raise millions of dollars for the campaign to convince people to vote in favor of the sales tax.

Metro leaders brought in representatives from the cities of Phoenix, Denver and Salt Lake City to talk about how they were able to put together winning campaigns for their transportation sales tax initiatives.

In showing TV spots on their marketing campaigns, the themes were the same. We can’t pave our way out of congestion. If we want to accommodate new residents to our region, we must invest in transportation options.

Every one of those campaigns showcased light rail projects in their separate communities. And the various representatives spoke about how important it was to listen to voters before presenting a list of projects.

In Denver, leaders realized that voters were far more likely to pass a transportation sales tax if most of the dollars were to be invested in transit and rail.

The representatives from Salt Lake City, Denver and Phoenix said it was critically important to sell the sales tax as a quality of life campaign. In Utah, part of the effort included explaining to voters that no transportation projects pay for themselves, including transit.

Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce, said it was all about economics and how Utah would be able to handle all its growth. Because the city has been building 70 miles of light rail, there is now $4 billion in development underway with national companies moving to Salt Lake City.

Peggy Bilsten, who worked on getting the sales tax passed in Phoenix, said the city’s “Transit 2000” campaign ended up building a 22-mile segment of light rail connecting three different cities.

“We have transit-oriented development that would blow your mind,” Bilsten said. “We got $600 million from the federal government.”

Maria Garcia, who worked on the Denver effort, did make a back-handed comment. “The longer you guys take to get your act together, the better it will be for us,” she said.

That reminded me of what the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told Georgians when he was in Atlanta nearly a year ago. He said Georgia would get left behind in transportation funding if it didn’t get its act together on transit and rail.

The region can decide whether the referendum of 2012 will be a game-changer and help pay for transit once and for all, or whether it will be more of the same — spending the region’s limited dollars on roads and bridges.

For the first time in decades, the Atlanta region has an opportunity to invest substantial dollars in transit, be able to leverage federal funds and to encourage transit-friendly developments.

Let’s not blow it.

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