Transportation referendum campaign starts

It’s going to be a long fight. The 10-county referendum for a 1 percent sales tax for transportation takes place July 31. Bolstered by better fundraising than they expected, advocates plan to blanket the metro area with four months of advertisements.

The campaign for the referendum, organized by business and civic groups such as the Metro Atlanta Chamber, is divided into two parts. “Education” advertisements already started two weeks ago. “Advocacy” advertisements, a much bigger portion of the privately funded campaign, will start airing Wednesday, according to campaign officials.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution got an early look at the ad. It pounds home the chaos of Atlanta traffic, showing cartoon-drawn highways rolled up into something like a ball of spaghetti. Road signs for I-285 and Ga. 400 and some others flash by.

“Traffic is killing jobs,” the commercial says. “Let’s untie the knot. Vote yes for the July 31 regional transportation referendum.”

Opponents don’t have a comparable campaign, but they’re doing what they can.

Bob Ross, an opponent in Fayette County, said the ad addresses exactly the most important issue, roads -- but has no right to do so when slightly less than half of the referendum's project list is composed of roads. Just more than half goes to mass transit.

“I agree we’ve got a traffic problem,” said Ross, who, like many of the opponents, is a tea party member. “My concern is over half the money is coming from what’s pitched as a solution, but has very little impact on road congestion.”

Backers of the referendum say the transit will get drivers off the roads, and offer everyone more choices.

Paul Bennecke, a head strategist for the campaign, said the ad speaks to all voters.

“I think it certainly gets the visual image of what people are dealing with every day; they feel like they’re in a knot,” Bennecke said. “I feel, at the end of the day, we have an issue that has nearly unanimous consent. We have a traffic crisis. The issue becomes, do we want to solve it or not?”

In the referendum, for the first time in Atlanta’s history, voters from across the region will vote together as one district. They will decide whether to approve a 1 percent sales tax across 10 counties, to fund a list of transportation projects in those counties. The regional list totals $6.14 billion. In addition, about $1 billion will be sent back to the counties and towns where it was raised, based on the amount of people and lane miles in each.

Bennecke expects the campaign to spend about $8 million, most of it on advocacy. Donations to the education campaign are tax-exempt, but donations to the advocacy campaign are not.

The campaign structure has drawn some fire from critics who see little distinction between advocacy and the education campaign, which touts the referendum as "one possible solution." Bennecke said the two are separate subjects and separate efforts, even if led by the same top leadership.

Ads will air on television and radio, and the campaign will have a "very robust online effort," Bennecke said, including its website, untieatlanta.com. Other new ads will debut later.

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