Tuesday's votes bode well for T-SPLOST?

When Michelle Collier goes to the polls for a $7.2 billion transportation referendum on July 31, she doesn’t yet know how she’ll vote. But like her vote on a sewer referendum Tuesday, she knows what it won’t be based on. Contrary to some expectations, she won’t be swayed by terror of taxes.

In spite of high anti-tax sentiment among many metro Atlanta residents, voters like Collier demonstrated again Tuesday that if they like the plan, they are willing to spend. Organizers of this summer’s high-stakes referendum for a 1 percent sales tax to fund transportation projects hope the sentiment will carry over.

The transportation measure is metro Atlanta's first vote as a region, and civic leaders are hailing it as the most important vote in a generation, on which the region's  attractiveness to potential employers may rise or fall for decades.

If it passes and survives legal challenges, it would raise a 1 percent sales tax across ten metro Atlanta counties for up to 10 years, raising about $7.2 billion.  Most of that, $6.1 billion, would go to a list of transportation projects in the region that was drawn up by local leaders last fall, and includes everything from highway interchanges to buses and new train lines.  The rest would go to local governments for smaller transportation projects.

It faces fierce challenges:  a persistently sluggish job market, tea party activism and the prospect of voters who may be paying more than $4 a gallon for gas.

But Collier on Tuesday joined a whopping 86 percent of voters in the city of Atlanta who approved an extension of the city’s water and sewer tax. In Cobb County, 53 percent of Marietta voters approved a $7 million bond referendum for a new school auditorium.  Those votes are on top of nine school district tax referendums in November, from Henry to Cherokee counties, which all passed.

Kevin Ross, who is organizing the campaign to pass the transportation referendum, said that its passage is not a given, but Tuesday's results bode well. "There is no reflexive ‘no' vote around these referendums," he said.

Opponents, however, said the devil was in the details.  Brett Bittner, vice president of the Cobb Taxpayers' Association, said he would have expected the 53 percent supporting paying for the auditorium in Marietta to be much higher.  Indeed, last November's education sales tax votes passed in large, key counties by lower margins than they had before.

"The fact it was so close, for an educational tax increase, signifies to me the voting public are becoming a lot more aware of the taxes coming out of their checkbooks," Bittner said.  He doesn't know if the transportation tax will pass or not, but he'll be working to help it fail, he said.

For Collier, a graphic designer, the key to her vote for Atlanta's sales tax for continuing water and sewer upgrades was knowing that if the city voted no, water bills would shoot up as much as 30 percent.  "Well, I mean an increase in taxes period -- sales tax, property tax or whatever -- is always a concern," Collier said. But she "weighed the lesser of two evils."  When it comes time to choose on the transportation referendum, she said, "Again, it depends on what the consequences are. That’s what I do, I weigh which one is the easier pill to swallow for me."

Ross said that's the task for his side:  to convince Collier and her fellow voters that they are already paying hidden costs, in time and fuel wasted, and in jobs lost to cities with better transit options and less congestion.  The campaign has not started yet, and is expected to spend more than $6 million detailing the impacts of congestion here, and the potential of the projects proposed on the referendum's list.

Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell said it could be a hard sell.  The Atlanta sewer tax is familiar to voters in a specific jurisdiction, he noted. In contrast, the transportation tax "is a regional vote, has never been attempted before, never been done before, and there’s no other bill it’s going to offset," he said. "I think that’s something we have to be very cognizant of and not assume that just because the [sewer tax] passed that the [transportation tax] will pass."

Staff writer Jeremiah McWilliams contributed to this article.