Regional transportation: Doubts surface among local-level leadership

Some of the same metro Atlanta officials who put together wish lists of projects for next year’s transportation sales tax referendum don’t think the tax stands a chance.

Not if the vote were held now, anyway.

The Georgia Municipal Association asked mayors, city council members, city managers and city clerks: If the vote were held today, would their region approve a penny sales tax to raise money for transportation improvements?

Forty percent said no. Thirty percent responded yes, and the remaining 30 percent said they don’t know.

The survey underscores the tough sell ahead in persuading voters to raise $7 billion over 10 years through a self-imposed tax.

The billions raised by the tax, if approved in 2012, could pay for road widenings, intersection reconfigurations and public transit extensions in a 10-county area.

“If I weren’t intimately involved, I’d say no, too, because we haven’t even picked the projects that are going to be on the list,” said Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, chairman of the regional roundtable that will assemble the final list of projects that will go before voters.

“If people don’t understand what they’re getting for their money, how could they say yes at this point?”

A separate, earlier poll by the campaign to pass the referendum found that with the right messaging, the tax has a lead, said Paul Bennecke, a political strategist who is helping lead the $5 million privately funded metro Atlanta campaign to approve the tax.

The results of that poll, said Bennecke, showed 26 percent in favor of the tax, 15 percent opposed and 59 percent as swing voters, depending on the message and the project list.

“We understand there’s a lot ahead of us over the next 14 months,” Bennecke said. “We’re so far out, people don’t actually know the specifics. And they shouldn’t.”

The Fayette County Issues Tea Party, one of the largest groups opposing the referendum, has reached out to counterparts in Cobb and Fulton counties so far and is laying plans for meetings in five more counties soon, said co-founder Harold Bost.

“Considering the fact we are just beginning to fight, I am very encouraged to see such a high negative from elected officials,” said Bost, a former Fayette County Commission chairman.

The survey by the Georgia Municipal Association was emailed to 2,450 officials across the state; 609 responded.

Johnson said mayors and council members probably said “no” because of the poor economy.

Chamblee Mayor Eric Clarkson was among those who said the proposal is doomed.

It’s not that Clarkson — whose city of nearly 18,000 people has easy access to MARTA trains and the asphalt of I-285 — doesn’t see a need.

It’s that residents in DeKalb and Fulton counties already pay a penny extra in sales tax to fund MARTA, he said.

“Right now, it’s a plan to fail,” Clarkson said. “And it needs to fail until someone figures out how to look at true transit and true regional needs.”

Despite lingering questions, some voters are already on board.

Sandra McMillion moved from San Francisco to College Park 11 months ago, and she blames Atlanta’s pothole-filled roads for her SUV needing about $2,000 in suspension system repairs.

Raising Fulton’s sales tax to 8 cents is nothing, she said. In her former city, the tax is 9.5 percent.

“I don’t want them to keep raising taxes, and I wish they would find another way,” McMillion said. “But something needs to be done.”

Staff writer Ariel Hart contributed to this article.