Transportation tax could be tough sell

The new transportation law approved by the Legislature divides Georgia into 12 multicounty regions or “special districts.” Regional councils of municipal leaders will identify needed (and perhaps pet) transportation projects for their regions.

“Special district gridlock,” the Legislature’s words for the inability of local policymakers to act for the greater good, is a big concern.

Already some city leaders in Fulton County who support the proposed tax are opposing it in the short run to compel concessions from other local leaders in the long run. Down the road, expect more politicking over picking projects to fund. But logrolling among local leaders will yield strong support for the tax and a set of projects.

What should really concern us is “special district gridlock” among local voters. Beginning in 2012, voters in each of the regions will have opportunity to decide through referenda whether to adopt one-penny sales and use taxes to fund transportation projects for their regions. They will be asked to tax themselves even more for the next decade to finance projects for the economic and collective good of their regions, even if it means sharing tax revenue to benefit communities other than their own. Convincing the voters to do it will be difficult, and not just because voters are not in the mood for increased taxes. Georgians just strongly disfavor transferring money from one community to another one.

Don’t get me wrong. Nearly all Georgians support regional efforts in the abstract to improve the flow and efficiency of transit in their regions. The spring 2008 Georgia Poll, the best data we have on public attitudes related to new taxation for improved transportation across the state, asked a random sample of Georgians, “Do you think that the suburban, city, and county governments in your area should share their financial resources and work with each other to develop and implement a regional plan to reduce traffic congestion and suburban sprawl?” A super-majority (85 percent) of respondents answered affirmatively. (In the 10-county Atlanta metro area, 88 percent agreed with the idea of regional sharing.)

Yet, Georgians are less supportive of regional efforts to improve transportation when presented with concrete financial proposals. Survey respondents were told that their local elected officials may vote for legislation that would allow suburban, city and county governments in their area to charge an additional one-penny sales tax to pay for regional programs to reduce traffic congestion and suburban sprawl. Georgians split their support for the then hypothetical one-penny tax. Their support even dropped when they knew that proceeds from the tax would be shared among multiple communities in their region, including communities other than their own.

Statewide, 49 percent of Georgians approved of the penny tax for regional transportation improvements in their own community, dropping to 35 percent when the tax would pay for transportation projects in communities not their own. (In metropolitan Atlanta support for the tax declined from 51 to 37 percent.) The falloff in support for the one-penny tax was consistent among Georgians (and metro Atlantans) regardless of residence in cities or suburbs), amount of household income, partisan identification and race.

Convincing the state’s elected leaders to send a signal to Georgians that communities sharing metropolitan areas should share resources to solve their joint transit problems is one thing. Convincing their local constituents to agree to a tax for regionally supported transportation improvements in communities not their own, or even in their own communities, is something else. When it comes to financing future transit projects, policymakers may lead but voters may not follow.

While the new law for improved transportation was a monumental victory at the state level, triumph at the local level may remain elusive.

Michael Leo Owens is a professor of political science at Emory University.

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