Cherokee could be tough sell on transit vote

Atlanta Forward: The future of regional transportation

Editor's Note: A vote next year could affect your commute for decades. As a region, we'll decide whether to tax ourselves for $8 billion in transportation improvements. The AJC has committed a team of reporters to cover every angle of the transportation referendum leading up to the vote in summer 2012. We kick off that coverage this week with an examination of what's at stake for Atlanta and each of the region's 10 counties.

Nearly eight of every 10 Cherokee County workers drive out of the county to jobs, by some estimates, so you have to figure residents would be eager to widen highways and build bridges to alleviate growing commuting problems.

Homeowners in and around Woodstock, however, complained when Rep. Sean Jerguson, R-Holly Springs, talked about the upcoming referendum on a 1-cent regional transportation tax during a May meeting of homeowners associations.

“When Sean brought this up, there was a lot of grumbling about it,” said Mark Jafari, who represented his neighborhood of Towne Lake Hills South and supports the referendum.

“Some thought there was a definite need for it. About a quarter of them, I would guess. But people were not happy with it generally.”

A confluence of a bad economy, the county’s conservative politics and voter fatigue from self-imposed taxes ensures that the vote on the transportation special local option sales tax will be a tough sell in Cherokee County. Evidence of that can be seen in meetings such as the one Jafari attended, the strong presence of tea party-affiliated groups and a close SPLOST vote last November.

If the referendum can’t garner support in a county where so many must travel to other counties, it shows the challenge ahead for officials and others who want the referendum to pass in the 10-county region.

Cherokee voters may be particularly weary of tax proposals.

Voters six months ago narrowly approved continuing a 1-cent county SPLOST for infrastructure such as libraries, county roads and fire stations. This year, they will cast ballots on whether to continue a penny sales tax to pay for new school facilities, and within a year of that, they will consider imposing on themselves the penny transportation tax.

If the existing tax is continued and the transportation tax is added, the county’s sales tax would be 7 cents.

Metro Atlanta will have to pass the tax as a region for it to take effect, and a difficulty will be that voters from county to county have different transportation needs.

The final list of projects the transportation tax would fund is still being drawn up, and the largest category in that list may well be roads. But it’s an open question whether using part of the transportation tax for mass transit somewhere else in the region might be a lightning rod for residents in the distant suburbs, including Cherokee.

Referendum supporters might find voters are motivated to approve the tax due to the county’s rapid growth. Cherokee added 70,000 residents in the past decade, according to census figures, turning easy commutes into time-eating snarls.

Jafari supports the tax to build new roads, but based on the reaction he heard at the neighborhood meeting and the overall conservative opposition to new taxes, he did not think Cherokee County voters would approve it.

“It’s a tough time for everybody, but definitely the need is there,” he said.

A delegation of county elected officials who suggested the projects in Cherokee stuck to a bread-and butter approach of largely widening two main commuting arteries — Ga. 20 and Ga. 140 — that were built for 1960s-era traffic.

But the final list of projects the penny will fund might include big changes for the county’s main interstate, I-575, which stretches from I-75 in Cobb County up into the North Georgia foothills and carries a stream of Cherokee’s commuters. Estimates vary widely, but census figures based on state labor data estimate that Cherokee County exports 78.7 percent of the workers who live there to jobs in other counties.

A public-private project to add toll lanes to I-75/I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties could wind up on the final list of projects the tax would fund.

The Hickory Flat community is a mix of rural Cherokee County and newer subdivisions split by Ga. 140 and served by Ga. 20, two-lane corridors that stack up with daily rush-hour backups.

But that does not sway H.T. Bradford, leader of the Hickory Flat Tea Party Patriots.

“People in our group will actively oppose it,” he said. “We think the government needs to back off and let this economy recover a little bit first.”

County Commission Chairman Buzz Ahrens, who is watching the referendum process, said he thinks passage depends on giving local voters a good explanation of how the program works and what it will buy. It is early in the process, he said, and he did not think many voters were yet aware of it.

“But [voters turning it down] is always a concern,” Ahrens said. The infrastructure SPLOST on the ballot last fall attracted opposition that was well organized and included former county and city officials. The tax narrowly passed.

Jack Staver, who commutes around metro Atlanta as a safety director for a construction company, said his political views trump his commute time down I-575 and I-285 to his office.

“I think we would need to get rid of other taxes to do this,” he said.

He said there will be suspicion about the projects — and demand for transparency in government spending on them.

“It all goes back to one thing,” he said. “ How are we managing our business?”

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Cities and towns submitted their wish lists in March: more than 400 projects worth up to $29 billion or more. Go to to see which projects hit closest to home and which have regional effects.

Cherokee County

  • Incorporated: Dec. 21, 1830
  • Population: 214,346
  • Total area: 423.7 square miles
  • County seat: Canton
  • Interstate lanes: 108.62 miles

Projects to watch

  • Replace Little River bridge at Bells Ferry Road, $10.2 million
  • Replace the bridge at Ga. 20 and the Etowah River, $5.6 million
  • Widen Ga. 140 from I-575 to East Cherokee Drive, $90.3 million
  • Widen Ga. 140 from East Cherokee Drive to Mountain Road, $89.2 million
  • Widen Ga. 140 from Mountain Road to Ranchette Road, $77.4 million
  • Widen Ga. 140 from Mansell to Ranchette roads, $87.4 million.
  • Widen Ga. 20 from Scott to Hightower roads, $86.6 million
  • Widen Ga. 20 from Hightower to Post roads, $124.8 million
  • Widen Ga. 20 from Post Road to Ga. 400, $211.8 million
  • Not requested by the region, I-575 optional toll lane may be added to wish list by the state.