For DeKalb County voters, the proposed 1-cent regional transportation tax represents more than just a penny.
The referendum is hope for a shared funding mechanism for MARTA — people in Fulton, DeKalb and the city of Atlanta already pay a penny tax for the system — and a way to get a few road improvements in the process.
“Because we pay for MARTA, we can’t have a SPLOST for roads like other counties can,” said County Commissioner Stan Watson, referring to a cap on sales taxes under state law. “So on our wish list is a number of projects that include road improvements that other counties could do with a general SPLOST.”
DeKalb County is a heavyweight in the region, with 398,286 registered voters, which represent 17.5 percent of the 10-county region’s voters. Its voter turnout, if it follows historical patterns, could be a quarter of the entire regional vote in the referendum, more than any other county’s. And according to early polling by the Livable Communities Coalition, without support in Fulton and DeKalb, the referendum could not muster a win in the region overall.
So these essential voters are balancing discontent about the MARTA tax on the one hand with the prospect of transportation renewal on the other.
The county’s “wish list” from which projects will be selected contains much-desired DeKalb projects, including a $1.1 billion rail line from MARTA’s Lindbergh Center station to the Clifton Corridor and Emory University area; a mass transit line along I-20 from the existing MARTA system to Candler Road; a rebuilt interchange at I-285 and Bouldercrest Road; and dozens of other projects.
Angelo Fuster, a communications company owner with deep roots in DeKalb and Atlanta politics, said there will be some voters who simply don’t want any new tax, or who have no faith in government’s ability to run the program.
“In addition to that, you’ve got to come up with a message that reaches across racial and economic and ethnic lines so that people feel justified in supporting a tax,” Fuster said. “And that’s not easy.”
For those pushing for the referendum, Fuster said the project list will be essential.
“I guess you have to figure out if what we’re getting in return is worth it,” said Rob Augustine, a DeKalb resident who commutes to Kennesaw for work. “But on the face, it looks like DeKalb and Fulton are paying double for transportation that affects and benefits the region.”
DeKalb County’s 1 percent sales tax could raise about $1 billion over the 10-year run. The county alone has submitted $1.4 billion in project suggestions on its own, and there are other projects submitted by cities within DeKalb and by MARTA.
On top of getting a number of road improvements, DeKalb officials hope to use this opportunity to get their sidewalk problem fixed. There are approximately 250 miles of street in that county with no sidewalks, said Ted Rhinehart, DeKalb’s deputy chief operating officer for infrastructure. There are also miles and miles of streets that have sidewalks on only one side.
Once the final project list is chosen, some voters might need persuading.
Augustine said he would lean toward voting for the referendum but thinks many of his neighbors will take issue with paying the additional penny, on top of the MARTA tax. The proposal would raise the current 7 percent tax to 8 percent.
John Steinichen, a DeKalb County resident, knows the additional tax he could end up paying might be spent in other counties, but that’s not what worries him. It is how the projects that get funded are chosen.
“How will we really know that this money is distributed fairly?” asked Steinichen, who said he might vote against the referendum. “There isn’t enough oversight by the general public; it’s just politicians.”
By the time the public votes on the tax, a “roundtable” of 21 elected officials will have chosen the list of projects to be built with the money. The 2010 law that set up the transportation referendum also created a citizens’ review board to watch over the program.
He also thinks it is time for more counties to share the cost of MARTA, which benefits people coming in from other counties. “Everybody should pay for what they use,” he said.
The 2010 law also directed the Legislature to look into creating a regional mass transit agency. In spite of pleas from DeKalb and Fulton officials, the Legislature did not create such an agency this past session. A House leader in charge of the effort pledged to do so next year. It’s unclear whether that would ease DeKalb’s and Fulton’s MARTA burden.
Some observers think the county’s north-south divide might play a role in the vote.
“A lot of the folks on the northern side of the county are not dependent on MARTA, certainly not on the bus lines,” Fuster said. “What you’re talking about is, do we want a wider road or do we want another MARTA station? You can see those are competing interests.”
In interviews, many DeKalb residents said they want to know more about the projects being proposed, and the referendum, before making up their minds on the measure. A multimillion-dollar campaign is set for next year to educate the public about the referendum, and the Atlanta Regional Commission is planning public hearings to address concerns.
“There are definitely several traffic issues I can point to, especially around Womack and Tilly Mill,” said Michele Reid, who lives in Dunwoody and works in Stone Mountain, “but I would want to really understand more about the proposal before I lean one way or another.”
Reid said she would have concerns about paying an extra penny to help other areas in the region if there was no benefit for DeKalb.
But Bill Armstrong, who lives in Chamblee, said he might support the tax if it meant creating a truly regional transportation system.
“I consider all of metro Atlanta where I live,” he said, “and because of that, we need a better way to get around.”
Armstrong said a regional system not only would alleviate many of the region’s traffic woes but would make the region stronger in terms of economic development.
“We’ve got to start looking at things from a big-picture view,” he said. “Piecing this transportation thing together isn’t going to cut it, and we can only add so many more lanes to streets and highways, which only makes the problem worse.”
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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 ajc.com/go/transportation to see which projects hit closest to home and which have regional effects.
Staff writers Ariel Hart and Johnny Edwards contributed to this article.
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