Referendum doubts linger in a growing Southside

Some question benefits of a plan that critics say shortchanges the area

No formal opposition exists on the Southside to defeat a one-penny sales tax referendum for transportation, but area residents are questioning whether it offers enough to benefit them.

Critics of the plan, expected to bring in $6.1 billion over 10 years for regional transportation projects across 10 counties in metro Atlanta if the region’s voters approve it next year, say it is shortchanging Clayton, Fayette and Henry counties and the southern section of Fulton County, providing only about 12 percent of the total revenue to that area. They say that’s too little to fix the Southside’s existing transportation problems and pays little heed to growth expected to outpace the overall region in the coming decades, and their discontent could endanger passage of an already hotly contested referendum.

“The primary focus has been on the Northside, and the Southside has continued to grow and grow,” said Locust Grove resident Sheri Standard, who spends two hours a day commuting to and from her job in downtown Atlanta. “It’s almost like they’ve waited too late to deal with some of the problems on the Southside.”

But Southside supporters of the transportation referendum, which is expected to provide more than $730 million to the area for improvements, say it is key to attracting businesses and jobs to the area.

The Southside — led by Henry and Fayette counties, which are projected to be two of the three fastest-growing counties in metro Atlanta — is expected to have a higher percentage of metro Atlanta’s population and jobs in 2040 than it did in 2010, according to projections from the Atlanta Regional Commission, with the availability of land and affordable housing on the Southside continuing to draw families and companies.

Heavy traffic

Drive across the Southside and you invariably run into traffic-choked corridors. In Fayette, commuters’ only access to I-85 is through south Fulton’s Fairburn, which is clogged with freight trucks. In Henry, commuters come to a standstill near the I-75/I-675 exchange. Then there’s Ga. 42, another Henry road jammed with trucks leaving warehouses.

Travelers in Clayton grow frustrated on Tara Boulevard, a main thoroughfare for people heading into Spalding County and points farther south.

Those are today’s traffic headaches for Southside commuters, and critics say many of them aren’t being sufficiently addressed in the referendum, or TSPLOST, that was established in the Transportation Investment Act. But with no other viable options on the table, backers of the plan say it’s at least a start. The Southside’s future traffic snarls will have to wait.

“I don’t think it’s possible to find the dollars needed to plan far enough in advance to solve the problems of the future,” said Kay Pippin, president of Henry County Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve got concerns that need to be addressed now, and this is the only plan on the table.”

Clayton Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin agrees.

“You look at other metro areas like Charlotte and Orlando, they’ve actually incorporated mass transit to help move along people,” he said. “The more you have in a county like Clayton and the larger your population becomes, we’re going to have to have transportation needs, especially in the northwest corner of Clayton. If you have more people moving in, you’re going to have to develop a way to move them around. The TSPLOST would help not only bring in business but help [move] people at a rapid pace.”

Spending vs. saving

Those arguments hold little weight for Rosa Barbee, who opposes the regional tax, which would help restart Clayton’s C-Tran bus service — a service she didn’t use when it existed and isn’t likely to use if it re-emerges.

“Taxpayers will be paying for [the bus service] but not using that transportation,” said Barbee, a Clayton resident for 11 years.

But Clayton Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said transit is a high priority for his county, and he cited a countywide referendum on the issue as evidence.

“They voted 70 percent on the return of transit in the last referendum,” Bell said. “I have no reason to feel they will be anything but positive toward the future of transit in Clayton.”

Barbee, though, said increasing taxes, especially in the current economy, is bad policy.

“We shouldn’t be spending money when we should be saving money,” she said. “Clayton is already in a deficit. What we should be doing is figuring out how to get out of that and bring businesses back to the county and increase property values.”

McDonough resident Joanie Scott, who tracks Henry County’s politics and related issues in a watchdog blog called proofofright, said many of the TSPLOST projects can be done locally without regional intervention or the extra tax. “They’re all road widenings,” she said.

Political fallout

Such sentiments as those expressed by Barbee and Scott have sparked a recent backlash from voters and general dissatisfaction among some Southside residents and officials.

A month after the referendum projects list was unveiled, voters in several Southside communities ousted politicians such as Fayetteville Mayor Ken Steele who backed the referendum, and they’re gunning for more in 2012.

Fayette County Commissioner Steve Brown, a vocal TSPLOST opponent, is critical of a formula that would send slightly more than half of the money raised for regional projects toward mass transit, a mode of transportation he says is used by only 5 percent of the region’s population.

“That’s insanity,” said Brown, who says the plan does nothing to address freight traffic, a nagging problem in northern Fayette and a vital part of the entire region’s commerce.

But supporters say the exact amount of money that will benefit the Southside is misleading because some projects will benefit multiple counties although the work may actually happen in one county. For example, improvements at Ga. 74 and I-85 will have an impact on Fayette commuters, but the project is in Fulton. And improvements at I-285 and Ga. 400 will help drivers on practically any part of I-285, ARC spokesman Jim Jaquish said.

Brown criticized the executive leadership of the regional roundtable that produced the projects list — including Henry County Commission Chairwoman Elizabeth “B.J.” Mathis — saying it has mortgaged the region’s future.

“A lot of what came out of the TIA stuff were scams and not investments,” Brown said. “And some politicians are going to pay a price for that.”

Mathis said improvements called for in the TSPLOST “are key to attracting new businesses and jobs to our region.” But she also says the current economy could make it difficult for the referendum to pass.

“As citizens are faced with unemployment and higher costs for things like food and clothing, they may not be amenable to paying another penny for the proposed improvements,” she said.

Staff writer Janel Davis contributed to this article.

Unmatched coverage

Throughout 2011, we brought you a series of stories examining what’s at stake for Atlanta and the 10 counties that decided to impose a new tax for transportation improvements. Our coverage continues today with a look at Southside.