Sales tax vote: Too big to fail?

Atlanta Forward: The future of regional transportation

After four long years, business and political leaders last year finally persuaded wary legislators to let them ask voters to pay for a massive construction program intended to relieve at least some of metro Atlanta’s chronic traffic congestion.

That may have been the easy part.

With just over a year to go before the vote, an even greater threat may lie with 2.1 million voters in a 10-county metro Atlanta who never before have been asked to consider anything as a unified region.

The counties range from the still developing suburban jurisdictions with 100,000 residents such as Fayette to the many times larger urban behemoths of Fulton and DeKalb. What the people in these counties say they want from the $8 billion project — if they want anything at all — is as different as the counties themselves.

Unless these varying and competing interests can be molded into a consensus, the referendum faces a serious risk of defeat, an unthinkable outcome to business and political leaders who say there is no Plan B.

In the next couple of weeks, regional leaders will begin trying to assemble a list of transportation projects that will both ease congestion and appeal to enough voters to be approved.

Amanda Payton says good luck with that. Payton, a patient services coordinator from southwest Atlanta who works in Sandy Springs with colleagues from Gwinnett and Cobb counties, thinks the tax would be a good idea. But she struggles to understand how anyone can produce a plan that can possibly appeal to so many competing interests.

“You’ve got 10 counties, 10 different places, 10 districts,” Payton says. “If it’s one vote, it is not going to work because they’re too different. If it’s one vote, you’ve got to make everyone happy. And you can’t.”

For weeks, a team of Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters interviewed dozens of politicians, business people and voters in all 10 counties. Reporters found that many people had only a sketchy understanding of the referendum. They also found wildly varying levels of support and substantial skepticism, even outright opposition.

In Fayette County, sentiment about transportation issues is sufficiently strong that it recently helped unseat a County Commission chairman. And though Fayette is relatively small, the opposition there is joined by ambivalence in other counties.

In Cherokee County, homeowners’ association members bridled when a local representative who is helping shape the referendum talked about it. In Douglas County, residents told the AJC they feared the tax money would be spent inside I-285.

Many Gwinnett residents said they would support a sales tax increase for road improvements, or to pay for light rail to ease their horrendous commutes. But only 39 percent of Gwinnett voters in a recent poll said they would support the transportation referendum if the election were held today.

In early polling, a strong supportive vote in Fulton and DeKalb counties was the key to overcoming reservations in the closer-in suburbs and strong opposition in the more distant suburban counties. But in Fulton and DeKalb counties, mayors have protested the referendum’s setup, saying the burden of funding MARTA must be spread or the referendum may fail. A few elected officials there are already threatening open opposition.

The key supporters of the project don’t like to talk too much about the huge challenge of finding consensus. They express confidence that once voters see the project list — drawn up carefully and pounded home by a major ad campaign — they will see the wisdom of paying the additional 1 percent sales tax, which would cost $216 a year to a typical family, according to state economist Kenneth Heaghney.

“We think that this is one that’s going to be very difficult to win, but nonetheless we’ve got a team in place that can do that,” said Glenn Totten, a political consultant helping to lead strategy for the $6 million-plus referendum campaign.

Dave Stockert, CEO of Post Properties and transportation policy chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, which is organizing at least 70 civic and business groups in a campaign for the referendum, said the proposed projects would have a real impact on quality of life.

“And people will see that. People will say, ‘What is my time worth? What is my time with my children worth? The time I spend on my commute and just getting around?’ And I think people will make a favorable decision. At least I hope they will.”

And, besides, the project’s supporters say, the referendum is too big to fail.

“We don’t have a choice,” said Ed Ellis, a regional vice president with the transportation consulting firm Kimley-Horn. “We are so underinvesting in our transportation system that we’re getting just slaughtered by places like Dallas and Charlotte.”

According to a state study that helped push for the referendum, as of 2006 Georgia was investing less per capita in transportation than all states but Tennessee. Without new spending, metro Atlanta could forgo 250,000 potential new jobs over the next 30 years, it found. A top national relocation consultant said major firms are turning away from metro Atlanta because of its reputation for traffic congestion.

But on the way to compiling that crucial project list, there’s an obstacle course: 10 counties with varying transportation interests, a growing anti-tax attitude, resentment over the MARTA tax in the urban counties, and a resistance in some suburbs to mass transit.

Judging from the projects the counties and towns have asked for, pleasing the region means a lot of things.

For urban dwellers, it means expanded MARTA service and the intown Beltline transit ring. But it also means better paved roads, new stoplight timing systems, and fixing sidewalks and streetscapes.

Most communities wouldn’t mind getting sidewalks fixed, or added where there are no sidewalks — though such projects have a high bar to meet to be eligible.

For some suburbanites, it means new interchanges on I-285, I-85, I-20 or I-75 to get to work downtown or in neighboring counties and dodge the flood of interstate tractor-trailer freight traffic. Or it means wider suburban arterial roads or fixed bridges, just to get around the neighborhood better.

But for some, especially in the nearer suburbs such as Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton counties, it means new long-haul mass transit lines. For others in those same counties, that’s exactly what they don’t want, fearing it could ruin what’s left of their quiet communities.

Gwinnett County, which roundly defeated a chance to join MARTA in 1990, is a good example of how hard it will be to balance the wishes of commuters. The population has more than doubled since then, which means those MARTA naysayers have been joined by a flood of new residents, many used to riding rail transit in other cities.

Charlotte Nash, the Gwinnett County Commission chairwoman, knows her constituents as well as any politician. Nash, who serves on the group that will ultimately approve the final list, said the one thing she’s sure about when it comes to Gwinnett voters: “They are very divided.”

What little regionwide polling has been publicized, by the Livable Communities Coalition, showed that the referendum could pass, barely.

It showed it would fail in the counties on the outer ring of the region. In nearer suburbs such as Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton, it was close. In Fulton and DeKalb, it was expected to pass by solid margins. The question for all of them is by how much, and how much that will push the overall regional vote totals up or down.

No matter the vote result in one county, that county will have to live with the region’s decision overall, according to the referendum law passed in 2010.

That infuriates tea party adherents in counties such as Fayette and Gwinnett who have already voiced opposition to the tax.

It concerns other taxpayers in counties such as Cherokee, who are simply worried about their budgets. When the ballot goes before voters in 2012, at least eight counties will already be charging a voter-approved special additional sales tax for some other service, according to research by groups trying to pass the referendum.

“I wouldn’t want them to add an additional 1 percent on top of everything else that’s taxed,” said Deirdre Pegram, even though she commutes through congestion from home in Conyers to Chamblee for work as a government clerk. Between tolls on Ga. 400 and the gas tax, the transportation system should make do, she said. “I’m in school full time and I work full time. Anything extra would be too much.”

Mark Rountree, a veteran metro Atlanta pollster, notes that some recent county sales taxes have passed by razor-thin margins. Cobb’s passed in March by 90 votes. “If the vote were held today, I don’t think this would pass,” Rountree said.

An intense, nontraditional political campaign can turn that around, he said. Proponents intend to wage such a campaign, focusing on individual communities within the region and getting representatives of those communities to advocate with those voters.

If anything unites the region, it is the amount of travel metro Atlantans do everywhere. Census estimates vary, but new ones using state labor data show that in every county in the region, a majority of the jobs are held by people who live outside the county, often commuting suburb to suburb. According to those data, 71 percent of Douglas County workers come from outside the county, as do 67 percent of Fayette workers, 56 percent of Cherokee workers, and 81 percent of Clayton workers. On the flip side of that statistic, every county but Fulton exports a majority of its workers to jobs outside the county, with somewhere between 48 percent and 80 percent of each county’s residents leaving the county to go to work.

That’s a big selling point for negotiators on the project list such as Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee, who sits on the “roundtable” that is putting together the all-important project list.

“Half the folks in my county leave the county to go to work — are going downtown or over the Perimeter,” Lee said. “So if I can demonstrate to them the investment in this program will help their commute times, both to and getting home ... I think they’ll support it.”

Many residents of counties on the outer ring of the region not only see no need for mass transit, but even for road projects, if it means a tax.

“We have some resentment for it,” said Herb Frady, commission chairman of Fayette County, which no interstate crosses.

Frady believes the best case to make to Fayette voters is one that the Atlanta Regional Commission has urged people to avoid: that the county may contribute $200 million toward the tax over 10 years, so it should get that much back in projects.

At a recent meeting where local officials on the roundtable attended, a few chatting at lunch agreed that what makes the job hard is knowing what the people want. They’re awaiting results of private polling being done to gauge the popularity of specific projects, which will help shape the final list.

“Because you’re still constrained by what the people are willing to vote for,” Nash said. “And figuring that out — there’s nothing to compare it against.”

Staff reporters Christopher Quinn, David Wickert and Steve Visser contributed to this article.

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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.