Sierra Club opposes transportation referendum

On July 31, voters in the 10-county metro Atlanta region will decide on a 1 percent sales tax for transportation projects. Most of the money would go toward a regional list of projects assembled by 21 county commissioners and mayors. The tax would run for up to 10 years and could represent the largest single infrastructure investment in the region’s history, more than $7 billion.

Just over half of the regional $6.14 billion list would go to mass transit projects, but transit advocates such as the Sierra Club wanted more. Club officials said they hoped that the referendum would fail this summer and then lead to a better plan passing later.

“We took a step back, and we looked at the entire project list and came to the conclusion that the benefits don’t outweigh the detriment that the list would cause,” said Colleen Kiernan, director of the state’s Sierra Club, which has 5,000 dues-paying members in the metro area. “If we’re successful and the referendum fails, we are committed to talking about Plan B and to get it started right away.”

The club cited a list of complaints, including insufficient transit funding on the list, lack of a regional transit agency, and legislative inaction hamstringing MARTA. They put forth a "Plan B" that would make gas tax revenues rise with inflation and use that money for more comprehensive transportation planning, including more mass transit.

The current referendum plan includes more than $3 billion for projects including a new train line to the Emory University area, long-haul mass transit to Cobb County, a Beltline transit leg and $600 million for MARTA upgrades. But it also would build new highway lanes, encouraging auto travel.

"I’m sure when this gets defeated, people are going to say, ‘Well, that’s because everybody hates transit,' " said Mark Woodall, chairman of the Sierra Club committee that took the vote. "We don’t think that’s the case," he said, but the club will poll voters to have data to support a new plan emphasizing more mass transit.

Some metro officials said that was unrealistic.

Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee put $689 million toward a mass transit line from MARTA to Cobb, and is now embattled because of it. He said of a more transit-oriented Plan B, “I don’t think it’s very likely at all.”

It was unclear Monday what the concrete result of the move would be.

Jeff DiSantis, a Democratic political consultant, said it's not fatal, but the Sierra Club gets right at the key group of voters that probably form the campaign’s base: intown Democrats.

“Having the Sierra Club out there saying it’s a bad list and people should oppose it is tough,” DiSantis said.

Kiernan said the club did not have plans for a major grass-roots campaign, but she expects to speak at public events such as a panel debate on the tax and a news conference to be held by tea party representatives.

Other environmental groups are politely disagreeing with the Sierra Club, or saying they don't have a position. Even on the Sierra Club committee that made the decision, opinion was deeply divided, according to people familiar with the club's decision. Woodall said the decision to oppose the transportation referendum was easy for him, and the majority was solid, 8-4.

Mothers and Others for Clean Air has not voted on a position but is “generally supportive” of the referendum, said Rebecca Watts Hull, its director. “We feel that while there are some things we don’t like on the project list, we believe it’s a step in the right direction.” Citizens for Progressive Transit issued a press release taking issue with the Sierra Club.

Debbie Gathmann, a Sierra Club supporter and director of the Kingfisher Academy in East Atlanta, said she questioned why anyone would think the politicians who have neglected transit up to now would deliver a better plan the next time around. “I think Plan B is a silly idea, I always did. I went to a bunch of their meetings about it, and I have been more than confused about how they actually think this could happen.”

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