Transportation vote: Game-changer or economic boondoggle?

Backers call it a game-changer; critics, a waste; reality is a bit more nuanced

This story is part of an ongoing series. For a pro-referendum website, go to . For one of the opponents' sites, go to

From Atlanta’s early days as a railroad terminus to its hearty embrace of freeways and the dominance of its airport, this region has always staked its reputation on transportation.

That’s why the July 31 vote on the 1 percent sales tax for transportation projects has the business community, with its Untie Atlanta campaign, tangled in knots. Business leaders argue that the referendum is a game-changer on the same scale of the airport, and that a rejection could send Atlanta tumbling from a national heavyweight to just another regional also-ran.

On the opposing side, critics of the plan warn that Atlanta is on the cusp of an epic, taxpayer-funded boondoggle.

The reality, according to analysts who assess cities’ competitiveness, is more nuanced. In general, they say that failing to pass the referendum won’t burnish Atlanta’s national cred, but neither will it be a doomsday scenario.

“It won’t make or break Atlanta. But it will put a dent in its armor. It will costs jobs. How many? I’m not sure,” said Dennis Donovan, a site relocation consultant based in New Jersey.

The question businesses and investors will ultimately ask themselves, he said, is: “Who wants to be in an area where you don’t do anything about this sort of issue?”

Chris Cummiskey, the head of Georgia’s economic development department, puts it this way: “If T-SPLOST doesn’t pass, it’s not going to be the end of the world for Georgia. But it’s going to limit growth for Georgia.”

Even the harshest critics acknowledge that adopting the sales tax will reshape the city’s transportation system for generations. The $6.14 billion regional project list would overhaul busy highway interchanges, fund mass transit projects and pay for road construction and improvements across metro Atlanta over 10 years. Another $1 billion would go to local governments for projects of their own choosing.

Business leaders haven’t been shy about their support, launching one of the most vocal and visible political campaigns in the city’s history. The nation’s business elite is watching the outcome they say, and the only ones who will benefit from a rejection are the rival cities that compete with Atlanta for business.

“Atlanta has always been willing to bet on the future. It bet on the future with the airport. It bet on the future with MARTA. It bet on freeways,” said Chris Leinberger, a land-use strategist and developer who is also a University of Michigan professor. “You are the transportation hub of the Southeast. And that’s why it’s so important. Not voting for this would be akin to not voting for the airport.”

Bill Cronin knows the ins-and-outs of the transportation predicament better than most. He’s a vice president for Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, but for years he worked in similar roles in South Carolina and Florida to lure businesses there. And whenever Atlanta came up, he said, the subject of traffic congestion soon followed.

A typical scenario would go something like this: A company might express a preference for Atlanta, say, because its executives wanted more immediate access to Hartsfield-Jackson airport. Not so fast, recruiters for the competitor city would reply: Any time you save by avoiding airport layovers will pale in comparison to the time you waste idling in Atlanta’s traffic!

If the transportation referendum fails, Cronin said, that line of argument will gain even more force.

“They’ll continue selling against us, but they’ll compound that message by saying that our community can’t get its act together,” said Cronin. As for the companies being recruited, he said, “they’re trying to look in a crystal ball at the future, and if they don’t feel we can get things done now, they probably won’t take the chance and invest here in the hopes that we can get it done later.”

However, others say this package of transportation projects won’t put the region on a firmer economic footing.

Wendell Cox, a former member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission who is now a public policy consultant, said the plan is fatally flawed because it pours 52 percent of the funding into mass transit, leaving less than half of the money for road improvements.

“If you go forward with this, traffic congestion will get worse and you’ll waste a lot of money. Passage of this portends a worse economic future for Atlanta, not a better one,” Cox said.

“Atlanta is a wonderful community, and the biggest challenge is terrible traffic congestion. And this will do absolutely nothing for it.”

Some also note that competitors who have rejected similar proposals didn’t suddenly wither. Voters in Tampa Bay’s Hillsborough County, for instance, failed to pass a one-cent sales tax in 2010 that would have funded the region’s first light rail routes. Yet Atlanta business leaders still consider the Tampa area a rival.

Whatever the result, outsiders are monitoring the outcome closely.

Take the Urban Land Institute. The group’s closely-watched real estate study ranks Atlanta near the bottom of the pack for commercial and multifamily investment prospects. But it calls the referendum “a potential game-changer” for the devastated real estate sector in the urban core. “Will antitax sentiment derail the city’s bid to fund necessary infrastructure?” the study’s authors ask. “Stay tuned.”

If the measure fails to pass, Atlanta will still have a host of business advantages, and business leaders will continue to pitch them: a low cost of living, leafy neighborhoods, warm weather, busy airport and access to Savannah’s booming port. And some scaled-back road improvements will move forward, though at a slower pace.

But Donovan, the New Jersey relocation consultant, said that in terms of its image, a “no” verdict will leave Atlanta a looking like an also-ran. “It’s a pretty serious situation. Atlanta’s one of the last major cities that hasn’t done much to attack congestion.”

With the vote just two weeks away, the referendum’s backers are hoping that appeals to the region’s competitive spirit can help turn the tide in their favor. After all, this is the city that emerged from the ashes of the Civil War to become a regional power, that grew into an economic stronghold even during the struggles of the Civil Rights movement and, against all odds, won the 1996 Olympics.

“People [in other cities] are counting on Atlanta not to do this,” said Brian Leary, the chief executive of the city’s ambitious Beltline project, which stands to get about $600 million if the plan passes.

“When we compete, we generally win. And [rejection] will send a message that Atlanta tried to compete but didn’t have the mojo or gumption to pull it off.”