Unity behind transportation tax? Don't count on it

Metro Atlanta's $6.14 billion transportation plan is set in stone and voters from the 10 counties that will benefit are being asked to raise sales taxes to pay for the plan.

. But elected leaders are not falling in line behind the plan.

Some well-placed local-level officials say they'll encourage their constituents to shoot the 1-cent tax down. While there will be heavyweights campaigning for it, such as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, who chaired the roundtable of locally elected officials that unanimously approved list, others say they'll speak out against it, or withhold support.

Local elected officials' support is considered crucial to convincing disparate communities to raise sales taxes to fund multimillion-dollar projects outside their borders over a 10-year period.

It's clear now that the objections by some leaders were more than just negotiation rhetoric.

“I’m a fiscal conservative who wants to see highway improvements, but doesn't want to waste excessive amounts of money,” said Fayette Commissioner Steve Brown, who thinks his county would be better off with its own transportation tax. “I can’t approve it. I would tell (voters) the same thing. They shouldn't vote for it.”

A June vote will determine if the transportation plan, a mix of road construction and public transportation projects aimed at easing traffic congestion throughout the region, goes forward.

Earlier this year, in a Georgia Municipal Association poll of 609 mayors, city council members, city managers and city clerks across the state, 40 percent said they didn't think their region would approve a penny transportation tax if it were held then. Thirty percent said their region would support a tax and 30 percent said they didn't know.

Across metro Atlanta, more fissures are showing among commissioners, mayors and council members.

Opposition remains in Fulton and DeKalb counties, which already pay a 1-cent MARTA tax and have a combined 41 percent of the region's registered voters. There's also hostility in Cobb, which spawned an anti-rail movement. In far-flung Henry County, the mayor of Stockbridge charges that the plan doesn't do enough for his community to justify the tax.

Without regional cohesion, the referendum has little chance of passing, said GMA's Amy Henderson.

Failure could send a nationwide signal that metro Atlanta can't address the gridlock between suburbs, job centers and the city core that threatens to stifle economic development. Counties and towns would miss out on$1.1 billion for smaller local projects.

“Even if you weren't on the roundtable, transportation affects your community,” Henderson said of elected leaders. “These county commissioners and city officials are the most knowledgeable about what’s at stake and what can be lost.”

Roswell Mayor Jere Wood is among the Fulton and DeKalb mayors demanding the state create a regional transit authority to control funding, and unless that's done during next year's legislative session, Wood said he can't support the tax.

Other leaders said they're torn.

Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos said the final list only gives her city a $10 million down payment on her top request, the $40 million widening of Hammond Drive. It also includes a $50 million project to widen Piedmont Road and run bus rapid transit from the Lindbergh MARTA station to Atlanta city limits at Wieuca Road, but not $46 million to run the service on to the Perimeter Mall area.

"Why not take people somewhere?" Galambos said. "To me, it's a bridge to nowhere."

Atlanta City Councilman C.T. Martin, who chairs the council's transportation committee, said he's undecided . Martin said he's troubled that Atlanta could be left with a 9-cent sales tax, one of the highest in the nation, and that so much of the list is for roadwork. Fifty-two percent of the list is for mass transit.

Southside leaders remain defiant against a project selection process, laid out by a Republican-controlled legislature, which they feel marginalized urban areas.

"We all recognize what the repercussions are, but we're not getting our fair share," said south Fulton Commissioner Bill Edwards, who says he'll be speaking out against the tax at town hall meetings and listening sessions.

DeKalb County Commissioner Lee May had promised to oppose the tax if the final list didn't include full funding for the I-20 rail project. The draft list included the first $225 million for the project, which would cover engineering work and add bus routes along the proposed line between the Indian Creek MARTA station to Wesley Chapel Road. It would take another $297 million to build a train line on that 5-mile stretch, which was to eventually expand along the interstate to Stonecrest Mall.

"They made the decision for the south and southeast part of this region to be left behind for the good of the overall region," May said. "My constituents know that, and they're not going to vote for something they don't get any direct benefit from."

Not everyone was left so disgruntled. Other leaders, such as Clayton Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, said they're happy with the final list and will tell people to vote for it.

The list gives Clayton a chance to widen its traffic-clogged main artery, Tara Boulevard, revive bus service and make the long-anticipated Atlanta-Clayton-Griffin rail a reality.  The list calls for $20 million to finance a feasibility study of the rail.

That money is coupled with financial commitment from neighboring Spalding County and officials in middle Georgia. As a result, Bell said he plans to apply for federal money earmarked for community rail “and stand ready to put up the matching money to get it."

Cherokee Commission Chairman L.B. "Buzz" Ahrens, also backing the tax, said Cherokee will put in $280 million over 10 years and get a 96 percent return, including $190 million to widen Ga. 140 and $7 million to replace the Little River bridge.

Rockdale chairman and chief executive Richard Oden said he will encourage not only his county's 95,000 residents to vote for next year's referendum, but other regional residents as well.

The region's smallest county, Rockdale fared well in getting traffic issues addressed, Oden said. He cited several key projects such as the $20 million widening of two-lane Sigman Road into a four-lane thoroughfare that will help not only Rockdale but also Walton and Newton counties.

Over in Henry, Stockbridge Mayor Lee Stuart is dead-set against the list. A project that would have created better access to Henry County Medical Center was removed at the last minute, leaving no real direct route to people coming in from the northside who need to get to the hospital quickly in emergencies.

“You can say regional all you want, but once you drive down into our neck of the woods, wouldn't you like to have access to the hospital?” Stuart said. "I’m encouraging people not to vote for it."

Staff writers Janel Davis and April Hunt contributed to this article.