Columnist: Atlanta Transportation Vote: Region Shoots Self in the Foot

September 3, 2012

By Neal Peirce

Atlanta's civic-business-political leaders are still licking their wounds over the shattering defeat that voters across their 10-county region handed them July 31.

Presented with a one-cent sales tax add-on to finance $6.14 billion of highway and transit improvements that had been painstakingly assembled and then unanimously approved by a bipartisan, urban-suburban roundtable last October, the electorate replied with a resounding 63 percent "no" vote.

The results threaten paralysis in a region already notorious for a mix of America's most severe highway congestion and most anemic public transportation -- a dangerous mix in a new global economy with competitor metro areas from Los Angeles to London to Seoul moving confidently forward with ambitious infrastructure expansion programs.

Backers encountered a "tsunami" of opposition, "a perfect storm of anti-tax fervor," says Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, who had earlier warned that failure to invest in transportation "would spell economic disaster for Georgia." The avalanche of opposition votes, Williams notes, was clearly not anticipated -- not by the referendum's broad array of business supporters, not by the measure's bipartisan political support team of Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat, and not by the consultant experts on nationwide referenda who had been hired (for about $8 million) to push the measure to victory. (Outside observers say the consultants made one dead wrong strategy call after another.)

In hindsight, some say the multibillion-dollar price tag just seemed too high for tough financial times. Others believe the 157 transit and roadway improvements were so splintered across the immense multi-county region -- home to half of Georgia's population -- that voters could hardly grasp their import.

Significantly, the ballot measure won a majority vote in Atlanta proper, ran close in inner counties, but was resoundingly rejected by further-out, virtually 100-percent auto-dependent counties. The ballot measure's significant 52 percent funding for public transit, serving mostly the inner counties, apparently stirred up rural Georgia's historically deep distrust and antipathy toward Atlanta.

Still, there's little doubt that the bitter anti-tax, anti-government sentiments of these times -- fed by tea party forces that pushed hard for rejection and later claimed full credit -- were a major factor.

An added factor was right-wing talk radio. Its impact, says Williams, "was very, very damaging," with disproportionate attention to opponents, focusing on negative "tax and spend" themes with "an exaggerated fear of not trusting government."

"Voters who rejected a regional transportation tax," the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, simply "didn't trust government to spend their money correctly."

Added to that, two potentially significant forces -- the NAACP and the Sierra Club -- refused to get on board, the NAACP opposing the measure because sales taxes hit the poor hardest and didn't extend Atlanta's MARTA rail system; the Sierra Club because the proposal didn't focus all its funds to public transportation.

What's sad is the array of improvements, crucial to the Atlanta region's future, that lost out. Historically and seriously underfunded, MARTA would have received $600 million for capital needs (though no assistance for its stressed operating funds). Several key road congestion points would have been addressed. And attention paid, notes Atlanta region transportation specialist Maria Saporta, to creating "complete streets" with sidewalks and bikeways that are natural complements for bus and rail transit.

The big negative vote does raise a question: Was the Atlanta business community, in alliance with Atlanta's Mayor Reed, correct in pressing the Georgia Legislature to create (in 2010) the new mechanism for transportation initiatives and votes in each of 10 regions across the state? (Three regions, including Columbus and Augusta, did approve their transportation packages July 31.)

Regional referenda have succeeded in other regions across America -- most notably Denver's 2004 vote for its successful "FasTracks" regional rail system. When Georgia approved its plan two years ago, this column hailed the idea of regional roundtables to select projects as an opportunity for robust local citizen debates.

But now I'm wondering: Voting on a single system like regional rail is one thing. Choosing from a list of competing projects is another -- more akin to the give and take of the legislative process, the unsightly (but necessary) "sausage making" that voters normally abhor but are obliged to accept.

What the Atlanta area's protracted transportation struggle has created, however, is extraordinary bonds and alliances linking the 500 regional businesses that endorsed the referendum with civic leadership and civil rights leaders including former Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and others.

Williams believes that coalition, in time, will find a way to press forward because "the severity of our congestion problem will, inevitably, change minds."

He may be right. But future prospects were immediately darkened when Gov. Deal ruled out a legally permissible repeat transportation referendum in 2014. More broadly, one suspects change to unshackle Atlanta from an abominable transportation future won't be remotely possible until today's virulent "me-first" tea party fever subsides.

Neal Peirce's email address is nrp@citistates.com.

(c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necesssarily those of the National League of Cities.