Atlanta transportation vote: “You pay it one way or another”July 16, 2012
By David Goldberg
It took three tries in the Georgia legislature for metro Atlanta to win the right to vote itself a regional sales tax to fix its transportation woes, and another two years of a grinding political process to come up with a list of 157 highway and transit projects that just might do the trick. Now comes the really hard part: Convincing the voters likely to show up for the July 31 primary election to vote for it.
A piece in the New York Times today lays out what is at stake:
For more than a decade [ed. note: make that two decades], Atlanta has been among the fastest-growing regions in the country, but the road and rail system in a state that ranks 49th in per capita transportation spending just could not keep up. Hourlong commutes are common, and more than 80 percent of commuters drive alone. … The approach is also an attempt to thread the political needle in an era when the recession and smaller-government sentiment have made any effort at new public spending, especially one with the word “tax” attached, a Sisyphean task.
A Sunday piece by the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Ariel Hart noted that, without the sales tax revenue, the region is likely to be so strapped for transpo cash that tolls are the only real option. As a consternated voter told her: ”I guess you pay it one way or another.”
A nice overview today by Streetsblog’s Angie Schmitt noted that, “An odd coalition of opponents has come together including the local Sierra Club, the DeKalb County NAACP and the Tea Party Patriots.” Coalition might be too strong a word; these groups aren’t actually working together, but they each have their reasons.
The Sierra Club feels that a few big highway projects, including an old bugaboo known as the Northern Arc (of a defunct proposed “Outer Perimeter”), make it a deal killer. They hope that Atlanta could follow in the footsteps of Seattle, where voters turned down a highway and transit referendum only to approve a transit-only measure the next year. Supporters of this month’s project list argue that the convoluted process for getting a vote almost certainly requires another trip through the legislature and a couple years’ delay, with very uncertain political prospects after that.
The DeKalb NAACP feels the county got short-changed by getting a rapid bus line rather than rail, among other concerns. And the Tea Party folks actually prefer a regional gas tax over a sales tax. While that might be a more responsible position than a reflexive “no taxes” stance, there are several problems. One is that the gas tax would have to be fairly stiff to raise the same amount of money as a penny sales tax. The other is that gas taxes are even less popular than sales taxes.
The biggest hurdle supporters face is the likely composition of the electorate, in a low turnout primary race where most of the contested races are among suburban Republicans. Support is strongest in the urban core within the I-285 beltway, but there are fewer reasons for those voters to go to the polls than in the farther-flung suburbs. At the same time, though, many of those suburban voters face some of the worst traffic, because their communities grew up almost overnight and the infrastructure has hardly kept pace. In a couple of weeks we’ll know whether they think a penny sales tax would truly, as the campaign ads say, “Untie Atlanta”.