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Transportation referendum face a tough sell

In this July 9, 2012, photograph made using a long exposure,  traffic moves along Interstate 75 against the downtown skyline in Atlanta. When Georgia voters head to the polls on July 31, some of the state's political and business leaders claim they will be deciding no less than the future of the region for decades to come. Among the most contested races on the primary ballot is a transportation infrastructure referendum that would create a penny sales tax in 12 districts across the state, potentially raising billions of dollars to fund hundreds of projects over the next 10 years. But transportation has proven a controversial candidate, and the issue could be a hard sell in the weeks leading up to the election. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

In this July 9, 2012, photograph made using a long exposure, traffic moves along Interstate 75 against the downtown skyline in Atlanta. When Georgia voters head to the polls on July 31, some of the state's political and business leaders claim they will be deciding no less than the future of the region for decades to come. Among the most contested races on the primary ballot is a transportation infrastructure referendum that would create a penny sales tax in 12 districts across the state, potentially raising billions of dollars to fund hundreds of projects over the next 10 years. But transportation has proven a controversial candidate, and the issue could be a hard sell in the weeks leading up to the election. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

ATLANTA (AP) -- When Georgia voters head to the polls on July 31 to weigh in on a proposed regional transportation sales tax, some of the state's political and business leaders claim they will be deciding no less than the future of the region for decades to come.

Among the most hotly debated questions: A transportation infrastructure referendum that would levy a penny sales tax in 12 districts, potentially raising billions of dollars to help pay for hundreds of infrastructure projects across the state over the next decade.

Supporters say the projects would add jobs, reduce congestion around Atlanta and fix aging sidewalks and bridges in rural communities. The plan has been endorsed by Republican state leaders including Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston, in addition to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat.

"If we don't do something substantial, our competitiveness as a region and as a state is going to be significantly harmed," Reed said. "If we want to have the kind of growth and success we've enjoyed over the past decade, we have to have rail, road and transit."

Critics blast the plan -- the first statewide referendum in Georgia history -- as not only the heftiest tax proposal in state history, but as a false strategy that they say addresses neither sprawl nor smart growth. The showdown pits power and money against an unlikely grassroots coalition, and could have economic, legal and political implications.

Supporters are bankrolling an $8 million ad campaign to push the referendum. Opponents have spent little, but say they aren't the ones who need to fund their case.

"If we can't trust them to spend our tax dollars wisely now, why are we going to give them more?" said Georgia Tea Party Patriots state coordinator Debbie Dooley, who opposes the tax. "They're trying to sell voters a pipe dream."

If passed in all 12 regions, the tax would generate more than $18 billion to pay for transportation projects statewide over the next decade. But the referendum is really a dozen separate regional elections.

The vote is all-or-nothing in each of the multi-county regions. If a majority in a region votes in favor of the referendum, it passes there -- even if other regions defeat it. So two regions could approve it and 10 could reject it, and referendum money would still flow to those two regions that voted "yes."

Regions that do not pass the referendum get nothing. Revenues would not be shared across regions.

Early voting in the primary election began Monday and ends July 27.

Regional commissions gathered public input for months before coming up with local project lists of varying scale and budget. For instance, more than $112 million would be used to reconstruct the interchange of Interstate 285 North and Georgia 400. Another $59 million would help pay for a widening project in the heart of the state that officials say would boost economic development and regional employment.

The stakes are highest in metro Atlanta, the region which stands, by far, to gain the most if the tax passes there. Supporters estimate an economic impact of more than $8.4 billion between 2013 and 2022 if the tax is approved. The second-highest economic impact would be in the Savannah area, at $1.6 billion.

Supporters in metro Atlanta have launched an $8 million campaign with the motto "Untie Atlanta," and are making an emotional appeal to road-weary commuters by saying their time in traffic is keeping them from their families and diminishing their overall quality of life. In contrast, groups like the tea party, the state NAACP and the Sierra Club -- which are all opposed to the tax -- have been using e-mail and social media and latching on to town hall meetings to get their message out.

"We've been taking advantage of any public speaking opportunity we can get," said Neill Herring, a lobbyist with the Sierra Club. "They've got a bad idea to put over and I just don't think people are going to bite. I've encountered very little grassroots support for it."

Georgia NAACP President Edward DuBose said the projects were decided with little input from African-American stakeholders.

"Black contractors were not included in a meaningful way," DuBose said. "We did not see a genuine effort to reach out to the African-American community. We didn't see African-American representation on the roundtables that has been assembled across Georgia."

Dooley said the tax actually takes away local control from counties and that the projects are fiscally irresponsible and do not address traffic congestion. She added it is out of step with conservative principles -- a factor that could weigh heavily during an election dominated by Republican primary candidates.

The point was not lost on supporters, including Democrats, who attempted to move the referendum to the general ballot in November -- which features an incumbent Democratic president -- to increase its chances for success. Many Republican legislators who voted to approve the ballot measure in 2010 have been mostly silent on the issue this year, perhaps not wanting to jeopardize their own political fortunes.

Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce President Sam Williams acknowledges he and other supporters face an uphill battle with voters.

"It's going to be a tight election, because I think the economy is such right now that people are very concerned about any kind of financing," Williams said. "They want it proven to them that the traffic relief and the jobs are going to come out of this."

The 10-county metro Atlanta region stretches from Cherokee to Fayette counties and includes Gwinnett, DeKalb, Fulton and Cobb counties -- among the state's most populous. Williams said the jobs created from construction alone could create up to 70,000 jobs over the next decade.

And he said traffic has been the Atlanta area's greatest handicap in attracting companies.

"Tampa, Charlotte, Denver, Dallas ... they all hope we lose because they see Atlanta as an economic capital," he said. "The competition has been taking advantage of this."

Lose now and the state isn't likely to get another shot at tackling its transportation woes for years to come, Williams and other warn.

"It took all of these years to pass the legislation," said Williams, who pointed out that the last time there was a multi-county referendum was in 1971, when Fulton and DeKalb counties narrowly approved the MARTA transit system.

"I don't think there's going to be any appetite for another referendum," he said.

Comments

kevin 2 years ago

"state's political and business leaders claim they will be deciding no less than the future of the region for decades to come." This is just one example of the reason we will vote NO. These idiot politicians trying to tell us what's best for the region. Ha. Why wasn't it built right in the first place. They are dying for our money and lying all the way to the bank.

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skygirl 2 years ago

Just VOTE NO!!!!! No more taxes!

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TiredTaxPayer 2 years ago

Send the State a message that no longer will we vote for taxes they can spend the way they want. One Senator even said that he has always done this and still gets elected every election! HE is not up for election this year but will be soon . Please remember this arrogance and vote your conviction.

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Karl 2 years ago

@ TiredTaxPayer

You are wrong. The senator to whom you refer is Don Balfour, right here in Gwinnett County. ALL state senators and ALL state representatives are up for election this year. There is primary opposition to Balfour on July 31. This is the election to boot him from office. Since Balfour's district is heavily Republican, the Republican primary is the place to defeat him.

If he makes it out of the primary and to the general election in November, Balfour will defeat the Democratic opposition.

Defeat Don Balfour in the July 31 Republican Primary.

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R 2 years ago

Here Here! (right here too)

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dentaldawg83 2 years ago

sad part about this, is by itself this would be a pretty good investment for the region, but when you factor in the many fees and taxes most of us already are forced to pay, adding another penny to the sales tax becomes too much...if the feds, state and county officials would give us taxpayers (you know, the folks who are footing the bill for everybody else) a break we could invest a lot more into our region. add the fact that the last few gubment projects (I-85 debacle, etc) and there is very little trust in the decision makers now..

still a resounding no from me..

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CD 2 years ago

It seems to me that if we do not have the infrastructure to support current economic activity, then we do not have the infrastructure to support additional economic activity as a region. If this is the case, then infrastructure must improve or the metro region should shrink to fit the infrastructure in place.

I don't believe T-Splost is the answer. Our politicians blew a major part of the answer years ago when they purchased land ahead of the taxpayer for the outer loop and the project died in controversy.

I set a goal to convince 3 people per day to vote against this fiasco and have met that goal much of the time. I believe it's time to hike the gasoline tax and that will put the Gluttonous Heathens on record which they don't want.

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Don 2 years ago

Technology is moving the large corporate office environment into the grave. There is really no reason to have people driving into offices everyday.

I do not see the metro counties gaining manufactoring type jobs, these most of the time go to rral areas.

Why do we not look at getting our internet infrastructure up to speed with Asia and then we will reduce the amount of cars on the road leading to decreased oil dependance.

Lets use the technology that we have advanced to and stop thinking how to solve traffic issues. We really need to focus on the work at home with video conferencing and other technology that is here.

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Dubbin 2 years ago

Nail on the head Don! Exactly.

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JohnGalt 2 years ago

Don,

Not only that, but rail will become completely obsolete in 50 years as auto-type transportation vehicles will become smart vehicles as you jump in, enter your destination coordinates, and you're off and on your way reading your paper, drinking your coffee, returning phone calls as you go to your meeting, all the while the vehicle is making all of the decisions on route, traffic flow, navigation of intersections, etc. Traffic lights will become an unnecessary item as well as all vehicles will be able to communicate with the intersection and one another to automatically select which vehicle has clearance to proceed through the intersection and can do so at breakneck speed because the timing is such that a collision is not possible. This stupid transportation initiative will be completely obsolete by the time it is implemented by people and politicians who have the vision of a blind person. All you have to do is a little digging to find out whose pockets are lined if such a transportation initiative is passed. Besides, look at the HOT lanes, the Georgia 400 Extension, etc. and see that the money is never enough. And for all the political promises in the TSPLOST initiative, so many of them are funded just enough to require a vote for an extension to move it past Phase 0 when there are at least 10 phases of deployment.

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CitizenX 2 years ago

I just wish we could vote on the individual projects instead of a lump sum vote. There are projects on the list that will not help anyone except property owners (Beltline anyone?). How will improving roads at the port in Savannah help traffic in Atlanta? How will a trolley that goes half a mile help traffic? I vote NO. While wideing 20 in Gwinnett County would seriously help traffic, Atlanta projects that "create jobs" do not. And don't let the ads fool you...yeah, this tax will create jobs, but not for 10 years.

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kevin 2 years ago

after reading all the pros/cons, and people's comments, I will vote NO.

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YouMustBeKidding 2 years ago

In the article it states.. Supporters are bankrolling an $8 million ad campaign to push the referendum.... Uh, why not DONATE that money to have roads fixed instead of paying for ads and such? Hello? Doesn't it make you wonder WHO are the persons who are wanting this tax passed and how much money they expect back if they put $8 million INTO it? Surely not just $10 Million.... right??? YOU MUST BE KIDDING!

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slumlord 2 years ago

"traffic has been the Atlanta area's greatest handicap in attracting companies." Such lies

Georgia ranks 3rd in nation for Infrastructure & Transportation in 2012 Business Rankings.

http://www.cnbc.com/id/46413842/

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JohnGalt 2 years ago

Thanks slumlord! Great catch!

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teelee 2 years ago

Vote yes and pad some pockets! Don't we pay enough in fuel tax and toll roads? What about the federal money? Enough is enough!

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kevin 2 years ago

are we letting the politicians turn us into another mob-controlled Chicago? Let each county tax its own development. Our sales tax rate will soon hit 8% if this BS keeps up.

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rco1847 2 years ago

VOTE NO on SPLOST and demand an end to EZ PASS which is just anoher tax making us pay for a road we've already paid for. We don't trust elected officials with any more money.

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