An anti-TSPLOST sign is posted along a Georgia road.
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LAWRENCEVILLE — The voters spoke Tuesday with a clearly resounding “no” to a regional sales tax proposed to solve metro Atlanta’s transportation woes.
With 94 percent of precincts reporting, 63 percent of metro Atlanta voters rejected the tax, compared to 37 percent in favor.
The penny sales tax to pay for billions in transportation projects over the next decade was a draw for many voters in Tuesday's primary election. The issue was on the primary ballot in 12 districts around the state, with voters in each region deciding whether to levy the tax to pay for road and transit projects in their communities. Statewide approval was not required. The Atlanta region stood the most to gain.
“This was a victory for the people,” said Debbie Dooley, a Dacula woman active in the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots who emerged as a leader among a group of anti-tax organizations.
“Republican and Democrat voters said ‘Enough. You aren’t going to get any more money for us until we can trust you.’ ... It was a resounding defeat.”
With half of the counties still counting ballots just after 11 p.m., Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who helped lead an $8 million campaign promoting the tax, concerned to a coalition of opponents from tea party activists to the Sierra Club, who mounted a successful shoe-string effort pointing out flaws in the plan.
Reed, who crisscrossed the city in the final stretch of the campaign, conceded defeat late Tuesday but remained committed to the issue.
"I respect the decision of the voters, but tomorrow I'm going to wake up and work just as hard to change their minds," he told supporters at a rally.
In a statement, Deal also expressed disappointment in the outcome of the vote.
"Given state budget constraints, significant reductions in federal funding and the long time it takes to get projects completed, the rejection of the TSPLOST significantly reduces our capacity to add infrastructure in a timely fashion," the governor said. "This is not the end of the discussion; it's merely a transition point. There's a consensus among Georgians that we need transportation investment, and we must more forward by working with the resources available."
Supporters spent $8 million trying to convince voters that the plan would add jobs, ease congestion and improve the quality of life — making the campaign one of the most expensive in state history.
Critics, who spent far less, blasted the plan as not only the heftiest tax proposal in state history, but as a false strategy that failed to encourage smart growth.
According to unofficial results, more than 70 percent of Gwinnettians voted no, with the overall metro Atlanta vote about 63 percent in the negative as of 1 a.m.
From a solid anti-tax contingent to debates over the 157 projects designated for funding from the potential $8.5 billion the tax would bring in over 10 years, the arguments were heated and varied across the 10-county Atlanta region.
“I just don’t trust politicians,” Grayson man Phil Gaston said after casting his ballot.
Rick Johnson of Lawrenceville agreed, adding that the HOT lane conversion on Interstate 85 directly weighed on his decision.
“Since they took a lane away from us on the interstate, I’m not excited about giving them more money,” he said.
Proponents of the tax said that if the issue is voted down leaders could turn to raising the gas tax or more tolls on roads, but Johnson doesn’t believe that.
“I think it will lead to more fiscal responsibility,” he said of the movement by tea party activists and other groups to convince voters to say no.
The early returns showed less than a quarter of the votes in favor of the tax, which caused angst from business leaders gathered at the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce’s 1818 Club.
Businessman Perry Tindol said he wasn’t particularly surprised at the outcome, since the emotions have run so high.
“It’s a matter of trust and distrust,” he said. “There are not that many people that see the big picture.”
Seeing traffic as a big issue that needs to be solved, Myron Bullock of Lawrenceville said the proposal is the fairest way to fund projects.
“Everybody gets to share the pain,” he said after voting yes. “You are going to pay for it one way or the other. This way everyone shares because it’s a consumption tax.”
Despite their disappointment, business leaders quickly shifted to talk of a future solution.
“The chamber is disappointed the voters rejected the Transportation Referendum,” said Gwinnett Chamber President Jim Maran. “However, addressing our region’s transportation needs and funding is still paramount. We’re so pleased with the collaboration demonstrated by business and community leadership, leading up to this vote — it sets a wonderful tone for working together in the future.”
The referendum was years in the making at the legislative level, and many lawmakers touted the choice as one of local control for communities. Regional commissions gathered public input for months before coming up with local project lists of varying scale and budget.