The 10-county, $7-billion metro Atlanta transportation referendum is set to be decided by voters next Tuesday. If passed, the plan will be funded for 10 years by a 1-cent sales tax. Even if your county votes it down, the measure still becomes law if a majority votes for it.
To call the referendum controversial is an understatement. To say passage is shaky is not.
I have heard from a host of anti-TSPLOST advocates, but no one from the proponents’ side. I called Bert Brantley, spokesman for the referendum, to see why he thinks you should vote for the transportation package. He told me there are three points he is trying to get across about the plan. First, he said, there will be strict accountability; a citizen’s advisory panel will be established and issue annual progress reports to the public.
Secondly, large portions of the transportation plan will be under local control. “There are a lot of badly-needed local projects — sidewalks, turn lanes, road improvements — that will be the responsibility of city and county governments,” he said.
And finally, Brantley said that if metro Atlanta is going to be competitive with other large metro areas in the future, we have to convince companies contemplating a move here that we have a plan to deal with our traffic problems.
As for the most controversial part of the plan — rapid transit — Brantley said there is nothing in the referendum that changes law and allows MARTA to expand outside its operating area of Fulton and DeKalb counties. Most of the $600 million contained in the referendum for MARTA is for capital improvements. As for some kind of regional transit system, Brantley said that would take legislative action.
Fayette County Commissioner Steve Brown, a leading opponent of the referendum, disagrees strongly. Brown pointed out that MARTA CEO Beverly Scott told lawmakers last year that even if the referendum passes, MARTA still faces $2.3 billion in unfunded maintenance needs over the life of the referendum.
“Who or what will pay for this?” Brown said. “It reminds me of Nancy Pelosi’s comment about the health-care bill: ‘Let’s pass it and then we will see what’s in it.’”
In Brown’s mind, there is no question that passing the transportation referendum will be the first step to imposing MARTA and its crushing debt onto all 10 counties. Brown cited DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, who told an Atlanta Regional Commission breakfast, “We need a regional system where everyone participates and everyone pays.”
Roswell Mayor Jere Wood told the Atlanta newspapers last fall, “A 1-cent sales tax would not by itself be enough to build the transit system we need, but the creation of a regional transit authority with regional funding would lead to a regional bus and rail system.”
Therein lies the problem with selling the referendum to the voting public. I take Brantley at his word, but he is dealing with a bunch of people so off-message that voters don’t know what or who to believe.
The referendum’s proponents only have themselves to blame if the measure fails. They have let opponents succinctly frame the arguments, and they don’t seem to know how to get the momentum back. One supporter said the pro-TSPLOST advocates are “tired.” It shows. Recent presentations have degenerated into hectoring, lecturing and finger-wagging.
One factor proponents have to deal with is that voters don’t trust politicians to do what they say they will do. Witness the many Republicans who voted for House Bill 277 authorizing the referendum and now are deserting it. If they liked the proposal then, why don’t they like it now? Forget their weasel-worded explanations; the truth is they have discovered that their constituents are upset with them. (Shouldn’t proponents have seen that one coming?)
Clearly, we have traffic issues in the region that need to be solved, but this referendum may be toast. It is losing public support daily. It is going to take one whale of an advertising blitz to resuscitate it by next Tuesday.
Frankly, I think this TSPLOST was dead on arrival. From the start, this has been a top-down effort by Atlanta-area business moguls, chambers of commerce and real estate developers that has generated little grassroots support. That always is a recipe for failure.
I would suggest the pro-TSPLOST crowd start thinking about a Plan B.
You can reach Yarbrough at email@example.com or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.