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Column: Controversial T-SPLOST referendum on shaky ground
by Dick Yarbrough
Columnist
July 18, 2012 02:48 PM | 5266 views | 2 2 comments | 25 25 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Dick Yarbrough
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The 10-county, $8.5 billion metro Atlanta transportation referendum is set to be decided by voters on July 31. 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-SPLOST advocates but no one from the proponents’ side. I called Bert Brantley the other day to see why he thinks you should vote for the transportation package. Brantley, former communications director for Gov. Sonny Perdue, is spokesman for the referendum.

He told me that there are three points he is trying to get across to voters about the plan. First, he says, there will be strict accountability. A citizen’s advisory panel will be established and will 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 states. And finally, Brantley says 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 says there is nothing in the referendum that changes current law and allows MARTA to expand outside its current operating area of Fulton and DeKalb counties. Most of the money contained in the referendum for MARTA — $600 million – is for capital improvements. As for some kind of regional transit system, Brantley says that would take future legislative action.

Fayette County Commissioner Steve Brown, a leading opponent of the referendum disagrees strongly. Brown points out that MARTA CEO Beverly Scott told lawmakers last year that even if the referendum passes, MARTA will still face $2.3 billion in unfunded maintenance needs over the life of the referendum. “Who or what will pay for this?” the commissioner asks, “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 ten counties. Brown cites 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 Bert 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 pro-referendum proponents have only themselves to blame if the measure fails. They have let their opponents succinctly frame the arguments and they don’t seem to know how to get the momentum back. One supporter says the pro-SPLOST 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 HB 277authorizing the referendum and are now deserting it. If they liked the proposal then, why don’t they like it now? Forget their weasel-worded explanations. The truth is that 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 transportation 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 July 31. 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 is always a recipe for failure. I would suggest the pro-SPLOST crowd start thinking about a Plan B.

You can reach Dick Yarbrough at yarb2400@bellsouth.net or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Ga. 31139.
Comments
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wgmann03
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July 18, 2012
"If passed, the plan will be funded for 10 years by a 1-cent sales tax."

Keep in mind this is a 1 PERCENT PER DOLLAR tax (10,20,30 cents per 10,20,30 dollars) increase for a 10 year plan that has no guarantees that it will go through. A tax increase this at this magnitude is not necessary when we have slow economic growth and a state unemployment rate of 8.9%. The state needs to cut spending.

If passed, billions of dollars would be wasted just for research of the project that could possibly fall through. Lastly, years and years of construction would only cause worse congestion. The construction I-75 at Chastain and Barrett has been going on for over 3 years now, with about another year to complete.

Also, a lot of Metro Atlanta residents are still very bitter that the GA-400 toll was to be taken down once paid for, but was decided to stay up.

There are other solutions to decrease traffic flow away from Atlanta, and making the roads "better" is not a solution.
Hal Jordan
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July 18, 2012
The GA-400 toll critics were the first people this proposal addressed. The money goes ONLY to fund the projects on the finalized project list. By law, it can't go anywhere else. That's why the process to finalize the project list took as much time and as many private citizens as it did. But the author is correct. Proponents haven't done a good enough job educating people about it. I hate to say it, but it's not going to pass. There are many desperately needed huge projects on the list that I really wish could just get some funding. For example, the interchange at I-20 and I-285 on the west side, and the 285/400 interchange. And I really hope MARTA finally gets some state funding at some point. It is the bastard child of Georgia politics. All of their operating money comes from passenger tolls and federal subsidies, with almost nothing from the state, which is a real shame. But the people who think widening the roads is the only answer should really think about what they are saying. The Downtown Connector and the Northeast I-85 Expressway have up to SIXTEEN LANES in some parts, and traffic is still a nightmare. People and businesses need a real transit option or they will cease to move here. Them's the facts. I hope Atlanta can figure this all out one day. Too bad that day isn't in two weeks.
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