To avoid campaign blame game, regional transportation sales tax proponents need another miracle

By Maria Saporta

If the regional transportation referendum fails on July 31, there will be lots of blame to go around.

Although it’s too early for supporters to wave the white flag, there is growing nervousness that the momentum is going the wrong way — at least according to the most recent polls.

Some are still trying to put on a happy face. There will be an onslaught of more ads in the last couple of weeks as well as targeted marketing. For example, I’m told they will soon start distributing materials that will emphasize the transit projects on the list (52 percent of the funding is slated to go to transit).

But for those who have been urging campaign leaders to appeal to transit-friendly constituencies, Democrats, African-Americans and intown dwellers (people who tend to be more open to taxes), it’s too little too late.

The most disturbing findings in the latest poll show more African-Americans oppose the tax than support it, and that the tax also is facing an uphill battle in Fulton and DeKalb counties — two jurisdictions that had been taken for granted.

So when finger-pointing time comes, there will be no shortage of finger-pointing.

One can start with former Gov. Sonny Perdue, who insisted that the vote occur during the primary election rather than the general election (guaranteeing a smaller voter turnout that likely would favor anti-tax constituencies).

It didn’t help that the bill that was passed had a poison pill against MARTA — stipulating that none of the revenues raised could go to its existing operations. No other transit agency in the state was saddled with that restriction — leaving a bad taste among MARTA supporters.

Fortunately, during the negotiations for the proposed $6.14 billion regional project list, $600 million was allocated to help bring MARTA to a state of good repair — a critical need for a rail system that is now more than 30 years old.

The project list, however, had a major omission — one that could be the reason if the tax fails — the lack of significant funding for a MARTA rail line serving South DeKalb. The list includes $225 million for express bus service to serve South DeKalb.

Because the list didn’t include enough money for rail, key African-Americans in South DeKalb have come out against the referendum — deflating any hope of a strong pro-referendum turnout in an area that could have held the key to victory.

Part of blame in this case belongs with both Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis.

Reed insisted that the Atlanta BeltLine project receive at least $600 million of funding in the project list. Had the mayor been willing to allocate half of the BeltLine funding to go towards a South DeKalb MARTA line, both projects would have had legs.

The BeltLine still would have had $300 million to begin building light-rail line on the corridor, and South DeKalb would have had $525 million — enough to make a rail a likely outcome.

Reed justifiably argued that he was involved in South DeKalb receiving $225 million. And he said it would not have been fair to decrease Atlanta’s share by diverting funds for the BeltLine to South DeKalb. Plus, he said the BeltLine is quite popular in the city.

On his end, Ellis was not able to get enough funding for a South DeKalb MARTA rail line. But Ellis was instrumental in getting the $225 million for premium bus service, and Ellis already has gone to Washington, D.C. to help secure federal dollars to turn that into a rail line.

Once the project list was set in stone, Ellis did not get as engaged as he could have in helping the Atlanta Regional Commission designate the South DeKalb line as a top priority — a move that might have turned the tide in the referendum’s favor.

The blame doesn’t stop there.

The campaign has been seriously flawed from the beginning.

Despite raising $8 million to sell the referendum, the marketing campaign — put together by the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the business community — never seemed to find its stride. Republican strategists were hired who designed a campaign that ignored transit while focusing on images of cars and highways as a way to appeal to the marginal suburban voter.

The logo featured a highway sign. The tagline — Untie Atlanta — was confusing. Opportunities to print and distribute bumper stickers or buy targeted billboard advertising or create a grassroots campaign to reach likely-yes voters were missed.

Late in the game, the campaign has realized that it has needed expert help to appeal to Democrats and African-Americans. But there’s still little evidence that new team members have had an impact on the campaign.

The latest television commercial featuring a white, suburban mom stuck in traffic still does not resonate with a pro-transit, urban, Democrat, African-American constituency. And campaign insiders said there are not television ads in the works aimed at appealing to those voters.

But the biggest problem with the campaign has been its inability to unite (not untie) the region with a inspirational vision for the future. Despite having 21 diverse elected leaders from all over the region unanimously adopt the $6.14 billion project list —some called that a miracle — the campaign seemed to create its own divisions.

As a result, its messaging has been muted and confusing — often seeming to be on the defensive rather than proudly playing to its strengths.

When some said the list had too much transit, campaign leaders became mute. They should have explained that this is the only viable source of funding for transit while several revenue sources exist for roads. So if all sources of transportation funding were to be included and if the tax were to pass, only 25 percent would be invested in transit over the next decade.

Surveys have shown that people want balanced investment in transportation. A good campaign could have emphasized the balanced nature of the project list.

Also other communities that have successfully passed transportation sales taxes (most with a greater emphasis on transit than in Atlanta), they have stressed that drivers who want easier commutes should support transit to get other cars off the road.

So far, the campaign reminds me of one in 2002 — when former Gov. Roy Barnes was running for re-election. Barnes had a $19 million war chest — the greatest in Georgia history — and the overwhelming support of the Atlanta business community.

But the money was spent mostly on glossy television ads that didn’t connect with voters — while then-candidate Sonny Perdue ran a “David versus Goliath” campaign that went door to door and spent its limited television dollars on an ad depicting “King Roy.” Perdue pulled off a win that surprised everyone — even Perdue.

The Atlanta region has another week or two to pull off another surprise — passing a regional transportation sales tax.

Rather than having to spread the blame, the Atlanta region could and should be celebrating another miracle.

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32 comments
Burroughston Broch
Burroughston Broch

@ JimDurrett Your comment summarizes why many people don't trust MARTA. If someone disagrees with MARTA, you brand them a "transit hater." So, there is no middle ground? Everyone is either a friend or an enemy? @ thePrinter You're right! The idea is to get the tax in place and then it never goes away. More taxes = more government = more intrusion. The most feared words in the English language are, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."

thePrinter
thePrinter like.author.displayName 1 Like

What useless projects! Many of which will take 20 years to finish. Thus, we could be saddled with this for many decades!!!  Alternative is quite simple! Raise the gas tax, which is lowest in nation!  You use the roads, you pay for them!  That is the American way!!! USE TAXES !!!!!  Yes, some go to MARTA and other mass transit dreams !!!!

Joseph Uncle Joe Hudson
Joseph Uncle Joe Hudson

When are we going to learn to use all of our assets to make change or drive success.  The Black business community brings something to the table and it is not a racism charge.  The Black community is ignored until the vote is needed but never included when project dreamers are dreaming.  So sad!  The Black community wants Atlanta to succeed.  In fact, part of the Atlanta reputation among Black people world over is the success of local Black Atlantans an appreciated but ignored fact that should be apart of the considerations when benefits are allocated.

SpaceyG
SpaceyG like.author.displayName 1 Like

So what you're saying here is... the old-school Chamber types can't do marketing in the Age of the Internets. Knowing how to power on a laptop might have helped. But as you say, too late now.

JimDurrett
JimDurrett

MARTA does not lose $500 million per year.  This is a myth begun by transit haters that keeps getting repeated because folks accept whatever is written on the internet as truth.  Steve Brown is among the worst of the those who use lies and cherry-picked factoids to make their points.  Look in front of you to see where we need to go, not through the rear-view mirror to see where we have been and assume the path is the same, folks.  Tom Weyandt's response to this article is spot-on.

Sue_Stanton
Sue_Stanton like.author.displayName 1 Like

All transit in this country must be subsidized.  In order for fares to cover O & M, riders could not afford to use the system.  Currently MARTA has run over $500 million in the red every year with billions of dollars in deferred maintenance.  Less than 4% of commuters in hte Atlanta area use transit, and the numbers are declining.

 

This debacle is also being sold as a better way to move goods through the area.  Please tell me how much better we will be able to move goods with the Beltline and commuter rail.  Goods pass through the area with heavy, cargo rai, over roads, and by air.

 

This whole mess needs to go back to the drawing board.  Transportation is for moving people and goods, not endorsing crony capitalism.

Kevin_Feldt
Kevin_Feldt like.author.displayName 1 Like

It is interesting that transit opponents continually espouse transit must have subsidies.  This argument alludes to the position highways are not subsidized.  While in fact, gas taxes only support approximately 30% of highway costs (both capital and O&M).  Until transportation is considered a utility, and all users pay for their infrastructure use, we all get a "free" ride no matter the mode we choose to use. 

Baker
Baker

 @Kevin_Feldt Weren't the highways always here? Sequoyah wrote about them I am sure.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @Sue_Stanton

 {{"This whole mess needs to go back to the drawing board.  Transportation is for moving people and goods, not endorsing crony capitalism."}}

 

I couldn't agree more.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @Sue_Stanton

 {{"Currently MARTA has run over $500 million in the red every year with billions of dollars in deferred maintenance."}}

 

Much of that is because MARTA just simply does not take in enough money at the farebox.

 

In a regional and statewide political environment where additional funding from the region or the state in the form of increased taxes is not likely to happen anytime soon, if ever, and is just simply not politically-possible, a high rate of recovery from the farebox just absolutely must be a dominant part of the funding equation, there's just no other way around that reality.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @Sue_Stanton

 {{All transit in this country must be subsidized.  In order for fares to cover O & M, riders could not afford to use the system."}}

 

If fares are not increased to cover much more of the cost of operations and maintenance, there won't be a system left to use.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @Sue_Stanton

 You are very correct that all transit in this country (and all over the world) must be subsidized.

 

But tax increases, and/or taxes of any kind, are not the only way to subsidize transit, but far from it as transit can be much more adequately-subsidized and better-funded with user fees (in the form of increased distance-based and zone-based fare structures), public-private partnerships or P3's (in which a partnering private investor finances up to 1/2 of the cost of the initial construction and continuing operations & maintenance of a rail transit line, like the kind that the State of Georgia was originally going to use to finance the construction of the I-75/I-575 Northwest HOT Lanes before cancelling it as P3's work much better for transit lines than roads) and Tax Increment Financing (property tax revenues from new development along transit lines). 

SteveBrown
SteveBrown

Ready2Drive,  most see the impact as negative.  Both sides agree something needs to be done, but where do you draw the line on cost efficiency - the main point of division.  Rail is the lowest "bang-for-the-buck."

Ready2Drive
Ready2Drive

I think people are not realizing how much of an impact this Transportation Referendum will have on the city of Atlanta.  This will have a lasting impact on the region for years to come.  Our roadways are in drastic need of repair and we need more light rail transit.  If people have more options to use transit they will use it.  Simple as that.  However, we have to begin to make investments in our transportation system to see a positive change.  We can't just sit idly by as the problem gets worse.

freemefromtraffic
freemefromtraffic

In fact it is the epitome of petty politics.  The problem is that people can't seem to separate their personal feelings about Reed from the issue and what needs to be done.

freemefromtraffic
freemefromtraffic like.author.displayName 1 Like

I just find it amazing that there is all this push back on this referendum but none of these folks have any alternatives or solutions to the problem.  And yes....it is a problem, a huge one.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @freemefromtraffic

And by saying that "none of these folks have any alternatives or solutions to the problem", I assume that you are talking about the Georgia Legislature?

 

 It's not the problem of any of "these folks" or anyone else in opposition to the referendum to propose alternatives or solutions to the problem, it's up to the Georgia Legislature to propose alternatives and solutions to the problem and it's up to the Georgia Legislature to execute, fulfill and uphold their constitutionally-mandated duties to do what's required to maintain and ensure the continued viability of the all-too-critical transportation network of this state and make sure it stays in good working shape.

 

By putting some very-critical transportation projects like the reconstruction of the I-20/I-285 West, GA 400/I-285 North and I-285/I-85 Northeast interchanges in a "transportation referendum" with controversial and politically-polarizing projects like the Atlanta Beltline (a very good economic development project, especially if funded only by the City of Atlanta) and rehabilitation of MARTA physical facilities, the Georgia Legislature has basically punted away their constitutional responsibility to manage transportation to the voters who have decided that they don't like what's in front of them as a whole and don't want to pay for it.

 

Just as the Legislature decided that they did not want to do their job and wanted the voters to do their job for them, it seems like the voters have also decided that they don't want to do the Legislature's "job" of funding critical transportation infrastructure projects and economic development projects of varying degrees of importance and questionability.

 

It's the State Legislature's job to deal with our transportation problems, not the voting public, because as we are witnessing, the public also reserves the right to decide that they want to wash their hands of the problem just like the Legislature has repeatedly done time and again.

Midtown Dave
Midtown Dave

The metro T-Splost campaign is the most expensive campaign in the history of Georgia.  The metro T-Splost campaign's is spending 8 million for only 10 counties in a primary election during the summer with an expected vote of around 350,000.  The 2002 Barnes spent 19 million for the statewide general election in November with over 2 million voters.  Barnes spent about $9.50 a voter.  The Metro campaign is reportedly spending more than $22 a voter.  

 

Barnes saturated every medium for months and the metro T-Splost campaign is barely on TV 3 weeks before the election, so the real question is: where did all the campaign money go?

Emily09
Emily09

A miracle is on the way!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Midtown Dave
Midtown Dave

Man, the Reed sock puppets are amazing.  

LBFree
LBFree

Let me see now, Mayor Reed was a co-sponsor of the legislation in the state senate, championed passage that created the chance for a vote, served on the roundtable and helped pass a 6.2 billion dollar project list unanimously, and helped raise funds to pass the referendum, and he is the person to blame? Yep, makes sense to me...

freemefromtraffic
freemefromtraffic

Maria, you know there would have never been more than 50% funding for transit had Mayor Reed not insisted on it.

amitchell
amitchell

This is the worst "reporting" on the referendum that I have seen!

 

SteveBrown
SteveBrown

It would be nice to quell the rhetoric on “miracles” and concentrate on intelligent land use and transportation planning, something the TSPLOST fails at miserably.  I have never before witnessed such a horrible attempt planning in all my life. 

 

This was planning by committee.  The committee became the vanguard for special interests who wanted a stimulus program rather than genuine traffic congestion relief.

 

A lot of good-natured people tried to gloss over the attempts of a few people, actively sidetracking a process to aid the average guy and gal stuck in traffic.  We got flawed ideology instead of hard and fast solutions.

 

The Atlanta Regional Commission as a support vehicle for sound planning has been a huge disappointment.

 

After we spend $8 billion, Mike Alexander, Chief of Research for the Atlanta Regional Commission, said, "The average commute time really doesn't change that much."  Oh well.

 

When asked how we would pay for the exorbitant future operations and maintenance costs for all the transit projects, Cain Williamson of the Atlanta Regional Commission said, “We don’t know.”  Billions of dollars in expenses and we do not have a clue where the money is coming from to meet the obligations?

 

The ARC’s models were skewed, badly.  Who is accountable?

 

The Metro Atlanta Chamber's "go-to" expert Chris Leinberger, who personally profits from transit-oriented-development business interests, finally came right out and said, "the goal of having a rail system is not for traffic relief, but for economic development."  At least he was honest.

 

An intelligent assessment of Mr. Leinberger’s concepts of walkable communities with immediate access to rail transit, when applied to the Atlanta region, reveals we would need to add over 2,000 miles of track and over 2,000 transit stations.  On scale, this is something akin to using all the federal transportation funds for the entire country just for Atlanta (and that does not include future O and M).

 

Our greatest need in metro Atlanta is for knowledgeable political leaders well versed in land planning and transportation (and there aren’t many to choose from) to rise to the top and create viable plans.

 

If we cannot change the back-door system of planning that currently exists, our citizens will continue to suffer.

 

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @SteveBrown

And I don't want to hear that fares can't come anywhere near close to covering the actual true costs of providing the service because if fares cannot subsidize most of, if not close to all, of the cost of providing the service then the existing fare structure is just simply not high enough.

 

And if private financing in the form of public-private partnerships (or P3's) and Tax Increment Financing cannot be utilized along with user fees in the form of an increased (combined zone-based and distance-based) fare structure to subsidize the full cost of the construction, operations and maintenance of a rail transit line, then the line is poorly geographically placed and just simply does not need to be built in the first place, like a certain couple of transit lines proposed to be financed with T-SPLOST funding (the Midtown-Cumberland light rail line and the Doraville-Gwinnett Center light rail line).

 

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @SteveBrown

 If reliable rail transit that is capable of providing true traffic relief and sustaining itself over the long-term is to be developed in the I-75 Northwest and the I-85 Northeast Corridors, then it should not be developed in a freeway right-of-way, but in an existing RAILROAD right-of-way where the immediate density of population and development exists to sustain a transit line over time without huge infusions of public money provided through neverending (and unsustainable) tax increases.

 

The existing CSX/Western & Atlantic railroad right-of-way (and its Georgia Northeastern Railroad spur that parallels I-575 into the North Georgia Mountains) is the best right-of-way in which to provide dependable and sustainable congestion-relieving rail transit service in the I-75 Northwest Corridor, NOT the I-75 and/or US 41 right-of-ways.

 

The existing Norfolk Southern/Amtrak railroad right-of-way that runs parallel to the west of Interstates 85 & 985 and the existing CSX (Brain Train) railroad right-of-way that runs parallel to I-85, US 29 & GA 316 is the best right-of-way in which to provide dependable and sustainable congestion-relieving rail transit service in the I-85 Northeast Corridor, NOT the I-85 right-of-way.

 

The state can partner with the freight railroads to expand the amount of freight capacity on the existing railroad right-of-ways, especially on the CSX/W&A line which as one of the absolute single busiest freight rail lines on the continent is virtually maxed-out in freight capacity between Atlanta and Cartersville, while partnering with a private third party investor to finance the implementation of new passenger rail capacity on those lines.

 

The project to dramatically expand the amount of freight rail capacity while could involve depressing some of the right-of-way of those lines through heavily-developed and densely-populated areas like, for example, through the historic Vinings village neighborhood area in Southeast Cobb County where the noise and conflicts with traffic at-grade railroad crossings from the very frequent passing trains can be a considerable nuisance.

 

Depressing the expanded freight and passenger rail corridor through some very densely-developed and populated areas, like through the densely-developed and densely-developed historic downtown and neighbor centers that line the CSX/W&A, NS and CSX/Brain Train right-of-ways, can eliminate those conflicts like noise and disruption to traffic at at-grade railroad crossings as well as create new greenspace and real estate opportunites in the abandoned railroad right-of-way on the surface above those depressed freight and passenger rail sections.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @SteveBrown

 The proposed Midtown-Cumberland light rail line that was proposed to run in the right-of-way of I-75 between Northside Drive and the Cumberland/Galleria area was a rail transit line that was poorly-placed in a freeway right-of-way and seems designed only to prop-up a declining Cumberland Mall and an even more steeply-declining Galleria Mall across the street.

 

While the as-yet not-clearly-described "I-85 North Transit Corridor" is a cover for a poorly thought-out and poorly-conceptualized light rail extension of the Northeast MARTA heavy rail line from the MARTA Doraville Station to Gwinnett Place Mall and Gwinnett Civic Center mostly by way of much of the right-of-way of I-85.

 

The I-85 Northeast light rail transit line is designed as a last-ditch effort to prop-up what at this point is an almost completely dead Gwinnett Place Mall and surrounding area and is a wildly-misguided attempt to buoy the fortunes of the Gwinnett County Civic Center (Gwinnett Arena, Convention and Performing Arts Center).

 

Rail transit lines that run almost exclusively in the right-of-ways of freeways are a really bad idea and often don't perform very well as they are not capable of generating a heavy amount of foot traffic, nor are they able to drive the type of walkable transit-friendly development of human scale that can generate the property tax revenues that can financially-support a line over the long-term through Tax Incremental Financing.

 

 

 

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @SteveBrown

 {{When asked how we would pay for the exorbitant future operations and maintenance costs for all the transit projects, Cain Williamson of the Atlanta Regional Commission said, “We don’t know.”  Billions of dollars in expenses and we do not have a clue where the money is coming from to meet the obligations?}}

 

At the very least, all of those transit lines will have FARE COLLECTION boxes on each train and bus (at least one would hope so anyway because with this bunch, you never know) and yet, whenever asked how future operations and maintenance costs would be paid for, they never seem to know where money for future O&M would come from, not even the slightest clue.

 

The fact that these geniuses don't seem to be aware that they can use, oh, let's say, the fares that they collect from each passenger to finance future operations and maintenance fees says everything that one needs to know about the "thinking" (or the total lack thereof) behind this extremely poorly thought-out T-SPLOST initiative.

SteveBrown
SteveBrown like.author.displayName 1 Like

 @The Last Democrat in Georgia BART in California has a much higher fare than MARTA and it helps cover the bottom line.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @SteveBrown

You're are very correct, sir.  BART has one-way fares up to $11.05 (up from $10.90 one-way last month) to ride from one end of the system to the San Francisco International Airport because intraregional travel options are very limited in the Bay Area with there only being two crossings connecting San Francisco and the West Bay with Oakland and the East Bay across San Francisco Bay making transit travel or travel of any kind a premium in a geographically-challenged region of roughly over 8 million people.

 

Heck, even the BART discounted rate of $4.10 for seniors, students, the disabled and children is nearly twice-as-much as MARTA's full one-way flat fares of $2.50 while the Long Island Railroad regional commuter rail line charges distance-based and zone-based fares of up to $31.00 one-way to ride from end of the system to the other during peak hours and regular one-way fares of up to $24.00 to ride from one end of the system to the other during off-peak hours.

 

Atlanta's geographical challenges to its transportation network are not nearly as dramatic as the Bay Area's, but Atlanta does still have to contend with an increasingly severely-limited surface road network and a freeway system that looks to be effectively built-out, both physically and politically, that is being utilized by a regional population of nearly six million that is double the amount of people and vehicles that it was intended to only handle.

 

And even with the infinitely more realistic fare structure, only 78% of the cost of O&M is covered by fares for BART (compared to only 32% of O&M being covered by fares for MARTA), which means that the rest of the cost of O&M for BART is covered by sales taxes and limited state and federal funding.

http://www.bart.gov/news/articles/2012/news20120614a.aspx

 

Continued and increased sales taxes, state funding and increased federal funding are not realistic options, politically, for financing transit upgrades and expansions in the Atlanta Region, which makes the implementation of revenue sources like private investment (public-private partnerships, etc) and Tax Increment Financing (property tax revenues from new development that pops up along transit lines) all the more crucial as means of financing critically-needed transit upgrades in North Georgia.

 

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  1. [...] to Readers: Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and his administration wanted an opportunity to respond to my Maria’s Metro column this week. In the interest of fairness, I am running the city’s response in [...]

  2. [...] was a link on facebook to a story about T-SPLOST, To avoid campaign blame game, regional transportation sales tax proponents need another miracle. (The spell check suggestions for T-SPLOST: T-LOST, SPLOSH) The story, and the reaction, was typical [...]