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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72 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."

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

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 !!!!

thePrinter
thePrinter

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.

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.

Jon Sinton
Jon Sinton

This is a sad, no, tragic, story. It is unfortunate on so many levels. The only shining prospect here is that Maria Sapporta's analysis, and journalistic presence in Atlanta, continues. 

SpaceyG
SpaceyG

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.

SpaceyG
SpaceyG

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.

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

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.

Sue_Stanton
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.  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.

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."

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.

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

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

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.

freemefromtraffic
freemefromtraffic

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.

Curious
Curious

I wonder who is paying her to write this story and what poll is she referring too?

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?

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!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Emily09
Emily09

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

TrueBlue
TrueBlue

What about the legitimacy of transportation referendum, Ms. Saporta? What about the 200,000 jobs it will create? What about the better future for our kids? Shorter commutes? New business opportunities? What about investing on our (Metro Atlanta's) future? What about all the much needed infrastructure improvements? And most of all, what about the better quality of life for Metro Atlanta families? To me and the REAL people whose lives will be changed by this vote, those are the issues that need to be talked about not who will receive the blames IF this measure isnt passed. This sounds a lot like the reporting done in Washington. We are real people, with real lives and not just pawns In your political games.

Midtown Dave
Midtown Dave

Man, the Reed sock puppets are amazing.  

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...

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...

Kevin_Feldt
Kevin_Feldt

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. 

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.

Kevin_Feldt
Kevin_Feldt

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. 

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

 @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.

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.

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

 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). 

Baker
Baker

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

Baker
Baker

 @Kevin_Feldt 

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

 @The Last Democrat in Georgia  @freemefromtraffic When you are right, you are right! The state legislature's wishy-washy nature and lack of spinal column are our most significant obstacles.

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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 […]