Nearly a year later, we are still confused about why we lost regional transportation sales tax referendum

By Maria Saporta

Although 11 months have passed since the regional transportation sales tax vote, the defeat still stings.

The Atlanta region has never been comfortable with failure — partly because it has enjoyed more than its fair share of successes over the decades.

So metro leaders seem hesitant to take a diagnostic look at what went wrong last July 31 during the primary election when voters in the 10-county metro Atlanta area defeated the transportation sales tax by a 68 percent to 32 percent vote.

But others believe that a failure is too important to waste — we must learn from our past so we can know what we need to do differently in the future.

We began to scratch the surface on this all-too-sensitive topic last week when the Center for Transportation Excellence held its 2013 Transit Initiatives and Communities Conference in Atlanta from June 23 to June 26 at the Loews Midtown hotel.

During a panel discussion called: “Lessons from Atlanta,” several talking points were presented.

“It was a perfect storm,” said Dave Williams, vice president of transportation for the Metro Atlanta Chamber — a key player in the fund-raising effort and the political campaign.

Panel moderator Williams (no relation to Chamber President Sam Williams) attributed the loss to the poor economy, a lack of voters’ trust in government, a first-ever regional referendum, no obvious champion for the entire region and a greater turnout than expected (675,000 instead of an expected 375,000).

“The trust issue was huge,” said Dave Stockert, CEO of Post Properties who chaired the fund-raising campaign. “Our project list was so big, it invited more distrust.”

Nathaniel Smith, CEO of Partnership for Southern Equity, said it was problematic to have the Sierra Club, the NAACP and the Tea Party oppose the referendum, albeit for different reasons. But he said that showed a need to have more people at the table.

Kathryn Lawler, who headed the community involvement effort for the Atlanta Regional Commission, said 191,000 people from metro Atlanta did participate on public forums about the project list , but nearly a year went by between the approval of the list and the referendum, which may have been confusing.

The panel echoed what others have said — maybe the Atlanta region isn’t ready to invest as a region when it comes to transit and transportation; maybe “region” has become a dirty word; maybe the vote showed that people don’t want transit.

Here is the danger of not taking an in depth look at ourselves. We easily could be making erroneous conclusions based on faulty assumptions.

First, are the people who voted on July 31, 2012 a true representation of our region? A total of about 675,000 people in the 10-county region voted on that day.

But less than four months later on the Nov. 6 general election, a total of 1.69 million people in the 10-county Atlanta region voted — 56.4 percent casting their vote for President Barack Obama (954,829) and 43.6 percent for Republican Mitt Romney (737,081).

(While one can not assume that most Obama voters would have voted for the referendum, Democrats usually are much more open to being taxed than Republicans).

Asked if the referendum had been held on Nov. 6, would the results been different, Stockert said: “We would have come closer but we still would not have won.”

But that’s not what Ashley Robbins, campaign director of Georgians for Better Transit, believes. She thinks it definitely would have passed in November. In fact, Robbins believes the referendum could have won on July 31 if there had been a well-run campaign.

She is not alone in that belief.

Several CEOs have quietly asked: “We started at 50/50 in the polls; we spent $8 million, and we ended up at 32 percent. What happened?”

During the panel discussion, Alan Wulkan, a national transportation consultant with several wins under his belt, said: “You should be brutally honest with yourselves. You knew many of these issues before the election.”

Wulkan, managing partner for HDR/InfraConsult, said other communities facing the same issues passed transit referendums at the same time ours was defeated.

After the panel, Wulkan said he had been interviewed to run the Atlanta campaign, but he didn’t get the job. But he said his comments were not sour grapes. Instead, he said he was glad he didn’t get the job.

“When I was hired in Charlotte to run the Charlotte campaign, I told them: ‘If your are going to hire someone who has done transit elections before, you have to listen to them,’” Wulkan said. “In Atlanta, the campaign was run from the top down by people who had little or no experience in winning a transit or transportation campaign.”

St. Louis had a successful transit campaign with the following tag line: “Transit. Some of us ride it. All of us need it.”

Robbins said that 52 percent of the $6.1 billion our project list was dedicated to transit projects, yet Atlanta campaign strategists downplayed transit out of fear they would lose suburban Republican votes.

Nearly all the marketing material — television commercials and printed ads — showed roads and cars in a huge “untie Atlanta” ball. There was a commercial of a woman driver being strangled by her seatbelt, and there were virtually no images of buses or rail or messages of transit.

“Some people said the campaign did it all wrong, that we should have only gone for the people who would vote for it,” Williams said sarcastically during the panel discussion.

During the Atlanta campaign, a common refrain was that no money would be spent inside the perimeter because the money was needed in the suburbs to convince reluctant voters.

“The messaging from the get-go was road-focused with a highway sign as the logo,” Robbins said. “I remember sitting in meetings where they said the target demographic was people outside the perimeter, and it was intentional to not discuss transit until it was too late.”

In the last few weeks of the campaign, the pollsters realized they had ignored transit-friendly Democratic voters in the central city. And instead of convincing suburban voters, all they had done was alert their opponents to go to the polls to vote no.

To peel apart the onion a little more, much has been said about the Sierra Club’s opposition to the referendum. In reality, the Sierra Club’s membership was split with 50 percent in favor and 50 percent either opposed or undecided. The executive committee ended up voting 8 to 4 to oppose the referendum.

As you can see, the issues surrounding the referendum were multilayered, complex and open to interpretation and analysis.

“It is important to do a deep dive,” Nathaniel Smith said. “There’s a need for the region to understand what happened.”

Robbins agreed: “If we don’t ask what happened and learn from those lessons, we are going to repeat the same thing with the same result.”

Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, said it is important to ask voters what transportation projects they are willing to pay for in the future. It might be too late to ask voters why they voted the way they did on July 31, 2012.

In my opinion that would be a flawed poll anyway because a primary election is not as representative of the region as is a general election.

“It can never hurt to examine the way we went about things. We can learn from our setbacks,” Hooker said. “We need to have a conversation with voters and some kind of analysis of how the campaign messaging affected their decision, and what might have been a better way to go. We should do that when the time is right, and it is not right, right now.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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