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.

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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