Transportation sales tax campaign needs to target voters likely to vote yes

By Maria Saporta

Consider this constructive criticism.

The campaign to pass a regional transportation sales tax seems to be getting derailed — literally and figuratively.

So far, the campaign has been targeting Republican, conservative voters in the suburbs — people who tend not to support new taxes. And the campaign seems to be ignoring Democratic voters inside the perimeter who would be more likely to vote for the tax.

The messaging of the campaign also seems off base.

In an effort to appeal to suburban Republican voters, the campaign barely mentions the word “transit” — using oblique words like “transform Atlanta” or “untie Atlanta.”

And this is for a project list that is 52 percent transit. This is a project list that was approved unanimously by 21 metro mayors and county commission chairs who served on the Metro Atlanta Transportation Roundtable.

But the campaign, which has been led primarily by Republican operatives, does not seem to want to own the complete package of transportation projects — especially the transit projects.

Meanwhile, because the campaign has not appealed to in-town, pro-transit, Democratic and liberal-leaning citizens, there’s a lack of enthusiasm among potential voters who should be embracing the regional sales tax referendum.

It doesn’t help that South DeKalb voters have felt short-changed for having paid the one-cent MARTA sales tax since 1971 and yet they are still waiting on MARTA rail serving their communities. And the transportation project list does not include the funding for rail in South DeKalb, continuing that feeling that those residents are being left behind.

Again, these are primarily Democratic, pro-transit voters who would be more amenable to a new tax if they felt they would finally get rail.

Campaign leaders rightfully say that it is impossible to come up with a list of transportation projects that would please everyone in the metro area. They also are right to say that some believe there are too many road projects while others believe there are too many transit projects.

Of course, one approach would be to turn those sentiments around by arguing there’s something for everyone — that this is a project list that had unanimous buy-in from the top elected leaders in the region.

But unfortunately, the messaging seems muddled and muted.
Despite millions of dollars already having been spent on glossy mailings and television commercials, it’s hard to define the campaign, and it’s even harder to get voters to understand why they should go vote for the tax on July 31.

Months ago, campaign leaders had been urged to print bumper stickers with clear messaging. Imagine if the following bumper stickers had been staring you in the face when you were parked on I-75 or I-85 or I-20 or I-285 or Georgia 400 for the past six months.

HATE TRAFFIC?
VOTE YES!

MORE TRANSIT?
VOTE YES!

CLEANER AIR?
VOTE YES!

For the record, the HATE TRAFFIC? VOTE YES! message should be the dominant message, and there should be thousands of those bumper stickers and dozens of billboards broadcasting that theme.

Maybe it’s not too late for the campaign to do a 180 — to appeal to the voters who would most likely support a regional sales tax rather than try to convince voters who would tend to vote against it.

Instead of focusing on “likely voters” who have gone to the polls in previous Republican primaries, the campaign should focus on getting “likely yes voters” to the polls. That means putting together a well-funded campaign that targets your more urban and liberal communities that welcome and support transit.

There should be campaign volunteers in front of every MARTA station with fliers explaining that a yes vote would invest $600 million to help bring the transit system to a state of good repair.

It’s time for the campaign leaders to “own” the complete transportation list — especially the transit projects. Most informed voters know “we can’t pave our way out of congestion” — that we have to invest in alternative modes of transportation that encourage the development of walkable communities served by transit.

From this outside observer’s vantage point, it seems as though one of the big problems is that this is a campaign being planned by committee — that there are too many chefs with contradictory agendas and skill sets that lead to mushy messaging.

As a long-time Atlanta leader told me, the last time we tried to put together a campaign by committee was “Brand Atlanta.” I’m not sure who really refers to Atlanta these days as: “Every day is an opening day.” In short, Brand Atlanta fizzled out.

Not everyone is as worried about the regional transportation sales tax campaign as I am.

“I feel very positive about it,” Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said on Sunday. “We have got over 230 companies that have signed up to communication with their employees. The business sector is extremely strong behind this — from entrepreneurs to Fortune 500..”

Asked about why it feels like it’s a suburban, Republican-oriented campaign, Williams answered: “The Democratic campaign is totally different than the Republican campaign. They are two different teams, and that’s appropriate. We have a Republican team, and we have a Democratic team.”

Well the days are ticking away. We still don’t have a bold, clear message on bumper stickers. And while we know the strong “no” voters will turn out, we are quickly running out of time to get a campaign aimed at the people who are most likely to vote yes for the transportation tax.

For metro Atlanta’s sake, let’s hope it’s not too late.

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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