U.S. Rep. John Mica says federal dollars are at stake if transportation tax doesn’t pass; but new polls show declining support, even in urban core

By Maria Saporta

If the Atlanta region wants to get federal transportation funds, it needs to pass the regional referendum on July 31.

That was the bottom line delivered by U.S. Rep. John Mica, chairman of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, on Friday at a program co-sponsored by the Council for Quality Growth and the Urban Land Institute – Atlanta at the Cobb Galleria.

Advocates for the referendum needed some outside help as a new poll showed declining support for the tax. Most worrisome to some was that now more people in Fulton and DeKalb are against the tax than are for it. There’s growing sentiment that there’s no way the tax will pass if there’s not strong support from the urban core — namely from Democrats and African-Americans.

In his talk, Mica was especially proud that the House and Senate had agreed on a new transportation bill that was signed into law by President Barack Obama last week. The transportation legislation will increase the flow of federal dollars to state and metro governments to match projects that have local financial support.

But if metro Atlanta does not pass the regional transportation sales tax, “the money will go someplace else,” Mica told the audience. “The money will go to a place that’s ready for investment.”

And then Mica issued a warning that echoed words that U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told regional leaders that they needed to get their act together.

“You don’t want Atlanta stuck in neutral. You don’t want Atlanta and this region stuck in reverse,” Mica said. “You want this region to move forward.”

Mica, who called himself a “pretty right-wing, conservative Republican,” said it was interesting that he had been asked to address a metro Atlanta audience just a couple of weeks before the sales tax vote.

“I didn’t come to tell you want to do,” Mica said. “The citizens of this region will make a decision.”

Later Mica reinforced the choices that metro Atlanta faces.

“The federal government has finally given you an opportunity to move projects forward,” Mica said. “If the local community has crafted legislation, if there are projects that are ready to go…you won’t have to put up with the red tape. If you want to stay in a parking lot, I don’t recommend it, especially during the summer in Atlanta.”

A host of state transportation leaders as well as local advocates for the regional tax did give comments — all emphasizing what was at stake.

“We’ve got 19 days,” said land-use attorney Doug Dillard, who is chairman of the Council for Quality Growth. “We’ve got the most important vote facing us, the most significant vote that we have ever had in our lifetime. We can’t blow it.”

A stack of literature was on everyone’s chair at the luncheon. But going through all of the fliers in favor of the tax, there were no images, let me say that again, there were absolutely no images of buses, trains, rail or any mode of public transit.

All the images show roads, cars, highways, trucks. There were even some small photos of the Savannah port (which is not part of metro Atlanta’s referendum), of bicycles, rivers and green space.

All the big photos and graphics were all cars and highways.

But there were NO images of transit.

An architect was sitting next to me at the lunch, and I asked him what he thought of the referendum. He said he thought it would was good idea to invest in our infrastructure, but he said he favored a greater investment in transit and transit-oriented developments.

When I told him that 52 percent of the funding of the project list was slated to go to transit projects, he said: “Really? I had no idea.”

Certainly, it’s not his fault he has no idea that transit is part of the referendum. All the broadcast television commercials show roads and cars (one commercial does have a micro-second shot of a train among all the highways, but you can’t blink or you’ll miss it).

That might explain why the latest polls released Friday by WSB-TV and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed declining support for the referendum. Up to now, the two MARTA counties — DeKalb and Fulton — have had a majority of voters favoring the tax.

But the new poll now shows that only 39.8 percent are in favor while 42.8 percent are now against.

Campaign officials said they are about to unveil new literature that will showcase the transit side of the referendum. But if this latest poll is any indication, it is too little 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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