By David Pendered
Metro Atlanta voters who are still making up their mind about the proposed 1 percent sales tax for transportation should think of their children and grandchildren, the guest speaker said at today’s meeting of the Civic League for Regional Atlanta.
“However you vote, I challenge you to vote for your grandchild,” said John Robert Smith, the president and CEO of the non-profit Reconstructing America. “Look at your vision for your hometown, your region, and the places that you love.”
Those lofty thoughts set the tone for an ensuing conversation in which five panelists took turns to deride or praise aspects of the proposed sales tax that’s on the July 31 ballot. Maria Saporta, editor of SaportaReport.com and a longtime Atlanta journalist, moderated the panel discussion.
Suwanee resident Maurice Cook capped off the hour-long conversation with a show-stopping question about public corruption. A Google search shows Cook often attends Suwanee City Council meetings, where he questions governance matters including public safety and the town budget.
“I have yet to hear how you’re going to control fraud and corruption,” Cook told the panel. “Not one of you addressed that today. But (the guest speaker) said right at the beginning, ‘You have got to get respect and get the trust of the voter.’”
The guest speaker, incidentally, is a Republican who served 16 years as mayor of Meridian, Miss. A highlight of Smith’s mayoral administration was renovating the town’s Union Station, a $7 million project he said was the catalyst for rejuvenating the city. Smith has served as both chairman and a board member of Amtrak.
By the time Cook popped his question, the five panelists were primed and ready to engage the audience. Saporta previously had guided their conversation from the base line of Smith’s comments, about the merits of transit-based urban revitalization, to consideration of concerns over various aspects of the proposed sales tax. Here are snippets of the three responses to Cook’s question:
- Tom Weyandt, senior policy advisor for transportation for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed: “Local elected officials are going to be crystal clear about how this money is spent.”
- Debbie Dooley, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots: “There are projects in the (proposed construction list) that have started construction. … That money will go back to DOT (Georgia Department of Transportation) to be distributed to different cronies.”
- Leonardo McClarty, president and CEO of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce: “If you have an issue with someone in office, go let your voice be heard at the ballot box.”
Of course, one question from the audience does not make a panel discussion. And the previous 55 minutes of conversation were filled with fresh thoughts about the proposed sales tax, which is to raise $6.14 billion for road and transit improvements in the 10-county metro area.
Colleen Kiernan, Georgia chapter director of the Sierra Club, elaborated on the Sierra Club’s decision to oppose the sales tax. The issue, according to Kiernan, is that the project list does not send a clear signal about the region’s plans for future development to potential investors in the region’s developments.
“It is business as usual and a sprawl-inducing program with some nod to transit,” Kiernan said. “But there is significant uncertainty about transit. … This project list doesn’t send a clear signal to private investment. It’s not a coherent transit vision for the future. We spent all this time and effort putting plans together … and this project list instead is sort of a hodgepodge and not sending a clear signal to private investment.”
John Keys, president of JKeys Solutions and a consultant for the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities and State Independent Living Council of Georgia, talked about the need to fulfill a vision of a greater community. Keys also referenced two photos the guest speaker had displayed of sidewalks, one with a utility poll in the middle and the other showing two lengths of sidewalks that were not joined.
“We’ve asked for more transportation options statewide, especially transit; we’ve asked for access to it,” Keys said. “One other thing we need is to tie it all together through an information package. Debbie (Dooley), you mentioned a number of them (telecommuting and van pools), but we have to tie them all together. … We’ve got to have a common vision.”
Dooley said the Tea Party Patriots are not opposed to the sales tax, per se. Members simply think there are other alternatives that would not involve creating a multi-jurisdictional tax, which many thinks is not allowed by the state Constitution.
“We support increasing the gas tax, which has not been done since 1991,” Dooley said. “There are other service fees. Telecommuting, which could be encouraged via tax credits. We could have van pools set up, like Microsoft did in Redmond, Wa. … There are a lot of solutions and alternatives we would recommend.”
Weyandt, who has spent his career working on the urban issues of metro Atlanta, jumped into the conversation at one point to say the region does, in fact, have a Plan B.
Boosters of the sales tax often say there is no Plan B if voters reject the sales tax. Weyandt disagreed, and then described the region as it will exist if the sales tax referendum fails.
“Plan B is a regional shutdown in about a year,” Weyandt said. “MARTA’s backlog of ‘state of good repair’ projects will grow and become more expensive. Clayton won’t get renewed bus service. Cobb and Gwinnett transit will experience cuts in service and fare increases. Intersections won’t be improved. Douglas won’t get it’s highest priority project, (reconstruction of) the I-20/I-285 interchange.
“It will be many years before people have an appetite for engaging in this again, and we won’t have local control,” Weyandt said. “That’s Plan B.”