Three weeks remain to finish first steps of transportation sales tax campaign

By David Pendered

Metro Atlanta, and the remainder of Georgia, appears to be on schedule with the first phase of the state’s historic transportation sales tax referendum.

Lots of final details have to be worked out, not the least of which is whether the date of the vote should be changed from next year’s primary to the general election. The state Legislature is likely to consider that shift at its session that begins in January.

But the tough first step of the transportation effort looks like it will end without any train wrecks by Oct. 15. Local political leaders have been able to come together well enough to create lists of projects. Networks of campaign consultants and fundraisers to lobby voters to approve the sales tax have been created.

Over the next three weeks, a dozen lists of transportation projects will be finalized by the 12 Regional Transportation Roundtables established by the state Legislature. Each roundtable has labored since this past Spring to devise project lists that will serve two purposes: improve transportation mobility; and win support from voters.

In metro Atlanta, this week’s calendar is filled with public meetings at which local residents can learn more about the projects the Atlanta roundtable has proposed for each of their communities. Click here to see the statewide schedule.

The Atlanta Regional Roundtable points to these meetings as part of what it says are diligent efforts to inform the public.

“We were required to do two meetings of public input, and we’re doing 12 meetings,” said roundtable Chairman Bucky Johnson, at a Sept. 16 meeting. “Before that, we did unprecedented public input, but not on a specific [project] list. I think we have momentum here.”

The roundtable is to meet again Wednesday, after a routine meeting of the Atlanta Regional Commission. Members are likely to finalize their rules for amending the draft list of projects they approved in August.

Major proposed changes are tentatively due by Oct. 6, although the roundtable has reserved another meeting to consider changes, on Oct. 13.

Members haven’t yet broadcast the amendments they want made to the list. But likely proposals include seeking to add money to provide transit to southeast DeKalb County and commuter rail toward Macon. Atlanta’s Beltline is a fat target as a place to siphon potential funds, given that its current proposed funding is penciled in at an excess of $600 million.

Meanwhile, the campaign team for the metro Atlanta effort has reformed.

The project stumbled when Glenn Totten resigned last month. Totten reportedly developed scheduling conflicts as talk mounted of pushing the referendum date into the November election cycle, among other issues.

Kevin Ross is now in the space Totten formerly occupied. Ross, a lawyer, has served as a political consultant for more than 25 years. His business webpage lists testimonials from former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis, the Parking Co. of America (which had an airport contract), and Coca-Cola Enterprises.

The campaign, coordinated by MAVEN (Metro Atlanta Voter Education Network, Inc.), also has hired staff members including:

  • Che Watkins, who resigned as vice president/external affairs and communications with the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, to become campaign manager;
  • Liz Flowers, who handled media for the Lisa Borders campaign for Atlanta mayor in 2009, was retained as communications manager.

Elsewhere in Georgia, the roundtables are slated to meet this week to continue refining their lists.

And the state chamber has added a polling team to its group. The polling and research for the statewide campaign, outside the 10-county metro Atlanta area, includes:

  • John McLaughlin, of McLaughlin & Assoc. The firm has offices in New York and Virginia, and a client list that has included Gov. Nathan Deal; Jeb Bush; and presidential candidates Steve Forbes and Fred Thompson.
  • Cornell Belcher, of Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies. Most recently, Belcher worked for the Democratic National Committee, from 2005 to 2008, and for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign.

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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