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TSPLOST: Regionalism gets run over by metro Atlanta voters

By Maria Saporta and Dave Williams
Published in the ABC on Friday, August 3, 2012

Political and business leaders throughout metro Atlanta worked together as never before to put a transportation sales tax on the July 31 ballot.

From choosing the projects to be funded by the penny tax to waging the campaign to approve it, they acted regionally, despite diverse backgrounds and interests.

But that regional mind-set didn’t resonate with voters, who overwhelmingly rejected the tax referendum, defeating it in all 10 metro counties.

“People think regionalism is good until they’re asked to pay for projects in somebody else’s neighborhood,” said Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory University.

That most voters didn’t act out of regional interest was hardly surprising. Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) votes to finance road improvements, schools or parks have appeared routinely on the ballots of individual counties, and they typically have won.

But the July 31 TSPLOST marked the first time voters in metro Atlanta — or statewide, for that matter — have been asked to approve a sales tax that would be collected and spent across a multi-county region. Not only did the referendum fail in Atlanta; It passed in only three of 12 regions across Georgia: the counties surrounding Augusta and Columbus and a huge swath of rural counties between Macon and Savannah.

“We don’t have a lot of practice in Georgia with these kind of votes,” said Otis White, president of Atlanta-based Civic Strategies Inc. and a longtime observer of the region’s economy. “Voters just weren’t willing to take that leap of faith.”

But White said the process that led to the referendum showed the Atlanta region could work together, even if the end result was failure.
First of all, there were business and civic organizations, even some that had competed against each other in the past, working cooperatively throughout the metro area.

Second, the Regional Atlanta Transportation Roundtable showed that a diverse group of elected leaders from throughout the region could agree on a project list — an unprecedented level of cooperation in metro Atlanta.

“That was the first test of us as a region,” said Michael Paris, president and CEO of the Council for Quality Growth, a Duluth-based nonprofit of business professionals focused on growth and development.

Paris said he understood why metro Atlanta voters proved reluctant to embrace the region-first attitude that marked the roundtable’s work.

“The concept of ‘When you fix something here, it really helps over there,’ is hard,” he said. “If you’re not out in the mix every day, you probably don’t have that same sense of how every piece helps every other piece.”

While some of the region’s political and business leaders appeared anxious to repackage the project list and take a second shot at a referendum, White called for a different approach.

“When you lose this badly, you don’t go back to the voters,” he said. “You have to find some other way.”

White suggested it probably will be up to the legislature to act.

Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said the process was flawed from the beginning because of the way the original bill was formulated and passed — giving local elected leaders say over what projects were picked.

“It put politics ahead of a regional plan,” she said. “At least that’s what people felt. It was a list of projects. It wasn’t a regional plan.”

Going forward, Franklin said it will be up to Gov. Nathan Deal to work on a regional transportation strategy.

“The problem has to be solved with the governor’s leadership,” Franklin said. “I’ve always been in favor of a financing mechanism that is state-based rather than region-based. This region is very important to the state’s economic vitality, and the governor should bring leadership to this issue.”

On the day after the vote, Deal said he would continue working to improve transportation mobility, but through existing resources.

“The voters of Georgia have spoken,” the governor said. “It’s certainly disappointing that we won’t have the resources to accomplish all the projects needed to get Georgians moving quicker, but it does force state officials, including myself, to focus all our attention on our most pressing needs.”

Deal singled out rebuilding the chronically gridlocked Georgia 400/Interstate 285 interchange for inclusion in what he promised would be a “need-to-do” transportation project list.

But following the lopsided defeat of a metro Atlanta project list heavy with expensive transit improvements, he shut the door on further expansion of rail service in the foreseeable future.

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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