Why Some Georgians Approved a Transportation Sales Tax

Atlanta-area voters rejected a one-cent tax for transit projects. But voters in three regions chose to make the investment.
by | August 14, 2012

Transportation wonks across the country last month watched with anticipation to see whether voters in the greater Atlanta region would approve a plan to add a 10-year, one-penny sales tax in order to fund nearly $8.5 billion in transportation projects.

By now, the narrative is well-known: the tax failed spectacularly, with 62.3 of voters saying "no." The vote drew the collective groans of members of the transportation community, who were forced to look inward and ask why their message didn't resonate with voters.

But anyone who sees the Atlanta vote as an indication that Americans won't pay for transportation should take a look beyond the state's capital city. Lost in much of the analysis about the failure of the tax hike in Atlanta -- and most of the state's other 12 transportation districts too -- was the fact that it actually passed in three of them.

In Region 7, where Augusta is the hub, the vote passed with 53.7 percent of the vote.

In Region 8, home to Columbus, it passed with 54.3 percent of the vote.

And in largely rural Region 9, located in the southeastern part of the state, it got 51.7 percent of the vote.

Governing wrote earlier this month about why the transportation didn't succeed in greater Atlanta. Experts were critical of the lengthy list of more than 150 projects included in a plan that some perceived as a "goodie bag." There were also questions about whether the spending would actually relieve congestion. And there were some of the classic battles between road and transit proponents.

But perhaps a more fruitful exercise would be to consider why it was a success in other parts of the state.

In Region 7 -- anchored by the city of Augusta and Richmond County -- Mayor Deke Copenhaver says officials who assembled the project list stuck to mostly nuts-and-bolts work like road resurfacing and widening. "(W)e didn't go with any of the major, sexy projects that would be a lightning rod for controversy."

Regional officials say a key reason the vote was succesful in the three regions was because the lists were kept relatively short. "'I think people got their hands around it," says Teresa Tomlinson, mayor of Columbus, which is a merged city with Muscogee County.

In Columbus' Region 8, there were only about two dozen projects, which some proponents say was manageable and could be easily conveyed to voters, unlike the list assembled for greater Atlanta.

Dave Wills, government relations director of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said the regions that passed the transportation tax are more rural and don't have sophisticated transit networks; as a result, there weren't hotly contested debates about the role of transit.

He also says in those areas, there was more of an understanding and appreciation for the economic impact that the transportation spending could have. The rural areas face economic challenges and recognize that spending on infrastructure could help their long-term prospects.

Additionally, many of the rural counties that approved the spending stood to gain much more funding as a result of the unique regional approach than if they had pursued their own individual one-cent sales taxes.

Under the system created by the state, 75 percent of the funds generated by the tax would go to a set of specific regional projects, while 25 percent would go back to the counties for more discretionary use on transportation work. And the formula used to re-allocate that money disproportiantely favored large counties with lots of roads and small populations. So it was easy to secure political support for the proposal in those places, Wills says.

He adds that the regions that supported the tax are more evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats than other parts of the state. "While these folks are not necessarily pro-tax, they're not as disposed to object to something simply on the basis of being another tax," Wills says.

One key difference between Atlanta and Columbus' Region 8 is the campaign for the tax was led largely by the private sector, and public officials were not vocal supporters. In Atlanta, on the other hand, Mayor Kasim Reed was one of the tax's biggest cheerleaders.

Mike Gaymon, president and CEO of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, said his group and other supported touted specific projects in certain neighborhoods as well as the funding that would be available for general road maintenance in the more rural counties.

He believes the vote succeeded specifically because elected officials weren't loudly pushing for a tax hike. "We didn't ask them to take a stand," Gaymon says. "We said 'if y'all would remain neutral, that would great.' Our campaign felt like we not did want the political involvement."

Tomlinson, the Columbus mayor, agreed that she and other politicians did not advocate for the plan. She said she took a more measured approach, outlining the pros and cons of the vote. On one hand, transportation funding would be useful, but on the other hand, the regional plan meant Columbus and Muscogee County would be "donors" subsidizing smaller counties.

But she disagreed with Gaymon's characterization of why that strategy worked. She explains that by being honest with the public -- and not making broad claims about economic development -- she and other elected officials gained credibility in the minds of voters. "I think the community didn't feel like anything was behind hidden or anything was being pushed down their throat," Tomlinson says.

Copenhaver, of Augusta and Richmond County, says the county has approved one-penny tax hikes in recent years to pay for a new library and a new judicial center. "People see these projects built on time and under budget," Derek says. "That certainly does create a level of confidence."

He says supporters of the tax touted it as a way to keep the area's economic momentum going. The region is poised to get a new Starbucks production facility, an expansion of a nuclear power plant, and a new National Security Agency facility. Voters wanted to see those sorts of successes continue, he said.

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