Infrastructure & Environment

Transportation Plan? Atlanta Voters Say No Thanks

Voters in the Atlanta region rejected a ballot measure to raise sales taxes by a penny to fund some $6 billion in transportation projects.
by | September 2012

Something for everyone isn’t always enough to please anyone. That moral can be drawn from the failure of a major transportation funding measure in Atlanta.

Business groups disturbed by Atlanta-area congestion decided to borrow an idea from Western cities like Phoenix and Denver. Rather than waiting for federal funds, they wanted to ask residents to pay for improvements. They got the Legislature on board, and voters in Atlanta and a 10-county area were presented in July with a ballot measure to raise sales taxes by a penny to fund some $6 billion in transportation projects. (Other regions throughout Georgia voted on similar, more modest packages.)

Hoping to win public support, local officials had agreed on 157 specific projects that would’ve accounted for most of the spending. Voters generally are likelier to accept tax increases if they can see what their money will buy. This package was designed to look like earmarks for various geographic areas. “Everyone is for infrastructure,” says Rob Puentes, a transportation expert at the Brookings Institution. “No one is going to vote for a sales tax increase that says we’ll figure out what we’re doing later.”

But the strategy didn’t pay off. Though the projects were carefully spread around the voting area, people in many places still thought they were being shortchanged and would be left footing the bill for distant projects. “The projects are supposed to be regional, but a lot really aren’t,” says Baruch Feigenbaum, a senior fellow at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

Race also played a role, with the word MARTA -- the Atlanta area’s transit system -- connoting “black” among some voting communities. Most local black officials backed the measure, but the NAACP opposed it. An odd-bedfellows coalition of Tea Party groups and the Sierra Club railed against the package for diametrically opposed reasons (too much transit versus not enough), but nevertheless managed to help sink its chances.

Like a defense attorney, all these groups had to do was plant a kernel of doubt about the measure in order to sink it. Given the tax dollars at stake, it was easy to convince most voters that it amounted to a huge boondoggle -- despite protests from big companies like Coca-Cola, Home Depot and Delta that the package was crucial to the region’s future economy. “It’s always easier to kill something than it is to create something,” laments Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.


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