Fate of Atlanta's Transportation Ballot Measure Uncertain

A majority of voters oppose the regional transportation referendum that will be on Tuesday's ballot, according to an exclusive poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
by | July 30, 2012 AT 12:00 PM

A majority of voters oppose the regional transportation referendum that will be on Tuesday's ballot, according to an exclusive poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Fifty-one percent of voters polled this past week in the 10-county Atlanta region said they would reject the 1 percent sales tax, which would fund $7.2 billion worth of road, rail and bus projects. The main project list was negotiated last year by a panel of 21 mayors and county commissioners from across the region. Forty-two percent of the poll respondents favored the tax, with 7 percent undecided. According to referendum experts, undecided voters on a tax measure often wind up taking the safe course and voting no.

T-SPLOST campaign officials disputed the results, saying infrequent primary voters were surging to the polls in early voting, and their internal polling showed a statistical dead heat.

Backers view the tax as crucial to the region's future. Business leaders say companies that would have come to Atlanta are instead going to cities such as Charlotte or Dallas, deterred by Atlanta's traffic congestion and lack of commute options. They say the region is at a crucial tipping point.

Opponents assail the plan as wrong-headed, and they plan to sue to challenge the tax. If something needs to be done, they say, this isn't it.

Campaign strategist Paul Bennecke said the group's plan to turn out voters who usually skip primaries was working -- and that, in any case, the unprecedented regional voter makeup made certainty impossible.

The Atlanta region has never before voted as one body. But the differences that have kept it fractured -- urban and suburban, car lovers and transit fans -- were evident in the poll results.

Chief among the conclusions: Different groups of Atlantans strongly want different things. They almost all want someone to do something about transportation, but it's not clear what concrete solution would satisfy a majority. They're unsure that this big basket of disparate projects will improve commutes, though they believe it will bring jobs and spur growth. In the meantime, they have little faith that any solution will be executed properly.

"It means the proponents still have an uphill fight as it comes down to the end," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the survey.

The results

The regional project list is just over half transit, and just under half roads. It also contains a few aviation, bicycle and pedestrian projects.

Dissatisfaction with the even balance between roads and mass transit was strong among "no" voters -- 75 percent thought the balance was wrong -- but they differed on how the mix should be changed.

While the region's voters may be splintered around transportation desires, they agree overwhelmingly on core principles: Someone must do something about transportation in this region. And government can't be trusted to do it right.

Voters split about evenly on whether the plan would improve commutes.

Ninety percent of respondents said the region's transportation problems must be addressed, for the sake of our quality of life and economic future.

But 91 percent of "no" voters said government would not properly manage the program, spend the money on the agreed projects, or end the tax when promised.

Gregg Weldon, 49, a data analyst in Sandy Springs, said he would vote no because the project plan was too scattered, and because of a lack of trust.

"I wish these 157 projects all had some kind of cohesive union to them," he said. "They're all spread out but they act like it's going to do this one thing. It won't. They sprinkle them out like bread crumbs to make everyone happy."

The final straw, Weldon said, "is really the Ga. 400 toll."

More than half of all poll respondents said then-Gov. Sonny Perdue's push two years ago to keep the Ga. 400 toll up and running after the state promised it would come down in 2011 was a factor in their votes. The fact that the referendum law states the T-SPLOST must end unless voters renew it, unlike the Ga. 400 toll, does not comfort them.

Gov. Nathan Deal's new promise 10 days ago to remove the Ga. 400 toll after all didn't help much. For some voters -- 41 percent -- it hurt.

"I think they saw it as a last-gasp kind of gimmick," Coker said. "If you do something and you don't keep your word, and you suddenly go, 'OK, I changed my mind,' it's the flip-flop factor."

Divided desires

John Earle, 26, a Decatur resident, said the Ga. 400 toll episode gave him pause. But the transportation referendum needs to pass all the same, he said, for projects such as the Beltline.

"Traffic's a big problem in the city," Earle said. "It's not like a perfect plan but it's better than no plan." As to the government, "I mean, it's hard to take them too seriously when they say they're going to end it after the Ga. 400 thing," he said.

"But, you know, generally I'd rather have them act than not act."

Just what kind of plan a majority would actually support remained unclear.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents said that a project list with more transit projects and fewer roads would make them less likely to support it.

On the other hand, just over half said that doing the opposite -- putting more road funding in the plan and less transit -- would make them less likely to support it.

They want government to do better with what it already has on its plate, and also said they'd ride more transit if it was safer and more convenient.

A handful of high-profile projects in the referendum list failed to attract a majority of support from poll respondents, and they also made some voters more likely to oppose the referendum. Repairs to the existing MARTA system -- budgeted at $600 million on the regional list -- was the most popular project of that handful, making 49 percent more likely to support the referendum, but 40 percent more likely to oppose it.

The Ga. 400/I-285 interchange rebuild attracted 45 percent of voters but didn't please 42 percent. The Beltline attracted 35 percent of voters and rebuffed 42 percent. An eastern I-20 bus system -- not rail as some wanted -- pleased 30 percent of voters and turned off 54 percent.

The strategy

The campaign for the referendum has bet that, in a small election like a primary, it can sway just enough voters to tip the balance. Not many voters said they had been swayed by the campaigns for or against.

After private donors poured $8 million into campaigning for the referendum, the poll showed the campaign succeeded in swaying just 8 percent more voters than did the campaign against the referendum.

The campaign's strategy has been to win a strong majority of Democrats -- 60 percent -- and sway an unusual number of Republican women to the tax, 50 percent.

According to the poll, the campaign is winning exactly the number of Democrats it hoped to. But it's tanking with Republican women, winning just 29 percent of them.

Bennecke disputed that, saying the campaign has seen the needle move, especially since they began airing aTV advertisement with a metastasizing seatbelt restraining a woman on her way home from work to her son, who waits forlorn, clad in a baseball uniform. Still, Mason-Dixon said the referendum prospects looked very bleak.

Along with the other issues, don't discount the bad economy, Coker said, "and a primary ballot where you're not going to get the kind of turnout you'd get in a general election."

Primaries, especially in GOP-led Georgia, tend to see higher Republican turnout, which is less favorable toward taxes. In the poll, opinion split about evenly on whether people simply wanted no tax of any kind.

Home stretch

Bennecke questioned recent negative poll results, including the AJC's, saying traditional polling could not catch the tremendous shifts in voting patterns that this election was sparking.

However, the AJC poll did not draw only from previous primary voters, but from all voters, and asked whether they intended to vote in the primary, Coker said.

Most were interviewed by landline, but Coker said no research had proven that landline poll respondents are older or more conservative than those who own only cellphones.

Other independent polls recently have shown similar results to the AJC's, or worse.

The T-SPLOST campaign's own poll last weekend showed 45 percent against and 47 percent in favor, a difference wiped out by that poll's 3 percent margin of error, Bennecke said. In addition, he said, that poll surveyed people who have previously voted in primaries so it did not take into account new primary voters.

Those infrequent primary voters, he said, have been turning out in early balloting, partly as a result of the campaign's effort to identify supporters and lure them to vote.

"We've made 160,000 personal phone calls in the last seven days using volunteers," he said Friday. "We'll make another 100,000 before the vote."

Bennecke's prediction for the T-SPLOST vote is still victory. "We win -- close," he said. "Very close."

Voters have a clear decision to make, he said. "They're either going to start fixing traffic congestion, quality of life and help the economy or they're not."

Debbie Staver, a campaigner against the T-SPLOST, said the negative poll results reflected reality. "I've been canvassing, walking door to door, talking to people," Staver said. "I hear the same thing -- no. People say to me, 'No, I don't want that tax.'"

Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said the group was undeterred. "If this problem was easy to solve, it would have been done 15 years ago," he said.

(c)2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)