One-cent transportation tax to be a tough sell 

Crafting a $6 billion list of road and rail projects wasn't hard — selling it will be

BEFORE AND AFTER Transportation tax, which includes more than $600 million for transit along the Atlanta Beltline (above), faces long odds

Joeff Davis/Atlanta BeltLine, Inc./Perkins+Will and Field Operations

BEFORE AND AFTER Transportation tax, which includes more than $600 million for transit along the Atlanta Beltline (above), faces long odds

Last week, mayors and county commissioners from the 10-county metro Atlanta region accomplished something rare: They actually agreed on something.

After months of arm-twisting, horse-trading and talking smack in op-eds, the group of elected officials unanimously OK'd a $6.1 billion list of new roads and transit lines that could be built by a 1-cent sales tax voters will decide at next July's presidential primary.

Among the possibilities: transit along the Atlanta Beltline that links to Midtown. A new MARTA line from Lindbergh to Emory University. Light-rail snaking from Atlanta to the wilds of Cobb County. All these and a smorgasbord of new roads, rail and bus projects could be yours if you vote "yes."

Now comes the hard part. From now until next summer, supporters of the tax plan to raise and spend at least $6 million on an education campaign and marketing blitz the likes of which the city has rarely seen. If approved by voters, the measure would be the largest transportation investment metro Atlanta's made since launching MARTA 40 years ago.

The initiative (get used to calling it T-SPLOST, for special local option sales tax for transportation) will be going up against a terrible economy, the typical city-versus-suburbs infighting and a referendum date that's expected to draw anti-tax activists. And yes, the Tea Party is salivating at the thought of killing the measure.

"We've never had anything like this before," says Mayor Kasim Reed, who pushed for transportation-tax legislation as a state lawmaker, personally lobbied its successful passage in his first few months as mayor and helped secure more than $600 million for Beltline transit during the process. "The metropolitan Atlanta region, if voters decide to be for this, will be the center of infrastructure investment in the United States of America."

Leading the effort to convince voters to support the tax will be separate educational and advocacy campaigns led by veteran political consultants, fundraisers and pollsters and backed by the business community's cash. The organizations will first try to educate the estimated 350,000-450,000 metro Atlanta voters about the roads and transit fixes that would receive funding — an important task considering a list of the projects won't appear on the ballot. According to recent polls, approximately 50 percent of metro Atlantans support the measure, with 30 percent undecided. Polling has also revealed the message that best strikes a chord with voters: The T-SPLOST will boost the local economy, create jobs and reduce traffic congestion.

Expect pro-tax commercials while you're watching TV, radio spots while you're in traffic and online ads while you're at work. Don't be surprised if the campaign's social media guru starts following you on Twitter, courting you on Facebook or inviting you to spend a few minutes watching YouTube clips. In addition, the team will roll out traditional campaign efforts, including door-to-door visits, phone banks and letter-writing campaigns to friends.

"Any mode of communication we can use, we're going to use it," says Paul Bennecke, one of the campaign's lead consultants.

Reed says that for the tax to pass — which he predicts it will, by roughly two to five percentage points — the process can't get bogged down with debates about road-versus-rail or bickering over specific projects. It has to push a larger message, one that transcends party and ideology and stresses that lousy traffic and lack of transit options are killing the metro region's potential when it comes to quality of life and competing with other cities to lure top-tier businesses and high-paying jobs.

"If people are betting on roads, we're gonna lose," the mayor says. "If people are betting on rail, we're gonna lose. If people are betting on a bigger future for all of us, we're gonna win... Atlanta succeeds on projects like this when it stretches. We are very good when we're competing for something. And when we're not competing for something that's worthy of us, we don't generally do very well."

Whether these pitches work with voters, especially the die-hard conservatives expected to fill the polls to pick their GOP presidential candidate, remains to be seen. Bennecke says the underlying issues — helping the economy and improving quality of life, chief among them — cross party lines.

But a chief sticking point for many Fulton and DeKalb residents is whether to fork over another penny in addition to the 1-cent sales tax they've been paying for decades to fund MARTA.

Lawmakers hope that those concerns will be eased during the next General Assembly by the expected creation of a regional transit agency to oversee metro Atlanta's myriad rail and bus agencies — and which could finagle additional resources for MARTA.

Even without that incentive, "the [tax's] benefits to Fulton and DeKalb will outweigh the burden, "says Reed.

The Atlanta Tea Party Patriots, arguably the metro region's most organized chapter of rabble-rousing anti-tax activists, announced last week that its members are "more determined than ever to make sure this T-SPLOST is DOA" and has formed a political action committee to help spike the measure. Debbie Dooley, one of the organization's leaders, says her group has even formed coalitions with "different groups and peoples on issues in which we're usually diametrically opposed" to oppose the tax.

The Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club is torn over whether it should applaud or reject the proposal because of some big-ticket road projects — particularly an expansion of Gwinnett County's Sugarloaf Parkway, which the group calls the return of the Northern Arc. The controversial proposed toll road through the north metro counties was shelved in the mid-2000s after a lawsuit and allegations of self-dealing among state officials. The Sierra Club played a key role in its defeat.

To critics, Reed offers a simple rebuttal: "Folks who disagree with this work, I just want you to put up your Plan B." He warns that failure to offer an alternative to passing the T-SPLOST would leave metro Atlantans sitting in gridlock, walking miles to the nearest transit stop and causing businesses to relocate elsewhere.

"If this doesn't succeed we're going to be where we are for a long time," Reed says. "I think what's going to happen is we'll be chasing Mississippi. That's what my T-shirt's gonna say."

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