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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Transportation tax effort just as chaotic and confusing as metro Atlanta traffic

We're sad to report that metro Atlanta officials who will approve a project list for a closely watched ballot measure — one that could generate billions of dollars in funding for new roads and transit lines — have yet to arrive at their kumbaya moment. In fact, things are looking quite grim.

Not only did a "regional roundtable" comprising metro Atlanta mayors and county commissioners elect an all-suburban leadership during its Friday meeting, it managed to minimize the role of Fulton and DeKalb officials, raising concerns about the transportation funding referendum's chances of passage. Oh boy, this is gonna be fun.

The 21-member roundtable helps decide which road and transit projects will be funded by a sales tax referendum voters will decide in 2012. Friday's powwow at the Atlanta Regional Commission's downtown headquarters was the first formal sit-down between the officials and the opportunity to decide who'll lead the effort. (For cut-and-dry reviews of Friday's events, check out Ariel Hart's piece here and Dave Williams' write-up here. We're gonna get a little deep in the weeds.)

The summit turned contentious early on. Roundtable members quibbled over how to elect the executive committee — the five-member group that decides which road and bridge projects the roundtable will consider. Mayors and commissioners from the region's most populous counties, including Mayor Kasim Reed and DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, preferred a caucus approach that would've resulted in three representatives selected by members from Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties, and two from the region's outer ring. But some roundtable members from those counties, which have smaller populations, favored a majority vote.

And thanks to the roundtable's structure — smaller, suburban counties enjoyed a slight edge on the inner counties — the members from the hinterlands were successful. And like many had feared, Atlanta's urban core, which would generate the most cash for the transportation tax, just might be relegated to the sidelines.

Of the five members elected to the executive committee, only one — Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd — represents populous Fulton or DeKalb counties. (Other members elected to the executive committee include Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews, Henry County Chairwoman B.J. Mathis and Douglas County Chairman Tom Worthan.) One observer of Friday's meeting calculated that the executive committee members together represent 9 percent of the region's population.

"It was an inequitable process and an inequitable outcome," DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis said after the meeting.

(Norcross' Johnson told the AJC that the executive committee would do what's best for the region. Decatur's Floyd told CL the same, adding that the uproar over the leadership elections had been overblown. Both acknowledged that including Fulton and DeKalb projects were vital to winning voter support.)

Also surprising: Mayor Reed, who oversees a fast-growing urban area served by transit, interstates and an airport — and whose personal lobbying efforts won the passage of the transportation legislation — won't be at the table advocating for projects. He's basically just another roundtable member — albeit one who's mayor of the state's most populous city. (After the vote, Rockdale County Chairman Richard Oden recommended the roundtable offer Reed some token position. The mayor politely declined.)

The mayor was originally so upset by the vote that he expressed doubt as to whether he'd advocate for the tax's passage. Roughly one hour later, he called CL to clarify his thoughts. Reed said he was "extremely disappointed" that no elected official from Fulton or Cobb counties — which, along with DeKalb County, would fund the lion's share of the region's projects — would have a role in deciding the list.

"I'm going to take a wait and see approach," Reed said when asked if he'd continue to advocate for the tax. "I would never have dreamed when I woke up this morning that I'd not be in a position to help us do every single thing we could to ensure that this referendum was successful. But the path was definitely made more difficult."

No joke. First off, four of the executive committee's five members are from the 'burbs. From a purely political perspective, that puts Reed — not to mention Ellis, Fulton Chairman John Eaves and Clayton Chairman Eldrin Bell — in awkward situations. If they don't agree with the final project list, what incentive do they have to sell their constituents on the measure? And if voters in Fulton and DeKalb counties don't support the measure, it's expected to fail.

What's more, the committee lacks a figure who can pitch the funding referendum to a public that, by most accounts, will be hostile to the thought of a tax increase. No offense, but does anyone really expect Fulton and DeKalb voters to listen to a Douglas County chairman about transportation funding?

"The folks on that executive committee can't sell [the measure]," Reed told CL. "I look forward to seeing them try."

The executive committee is expected to present a draft project next August. Hope for the best.

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