Thursday, March 1, 2012

Freemark: Regional transportation tax prospects are slim with NAACP opposition

Posted By on Thu, Mar 1, 2012 at 1:57 PM

The always entertaining Yonah Freemark thinks metro Atlanta's upcoming transportation tax vote faces an uphill climb now that the DeKalb County NAACP plans to block the measure. The organization cried foul after MARTA rail along I-20 wasn't included on the list of projects to receive funding from the tax:

To be frank, this opposition puts the transit tax’s chance of passage in jeopardy. The Atlanta region is relatively conservative, with the population most likely to support increased revenues for public transportation living in Fulton and DeKalb Counties — the densest, most urban parts of the region. The fact that the vote is taking place in the middle of the summer rather than in November means there will be limited turnout. If voters in DeKalb are convinced that the tax will not serve their interests, it stands little chance of passage.

This situation is Atlanta-specific, but its features could be relevant to any metropolitan area considering major investments in new transit lines. The problem is this: Once there is agreement as to the importance of new revenues for transportation, everyone announces that they have an important project they want to fund. The sum of the costs of those projects is inevitably far larger than the amount of money expected to be raised. Eventually, a regional decision-making body must come to an accord about which projects are most important, and which can be delayed for future action. Those who do not get what they want from that priority list — the I-20 rail supporters in Atlanta’s case — become frustrated and may begin to oppose the expansion program, even if other projects benefit them.

Is there a way to avoid this? Unlikely. There are only a limited amount of funds available and a seemingly infinite number of projects that individuals or organizations will latch on to as priorities. Indeed, there is inevitably some opposition in the public discourse to any proposed intervention by the government. The question is how influential each side is, and what percentage of the population will be persuaded by each argument.

Personally, I'd like to know whether the NAACP's opposition to the tax will influence fewer people to vote "no" — or simply discourage them from visiting the polls. That's in addition to seeing how the business community's $5 million "education" campaign will fine-tune its messaging (if at all) to try and win over these voters.

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