DionRabouin.com (sort of)

Transit vote: boon for area or ‘scam’ on Atlanta electorate?

Posted in Articles by dionrabouin on July 13, 2012

By Dion Rabouin

(Written for The Atlanta Voice)

ATLANTA – Early voting started this week on a groundbreaking transportation referendum widely purported to have broad and historic consequences for metro Atlanta over the next 30 years.

Voters throughout the state will decide July 31 whether to approve a new penny-sales tax that proponents say will ease traffic congestion, attract new business, create jobs and generate new tax revenue in 12 transportation regions in Georgia.

Opponents, however, say the new tax does little to actually reduce traffic congestion – which is the lynchpin for most of the other supposed benefits – and is really a government attempt to subsidize businesses with taxpayer dollars.

The referendum, which is on the July 31 primary ballot, would generate an estimated $8.5 billion in tax revenue over 10 years to pay for new road and transit projects around Atlanta and an estimated $18.67 billion throughout the state.

Che Watkins, campaign manager for Citizens for Transportation Mobility, a civic group that supports the referendum, called it a “critical first step” to addressing Atlanta’s transportation issues.

“A ‘yes’ vote is about moving our region forward by improving our roads, making the steps towards a clean, fast and modern transit system and, most importantly, bringing jobs to our region,” Watkins said.

The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), which manages transportation planning for the city, said voter approval would create a 24 percent decrease in travel delays on roads improved with referendum funding. For commuters who can reach their jobs within 45 minutes, however, the benefits would be less significant.

Opponents have used that information to counter that the new tax does little to actually reduce traffic congestion.

“This really is a scam. It has nothing to do with traffic relief, traffic congestion,” said Jack Staver, chairman of the Transportation Leadership Coalition, a group opposing the measure. “It’s just economic development. It’s a bunch of economic developers who stand to make a lot of money.

“It’s just an $8.5 billion tax and every man woman and child in this state will pay, there’s no way around it,” he added.

If approved, 85 percent of the money raised in metro Atlanta must be spent on the 157 projects approved by a regional transportation committee that met last year. The remaining 15 percent – about $1.08 billion over 10 years – would be given to local governments in the 10-county Atlanta region to use on transportation as they see fit.

Unlike the rest of the money raised by the tax, which legally must be spent on transportation initiatives, there are no project requirements for the money designated to local governments.

That apparent lack of oversight worries Leona Barr-Davenport, president and CEO of the Atlanta Business League, a group of black and small business owners. She said history shows that when city contracts are handed out for large projects, minority-owned businesses typically get the shaft.

“Look at the percentages of who does work for the state of Georgia; the percentages [of black-owned businesses] are very low,” Barr-Davenport said. “The black business community could suffer and will suffer because we hire people when others won’t even look at them. We’re looking at the development of the community; the trickle-down effect.”

Supporters, however, say the referendum will mandate an advisory panel comprised of five citizens who will have full access to all reports and financial data throughout the 10 years of the tax. That panel will help ensure diversity and equity in contracting and spending, they say.

“There is oversight here like nothing that’s ever been done before in Georgia,” said ARC spokesman Jim Janquish.

Still, concerns like those voiced by Barr-Davenport and others have made the referendum unpopular with voters so far. A Rosetta Stone Communications poll found only 38 percent of voters support the proposed tax, while 49 percent oppose it and 13 percent are undecided.

If approved, tax collection would start next Jan. 1 and projects would begin within two to three months, ARC officials say. The commission also estimates that by 2040 the Atlanta metro area will have added an additional 3 million people.

If the ballot measure is rejected, it could be placed in front of voters again after two years. However, the ARC has said that 2016 is likely the soonest it would be possible to satisfy all the requirements to get the referendum before voters again.

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