The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The debate intensified this week over the July 31 sales tax referendum for transportation, in which voters in the 10-county Atlanta area will consider a 1 percent sales tax for projects in the region.
Phil Skinner, firstname.lastname@example.org
If the Atlanta region passes the T-SPLOST commuters will see changes at the Ga. 400 and I-285 interchange at the Perimeter. But the debate over the tax have heated up recently.
On Tuesday, a member of the group that put the $6.14 billion project list together did an about-face and said he’s now against it.
The same day, a legislator said he thought some of the proposed spending could be illegal and that he was looking into taking action.
On Wednesday, opponents of the referendum touted a new study, released by a libertarian think tank, that takes issue with much of the spending on the list.
Supporters hit back, saying a vocal minority is making outsized noise in opposition to the tax. The $8 million pro-referendum campaign is reaching out with tens of thousands of phone calls — and proponents say that, when they get the message, voters are turning their way.
“These are the same people who’ve been saying the same thing for months,” said Paul Bennecke, who is leading the campaign to pass the referendum. “This is typical of any campaign process. They’re going to throw as many things as they can on the wall to see what sticks, if anything does stick.”
None of the developments spell instant doom or success for the vote. But they underscore the high stakes accompanying the referendum, and the rising intensity on all fronts.
Holly Springs Mayor Tim Downing, who served on the roundtable of 21 mayors and county commissioners that put together the project list, made waves by announcing he’s now opposed to it. “Nobody in that roundtable fully understood what we were dealing with,” he said Wednesday.
Downing is up for re-election, and the issue is a hot one in the outlying counties. But he said he’s under no political pressure.
The reason he’s against the project list now, he said, is that he’s had time to evaluate the projects more deeply and is concerned they can’t be built on time and on budget. “People change their minds, that’s all I can say,” he said.
Downing added that he’s been consistent in his skepticism.
On the day of the vote to approve the final list last October, Downing was absent, because he said he had worked all night. Reached by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time, he said he understood the list’s passage was assured, that he would have voted for it had he been there, and that he supported the project list.
Downing’s complaints now are in line with those of Republican state Rep. Sean Jerguson of Woodstock. Jerguson said he just this week realized he believes the project list’s entries for rehabilitating MARTA conflict with state law.
The law says the tax money can’t be spent on operations and maintenance for MARTA’s existing system. But the project list includes $600 million for projects that include rehabilitation of tracks and escalators. MARTA officials said the spending met legal requirements.
Jerguson said he was seeking legal counsel.
Other members of the roundtable said the complaints were to be expected as the vote nears.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who also served on the roundtable, said anyone had a right to change his mind. “The fact is, at the end of the day we’re all elected officials and I don’t think it’s surprising that someone goes home and listens to the folks at home,” he said.
In the meantime, a new study was released by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Because of its tax status, the foundation can’t take a position for or against the referendum. But while the report concluded that some of the projects, such as the Ga. 400/I-285 interchange rebuild, are cost-effective, it found that others, such as the Beltline, are not.
Tax opponents who came out to hear the study results gave it higher marks than a recent study by the Atlanta Regional Commission. That ARC study found the tax would produce modest congestion relief.
Mike Lowry, a referendum opponent who has dealt with financial computer models, attended Wednesday’s presentation on the new study by Baruch Feigenbaum. “I think he validated a lot of the things we’ve been saying,” Lowry said, including that Atlanta is too spread-out to support mass transit.
Lowry said small changes to initial assumptions in a computer model can produce wild variations in results, and he believes the ARC’s results are so unrealistic that the assumptions must be wrong.
Feigenbaum said in an interview that he was skeptical of some of the ARC computer model’s results. But, he said, the ARC’s people are “experts” at modeling and he has not investigated it thoroughly. He said he wasn’t ready to go as far as Lowry.
Feigenbaum concluded that buses often would be better than trains for the Atlanta region. He said that while the list includes a rail line from MARTA to the Emory University area, buses might be better.
Although the streets around Emory are often narrow and packed, he said traffic light timing and intersection improvements could make it work. The ARC planners disagree.