Atlanta's Transportation Politics: How to Vote Against Your Own Self-Interest
On July 31, voters in and around Atlanta had the opportunity to solve some of their most intractable transportation and infrastructure problems by approving a one-cent sales tax increase. Had it passed, the referendum item known as the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax ("T-SPLOST") would have generated billions of dollars in revenue for metropolitan Atlanta over the next decade, all of it earmarked for specific and much-needed improvements to area roads and bridges, the creation and expansion of new rail and public transportation systems, and a whole lot more.
Atlantans voted no. Actually, it was more like: "Hell, no." And it wasn’t even close: when asked if they’d be willing to pay an extra penny of sales tax on the dollar to help raise the $7.2 billion needed to alleviate their city’s horrific congestion and sprawl issues, they rejected the idea, 63 percent to 37 percent.
In the last 40 years, metropolitan Atlanta has added more than 4 million people to its population and 6,700 square miles to its urban footprint. Traffic congestion has worsened commensurately, with commuters now spending an average of 43 hours a year stuck in gridlock, according to one recent report. (The national average is 34.) Last year, NRDC ranked American cities according to whose smog levels rose most often to the level of “Code Orange,” meaning that level considered to be dangerous to children and other sensitive groups; of the 16 worst offenders, only one city -- guess which one -- wasn’t in the infamously smoggy state of California. Local employers and chambers of commerce worry that sprawl, smog and long commutes could help make Georgia -- which ranks next-to-last among states in per capita transportation spending -- less attractive to new companies than its Southern neighbors like North Carolina and Texas, which have finally started to address their 21st-century transportation problems head-on.
So why would Atlantans reject T-SPLOST by such a wide margin? I posed the question to Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. He told me that, generally speaking, voters in his state have a tradition of approving these types of special sales taxes to raise funds for building schools, parks, or other projects. In this particular case, however, the amount of tax-generated revenue may have been so vertiginously high -- and the long to-do list of projects so widely dispersed over metropolitan Atlanta's 10 neighboring counties -- that voters may have simply felt like they wouldn't be getting their money's worth at the hyperlocal level.
These voters took a look at the funding breakdown, Bullock told me, “and what they saw was that a lot of it wasn’t going to their county. Their county was certainly getting some of it. But I think an awful lot of folks were just unwilling to pay for projects that were one, two counties away. Their thought was: ‘Well, I never go over there.’” (Leading us to T-SPLOST Irony #1, which is that sprawl itself may have led to the downfall of this attempt to counter the negative effects of sprawl.)
Enter the local chapter of the Tea Party, which had been spearheading opposition to T-SPLOST on somewhat predictable anti-tax grounds. Its leaders took nagging voter doubt and inflated it into stone-cold voter cynicism, lacing their rhetoric with hilariously paranoid rants about how the measure -- which was supported by the state's Republican governor, its two Republican Senators, and most major business leaders and chambers of commerce -- was tantamount to a "redistribution of wealth." During one public forum, the Tea Party's Debbie Dooley went so far as to insist that "socialism" was really the only accurate term one could use to describe any bill whereby "you're taking tax dollars that are collected and sending them to transportation projects."
Okay: so maybe she doesn't have the most sophisticated grasp of how public policy is implemented in a modern representative democracy. Still, when it came time to mobilize politically, the Tea Party showed some remarkable sophistication indeed. Once the group caught wind that local chapters of the Sierra Club and the NAACP had T-SPLOST gripes of their own (the former lamented that too many projects over-emphasized roads at the expense of mass transit; the latter complained that communities of color wouldn’t be sufficiently served), all three organizations were absorbed into a strange-bedfellows coalition that Bullock believes may have ultimately led to T-SPLOST’s undoing.
All of which really just makes you want to print up a few dozen light-green t-shirts bearing the silkscreened phrase “NEVER LET THE PERFECT BE THE ENEMY OF THE GOOD” and send them to various Sierra Club and NAACP leaders -- along with stats showing how roughly half of the dollars Atlanta missed out on would, in fact, have been dedicated to mass-transit projects, including streetcars, urban railways and buses. (Buses that travel along the same distressed roads all those gas-guzzling SUVs use, by the way.)
Now that the vote is over, Bullock wonders whether those celebrating the tax's death will still be celebrating once T-SPLOST Ironies Nos. 2 and 3 fully sink in. Metropolitan Atlanta was actually but one of a dozen regions statewide to vote on the referendum; in each region that passed it, local governments were to be given maximum control over how to spend any and all funds. In the end, however, 9 of the state's 12 regions voted no -- and in doing so, all 9 (including Atlanta) effectively voted to cede that control. "What's happened now," says Bullock, "is that the governor has said, 'Okay, there was this effort to let the regions allocate the resources and make the decisions. And that didn't work. So now I'm going to be making the decisions. And I'll allocate the money according to what I think are the most worthy projects.'" To put it another way: in Atlanta and elsewhere, the Tea Party's conservative "victory" may end up having the very un-conservative effect of diminishing local administrative power and handing it over to a centralized authority.
And the final irony is just as rich. Because of the way that T-SPLOST revenues are linked to matching state and federal funding, local governments in those regions that voted "no" will probably end up paying two to three times more for all of their current and future transportation projects than what they would have paid had they voted to approve. After all, it's not like these regions can simply choose not to fix their roads or bridges or railroad tracks. One wonders: How do they plan to raise all that extra money? (At least it won't be with a one-percent sales-tax increase. Thanks again, Tea Party!)
Meanwhile, in the vote's aftermath, many think that Atlanta will find it even harder to compete with other cities for the young, tech-savvy workers who are needed to keep it competitive as a business capital -- workers who often cite good public transit as key to the choices they make about where to live and work. The day after his city rejected the measure, Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce (which had passionately supported the tax), sounded especially pessimistic as he suggested to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter that until the city fixes its transportation woes, its business climate will suffer. "We can't grow as a city," he was quoted as saying. "We can survive. But surviving isn't enough."
Good luck with that, Atlanta. Meanwhile, all you creative-class types: we hear that Charlotte and Dallas -- both of which have invested serious money in mass-transit systems over the last few years -- have lots of great bars and restaurants, plus plenty of cool apartments for rent.
Image: Ben Ramsey/Flickr