Atlanta puts new tax for transit to a vote

Traffic crawls north out of Atlanta along Interstate 75/85 during rush hour in Atlanta, Ga. A proposal to add a penny to Atlanta's sales tax would mean billions raised for transit projects, winning the backing of business leaders but attracting a strange mix of opponents.

Kai Ryssdal: Depending on the survey you're using, Atlanta ranks either 10th or 11th on lists of North America's most congested cities. The traffic, of course, makes nobody happy. Neither does one proposed fix for it -- a 1 percent regional sales tax to fund new transportation projects. There's a state-wide referendum on it tomorrow. And much like politics makes for strange bedfellows, so too does tax policy.

Jim Burress reports from WABE.


Jim Burress: Atlanta traffic stinks. I live just 8 miles from work, but it often takes an hour or more to get home. So, let's start the car, start the stopwatch and see how tonight's commute shapes up.

So there's an acronym you're about to hear a lot -- "T-SPLOST." Like "y'all" and "bless your heart," T-SPLOST is an expression that's inserted itself into our vernacular down here. It stands for "Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax." It's a 1 percent sales tax that over 10 years will generate more than 8-billion dollars for regional transportation projects. It's safe to say everyone in Atlanta hates our traffic. It's just as safe to say that's where the agreement ends.

Kasim Reed: If we are successful on Tuesday, we'll move the equivalent of 72,000 cars each day from our roads.
Nathan Deal: We have to do something to address the transportation and transit needs of our state.

It's not every day Atlanta's Democratic mayor Kasim Reed and Republican Gov. Nathan Deal agree. But they -- and a lot of other unlikely allies - -are campaigning for the T-SPLOST. They say it will ease congestion and create jobs.

It might even make it easier to get to the ballgame, says Atlanta Braves executive VP Mike Plant.

Mike Plant: The No. 1 reason year-in and year-out that people tell us they don't come to more games is because of the traffic.

That's the case for the transit tax. This is the case against. State Sen. Vincent Fort, a Democrat, hates the measure. Sweat saturates his white "Vote No on T-SPLOST" T-Shirt as he knocks on Joyce Engram's front door.

Vincent Fort: This is going [to be a] tax on your groceries and your medicine.

If the T-SPLOST passes, Atlanta's sales tax would jump from 8 to 9 percent. The extra penny would go toward transportation.

Fort: So I hope you'll vote against it.

Joyce Engram: I'm going to vote against it. I needed to know. But I'm definitely going to vote against it. You can believe that.

As we continue down the street, Fort smiles at the thought of taking on big business, powerful politicians and well-funded interest groups. And possibly winning.

Fort: We've got about $800. They've got about $8 million and we're beating 'em.

The "we" he's referring to is an unlikely alliance, including pro-transit folks, an environmental group, even the Tea Party.

Debby Dooley: This coalition, this is unprecedented.

Debby Dooley is one of 22 original founders of the Tea Party.

Dooley: You know when these coalitions [come] together -- groups that are normally on the opposite end of the spectrum -- come together in solidarity on the same issue, that should send huge red flags that this project list is seriously flawed.

Oh, the project list. Back here in my car, I've gone 3 miles in 23 minutes. I'm stuck on the "Downtown Connector," where Interstates 75 and 85 merge and run through the heart of the city. Fourteen lanes of stopped traffic. A few years ago the Connector made the list for the top 10 most congested roadways in the nation. But it's not one of the 157 projects the new tax would fund. That's one reason State Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers broke ranks with fellow Republicans to oppose the tax.

Chip Rogers: A more reasonable approach would be to have traffic engineers sit down, and literally list the most congested traffic problems in metro Atlanta.

Instead, a roundtable of local elected officials came up with the list. So if you're keeping track of who's cuddled up in this unlikely anti-T-SPLOST bed, we've got one of the state's top Republicans, a popular Democratic senator, and a founder of the Tea Party. Even the head of Georgia's Sierra Club is anti-T-SPLOST.

If the T-SPLOST passes, there's a lot of money in it for MARTA. No, that's not the name of another strange bedfellow. It is the name of our mass transit system. Connie Suhr rides MARTA a few days a week from her suburban home into downtown where she works. She admits it's a bit strange for someone who rides the train to oppose a project that expands the system. But she says this whole issue is a bit strange.

Connie Suhr: I have aligned myself with people against the T-SPLOST that I would not normally have done. I can't say particularly why. We all have our different reasons. But I also run into enough people who are in favor of it. I think it will be a very interesting fight.

Home, 49 minutes, 25 seconds. Not too bad, but I'm still a frazzled. Is a commute like that, 8 miles and three-quarters of an hour enough to get the tax passed? Polls suggest maybe not, but it's up to the voters to decide tomorrow.

In Atlanta, I'm Jim Burress for Marketplace.

About the author

Jim Burress is a reporter for WABE in Atlanta.

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