For some metro Atlanta voters, the issue with the proposed Regional Transportation Referendum isn’t transportation, but trust in the government; an issue that Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) Chairman Tad Leithead acknowledged when he addressed the on Tuesday.
“You take the generic lack of trust in the government right now and in this environment here in this region we’re at an even lower level of trust,” he said. “Those are the facts. I wish they weren’t, but they are.”
Last month, Leithead was re-elected to another two-year term as chairman of the ARC, which is the official planning agency for the 10-county Atlanta region. He also serves as chairman of the Cumberland Community Improvement District, a self-taxing group of commercial property owners.
The RTR is a one-cent sales tax collected over 10 years that would fund a list of transportation projects created by the Atlanta Regional Roundtable, a group of 21 local elected officials. Metro Atlanta voters will vote the referendum up or down on July 31, 2012.
If approved, 85 percent of the tax will go to projects selected by the roundtable, with the remaining 15 percent being spent locally. The tax would go into effect January 2013 and expire December 2023. See here for the final report of the $6.14 billion list of transportation projects that were adopted by the roundtable.
The list, minus the much-discussed Cumberland-to-Midtown light rail, includes projects such as interchange improvements at I‐75 North at Windy Hill Road; corridor improvements at South Cobb Drive from I‐285 to Church Road / Oakdale Road; enhanced premium transit service ‐ Acworth / Kennesaw / Town Center to MARTA Arts Center Station; new alignment for Windy Hill Road / Terrell Mill Connector; and grade separation at US 41 (Cobb Parkway) and Windy Hill Road .
One Rotarian Tuesday pointed out that some voters are uncomfortable with the prospect of local governments being responsible for spending the revenue generated by the proposed TSPLOST, an amount that Leithead said averaged to about $1.5 billion a year for 15 years.
Leithead noted that the trend toward government distrust regarding transportation is magnified in metro Atlanta in light of recent events, including the implementation of I-85 hot lanes and the failure to remove the Georgia 400 tollbooth as promised after the bonds that paid to build the road were paid off.
However, Leithead thinks this negative viewpoint can be overcome with citizens oversight committees. He pointed out that committees of this nature have been successful in the implementation of past TSPLOSTs.
“The solution that has created trust in the electorate was the citizens oversight panel, which on behalf of the people would assure that the money that was scheduled to be spent was spent as directed by the electorate on those projects and that they would be on time and on budget,” he said. “And that there would be a very specific accountability held. That scrutiny, that citizens oversight scrutiny, is at an all-time high.
“The challenge is communicating that to the voters in such a way that inspires enough trust to vote in favor it. We believe that if a voter sees what they’re going to get for the money and if the believe they’ll actually get it, they’ll vote for it. Where the breakdown comes is they say, ‘Well I know that’s what’s been promised, but is that really what’s going to happen? If 10 years from now that hasn’t happened, then I’ve wasted my money.’”
To Leithead and other members of the ARC, inspiring voters to pass the TSLOST is crucial to future growth in metro Atlanta. Improving metro Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure will increase worker productivity and time spent at the workplace that otherwise would have been spent commuting, he said.
The economy of the region is also negatively impacted when companies don’t consider locating to Atlanta because of traffic.
“We have no idea how many businesses are out there that are considering relocating that the CEO says, ‘Hey, I hear Atlanta traffic is terrible. Let’s not even consider Atlanta,’” Leithead said. “That economic impact is impossible to study because we don’t know how often that happens, but we know it happens (…) We have no idea how often that’s happening, but we think it’s killing us.”