Our Take: Are There Lessons for Charlotte in Atlanta’s Failed Transportation Referendum?

Will this be the permanent state of Atlanta’s Downtown Connector?

The campaign was underway for more than a year, and the slogans were everywhere: “Traffic is Suffocating Atlanta,” “Untie our Traffic Knot,” “Vote YES to Make Our Region More Competitive.” But on July 31st, metro Atlanta voters overwhelmingly rejected a one-cent transportation sales tax initiative, or T-SPLOST, that would have raised more than $6 billion over the coming decade for much-needed road and transit projects throughout the 10-county region.

With more than 60 percent of voters saying “NO,” there’s little chance Atlantans will see another referendum anytime in the near future, and with little political will to increase the state gas tax, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal has indicated the region will have to do the best with the limited funding it already has. But with federal transportation dollars drying up and nearly $8 billion in unfunded, desperately needed infrastructure projects on tap, metro Atlanta’s traffic may reach crisis conditions in the not-too-distant future.

So what does this mean for those of us Charlotte? Besides a need to reconsider any road trips to the Florida panhandle, it may present a growing opportunity to better compete against a Sunbelt city that may start losing its appeal from an affordability, mobility and quality-of-life standpoint. But it also requires us to look carefully both at how we plan for future growth and pay for the infrastructure needed to accommodate it. Here are the biggest takeaways from Atlanta’s failed referendum:

  • Don’t let your infrastructure fall too far behind: Most of the road and transit projects that Atlanta’s tax would have funded should have been started ten years ago, when growth was at its peak. A penny sales tax in 2002 would have been much more palatable than one pitched in the middle of the slowest economic recovery in history, and the resulting capital far more substantial. One of the biggest objections voters had to this year’s campaign? Even with the dozens of road projects in the capital improvement plan, regional planners couldn’t promise any net improvement in regional congestion over the next decade. The investments, they admitted, would only keep congestion from becoming far worse.
  • It’s not easy to please everyone: Despite an ambitious project list that struck a careful balance between transit and new roads – and promised important investments in nearly every corner of the 10-county region – voters on every end of the spectrum felt their community was getting shortchanged. Suburbanites opposed any additional funding for the unpopular MARTA rail system, urban voters thought too much money was being spent in the suburbs, and the Sierra Club thought the list was too heavy on road improvements. Add in a Tea Party movement against any new taxes, and you had a volatile mix of opposition that spells trouble for any future transportation referendums, in Charlotte and elsewhere.
  • Be careful how you deliver your message: Organizers of the T-SPLOST campaign proudly touted the endorsements of many major Atlanta employers, from real estate firms like Cousins Properties and Cassidy Turley, to Delta Airlines and Georgia Power. In addition to funding an $8 million media campaign, many of these supporters actively encouraged their employees to get out to the polls and vote ‘YES’ in the referendum. But that approach may have backfired. At a time when trust in business leaders and elected officials is at unprecedented lows, many voters may have voted against the tax just to push back against the pressure they were getting at the office.
  • Don’t abuse the voters’ trust: Like many cities, Atlanta has a bad history of making unwise infrastructure investments that do little to improve mobility. The latest is a $95 million, 1.3-mile downtown streetcar (ahem) scheduled to open in late 2013. The project, which will run from Centennial Olympic Park to the King Center, has been widely criticized as a boondoggle that will see little ridership and have negligible impact on downtown economic development. The cost has risen more than $12 million since it was announced last year, and opponents of the transportation tax used it as ‘Exhibit A’ to support their case that Atlanta and other local governments can’t be trusted with more taxpayer money.

As a 15-year Atlanta resident before moving to Charlotte last summer, I have no doubt that the home of Coca-Cola, Georgia Pacific, Home Depot and UPS will continue to be one of the nation’s most important business centers and the main economic competitor for every other Southern city. But as its global reputation for congestion and immobility continues to grow, it risks losing the small- and mid-sized employers to other regions where quality of life, affordable housing and a reasonable commute make it easier to attract workers.

Atlanta voters turned down a critical opportunity this week to better position their region for the future — and the consequences could be significant. Charlotte may be in a good position to reap some of the benefits, but if we follow the same path, that success will be short-lived. If our community leaders can learn from the failure of Atlanta’s transportation referendum and begin making wise investments in our existing infrastructure, we may be able to avoid the same fate.

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