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Higher taxes for a smoother commute? Metro Atlanta votes today.

Voters in metro Atlanta, where traffic congestion is notorious, go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to tax themselves for a major infrastructure upgrade. Some say city's future is at stake, but tea partyers distrust money will be wisely spent.

By Patrik JonssonStaff writer / July 31, 2012

People queue up to vote Tuesday at Ashford Park Elementary school in Atlanta. Voters across Georgia are deciding whether to levy a penny sales tax to fund transportation projects in their communities.

John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

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Atlanta

Just think about it: shiny new German-built streetcars zipping through a walkable midtown. And improved interchanges to clear up some of the worst bottlenecks in one of America’s most traffic-snarled cities. And a once-in-a-lifetime chance to add some transit sex appeal to a fading Southern behemoth fighting tooth and nail with Charlotte, N.C., and Houston for supremacy in business boosterism.

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Yes, the bid to “untie Atlanta” is a bold one, an unprecedented coming-together of 10 metro counties to propose to area voters an increase in the sales-tax rate of one cent for 10 years, with the money to be used to fund 157 traffic-friendly projects ranging from road improvements to upgrades of the airport control tower.

But as voters go to the polls Tuesday, the push for metro Atlantans to tax themselves to buy a $7.2 billion infrastructure upgrade has become as bogged down as the morning commute on the dreaded downtown “Connector.”

If the Transportation Investment Act passes, supporters say it would be a historic moment, akin to the city becoming the host of the 1996 Olympics or building Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport into one of the world’s busiest. The binding referendum is, some say, a make-or-break moment for a city teetering on decline, and it has the strong backing of the local Chamber of Commerce.

The big question is whether the tea-party-laced suburbs and exurbs will buy into a new vision for the Phoenix City – or will chalk up the plan to political tomfoolery.

If the tax fails, it’ll show that “the folks that voted it down, in the outer counties, are firmly committed to keeping Atlanta in the 1980s,” says Christopher Lineberger, a downtown development expert at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, in Washington. “I think they will be shocked that they’re going to be left behind … by competitors like Charlotte and Dallas and Houston and Phoenix, and Denver, and Salt Lake City – towns that are not exactly coastal bastions of liberalism that are lapping metro Atlanta right now. Those competitors have made the decisions to tax themselves to [provide transportation options], and if Atlanta does not choose to tax itself, well, your economic competitors will thank you.”

Pre-voting-day polls show the ballot measure headed for a narrow defeat. At the heart of the opposition is tea-party-fueled distrust of Georgia politicians, who have been known to be careless with new spigots of taxpayer cash. Tea party groups have pointed to the failure in 2010 of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, for example, to uphold a promise to shut down a toll booth on a major connector road. And when current Gov. Nathan Deal ordered the toll booth shut ahead of the Tuesday vote, the concession backfired, seen instead by many conservatives as crass political manipulation.

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