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 , Staff writer

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    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.
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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.

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.”

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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.

“There was a time when measures like [the antigridlock tax] would have passed with little public attention and no real opposition, but that was before the consequences of government gone wild started hitting Americans where it hurts,” writes columnist Richard Arena on the Alpharetta Patch news website.

Tea party suburbanites aren't the only ones intent on voting down the antigridlock tax. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed recently got into a testy exchange with a representative from the NAACP, who said the project is racist because it’s geared toward young, white urban pioneers, instead of the poorer black population that has historically defined Atlanta. The NAACP cites, as an example, plans to build 10 miles of new streetcar lines connecting gentrifying in-town neighborhoods instead of fixing and expanding the city’s MARTA commuter trains, which mostly serve black residents.

Environmentalists, too, have raised red flags, saying the plan ultimately will only encourage more traffic and, thus, pollution and smog.

Moreover, talk of an “economic death spiral” tied to lack of infrastructure improvements was offset, at least for some, by a recent CNBC business favorability survey that ranked Georgia as No. 3 among all states when it comes to road and infrastructure funding.

The push to pass the measure – which includes Democrats such as Mayor Reed and Republicans such as Governor Deal – came with a massive advertising campaign, including loudspeaker trucks rolling through various parts of town and predictions, based on internal polling, of a slim win for the measure. To many, the so-called antigridlock tax has evolved in recent weeks into a vote less about roads and more about how residents – in town and in the 'burbs – see metro Atlanta's future.

“As a result of our failure to deal with our traffic issues, as other leading cities in the world are doing far more rapidly, we risk entering a period of decline,” Reed told reporters last week. “This is our region’s leadership moment.”

Atlanta ranks No. 8 on the list of most-clogged American cities, and it has the fourth-worst commute. That’s the result of 50 years of playing traffic catchup as the metro area’s population swelled from less than 2 million 50 years ago to 5.2 million in 2010, putting pressure on the connector roads and a major ring road tying the residential suburbs to downtown jobs.

To push those points, proponents of the tax have had to massage their message, melding a straightforward antigridlock argument with one that also touts economic development. That careful messaging underscores what some tax critics say is perhaps the project’s greatest weakness: Only about half of the projects are likely to directly affect bogged-down commutes.

“From the Chamber [of Commerce's] point of view, if you can’t sell our schools and you can’t sell our economy, at least how it is right now, you’re looking for something to sell,” says Baruch Feigenbaum, an Atlanta-based transportation policy expert for the libertarian Reason Foundation. “That’s why I think this is less about solving a problem than creating a perception of solving problems."

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