Cobb rejected the tax with 85,412 votes against it — 69 percent — and 38,703 votes for it — 31 percent.
Across the 10-county region, voters rejected the tax with 415,526 ‘no’ votes — 63 percent — and 248,319 ‘yes’ votes — 37 percent.
County Chairman Tim Lee, who chose Cobb’s project list, said he didn’t know what would happen at the ballot box.
“I thought it would be closer, but it is what it is,” Lee said. “My reaction is that this was an issue put out in front of the people as to whether or not the
solution was one that they believed solved the problem that’s in front of us, which is real. What we need to do now is regroup, get together and continue to work to identify a solution for the problem that’s in front of us and that’s the transportation bottlenecks that exist. My point is this: this solution was presented by the legislators and the community at large, it was decided the community did not like the solution, and all that means is that we need to continue to work harder to promote a solution that could be agreeable to the folks out there.”
TSPLOST opponent Ron Sifen of Vinings, who campaigned hard against the tax, said he was pleased with the outcome.
“Cobb County voters have spoken and the Atlanta region has spoken,” Sifen said. “21 politicians failed to deliver a projects list that addressed the region’s transportation needs.”
Sifen said the TSPLOST tax dollars were supposed to go toward reducing traffic congestion.
“Pro-TSPLOST ads claimed people would have more time with their families,” Sifen said. “Voters figured out that the pro-TSPLOST hype was false, and that too much of the money was going to benefit special interests but would not reduce traffic congestion.”
The General Assembly placed 21 politicians in a room to decide the project list, Sifen said.
“21 politicians made political decisions that were bad transportation decisions. I urge the Legislature to recognize this aspect of what went wrong and fix it. Any Plan B needs to start with criteria that requires the money in the Atlanta region to be spent on projects that are cost-effective and will effectively reduce traffic congestion.”
TSPLOST cheerleader Tad Leithead, who chairs the Atlanta Regional Commission and Cumberland Community Improvement District, said one of the biggest challenges for the campaign was the unexpected passion of the opposition.
“I was surprised at the level of energy behind the opposition, particularly because much of the opposition was mounted by elected officials who originally supported the concept,” Leithead said.
Nearly all of the Republicans in the Cobb Legislative Delegation said they planned to vote no on the TSPLOST, with the exception of state Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-east Cobb), who said she “still believes in the privacy of the ballot box” and would not announce whether she’s “for or against something just because it’s the politically expedient thing to do.”
Leithead said opponents thought the process was a good one, but that the project list itself didn’t properly address the region’s needs.
“I do take it at face value that they believe in many cases that it’s too heavy on transit,” Leithead said. “Having said that, I believe this is an excellent project list, that transit is an extremely necessary component. (Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reid) said at (a Monday morning press conference) that this is a very good balance between a $3 billion investment in transit and $3 billion investment in roads, and so everybody got an incremental investment in what was important to them and that it’s very balanced, and I agree with all of that, so I think it’s a little bit of a mystery to me.”
The primary factor of the TSPLOST’s defeat was the anti-tax sentiment spurred by the economic downtown, Leithead said.
“We’re in an environment where people’s economic situation is in some danger, at some risk, and therefore a vote to increase taxes at this point was not looked upon favorably,” he said.
TSPLOST supporter and Atlanta Business Chronicle publisher Ed Baker touched on this point recently when he said, “If this had been 10 years ago ... when the economy was booming and everything was wonderful, and we were lighting our cigars with $5 bills, we wouldn’t be having this big discussion.”
Leithead said there was also some concern that the funds would not be spent as advertised, a position he completely rejects, but said “trust in government is at an all-time low, and some people simply don’t trust the process.”
Lee said there wasn’t one reason for the TSPLOST’s defeat.
“There’s so many reasons that I’ve heard over the last months why individuals don’t like it from they don’t like the list, they don’t like the fact that even if we vote against it and it wins in the region that we have to be a part of it,” Lee said. “Others just don’t like it because it’s a tax. If you got a faction here that doesn’t like it because it’s a tax, and a group over here doesn’t like it because the list, a group over here doesn’t like it because it doesn’t have the governance, you add all those up you now get a majority. Each on their own wouldn’t have won.”
Yet Lee said he does not take it as a personal rebuke that the TSPLOST was rejected.
“I put the list together with Mark Mathews and the other elected officials in the region and what we thought was best for the future of Cobb County based on what we know, what I know, what I’ve studied as it relates to the existing studies, transportation trends, commute habits, businesses and what they’ve told me they want in considering whether to move, whether to grow and whether to move out, I took all that into consideration in putting the list together,” Lee said. “If the community at large is not ready to move in that direction, as a leader I need to be responsive to that and reorganize and continue to come up with ways to address the transportation problems in the region. I don’t think anyone can argue there is a issue. What we’re debating and having a very, very good debate on is what’s the best way to solve it. So if this solution fails then I’m not going to sit back and say ‘that’s a personal attack,’” Lee said prior to the final results coming in Tuesday evening. “I’m going to say ‘OK that issue failed. Now we have to hunker down, pull our boot straps up and look at another issue and address the issue because the issue’s got to be resolved.’”
State Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb), who was elected to office after the TSPLOST legislation was approved, but who came out against the project list, said voters didn’t believe the benefits outweighed the cost.
Success of a voter-approved tax initiative comes from whether voters believe at the end of the taxing period they’ll be better off than they were to start with, Tippins said. It also comes from whether they believe they’re getting close to a dollar’s worth of benefits to a dollar’s worth of tax.
Then there was the largest line item on Cobb’s project list chosen by Lee and Mathews.
“The ambiguity of the bus rapid transit piece with it not being able to define what it is or give it any conclusion whatsoever until after the alternatives analysis study comes back … those kinds of unknowns are what would cost any initiative voter support,” Tippins said.
Tippins is referring to the $689 million earmarked for “enhanced premium transit service,” from Acworth to the MARTA Arts Center Station in Midtown, which Lee said would have been used for bus rapid transit and may have been upgraded to light rail with federal funding.
Any time a project list is placed before voters, it must be clearly defined, and the TSPLOST initiative mostly was, Tippins said.
“But speaking specifically of Cobb County, the biggest project in Cobb County, a $689 million price tag which would be about 70 percent of what Cobb County would yield out of it, I think, is a big question mark,” Tippins said. “It could be bus rapid transit. It could be light rail and nobody knows, and even if it’s bus rapid transit what it’s going to be is not very clear as to what the expectation would be.”
That the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority would make the final determination on what the end product would look like because it was a transit project did not build confidence, Tippins said.
“There’s just a huge — I don’t know if there is a distrust or a mistrust, but I think certainly an uneasiness — when government fails to clearly state what a taxing initiative is going to be,” Tippins said prior to the final votes coming in. “This is new, obviously it’s 10 counties involved in this, but I think specifically with Cobb the anxiety level is pretty high because it’s pretty short on specifics and details.”
Mayor Steve Tumlin spoke about the anti-tax, anti-government sentiment in Cobb.
“There’s no economic data that makes us feel good, and they feel like they’re paying enough tax as it is now,” said Tumlin, who neither endorsed nor opposed the tax.
“Secondly, I think most of the people I talk to if they’re voting against it would rather have seen more road work than rail work. How do you get from my neighborhood to downtown Atlanta or to Norcross? And I think they would have loved to have seen more interchanges, asphalt, as opposed to rail or bus lines. I think we as a society still love our cars and not getting into some of the issues that were raised about MARTA, I can’t really address those, but I think we like our cars so much we want to be able to move in our cars to get to our jobs and destinations.”
The tax would have collected $7.2 billion in the 10-county metro area. Of that amount, $6.14 billion worth of projects were chosen by the Atlanta Regional Roundtable. The remaining 15 percent, or $1.1 billion, would have been chosen at the local level.
Cobb’s portion of the 85 percent was $984 million, and Cobb’s portion of the 15 percent was $178 million.
Factoring in inflation, the total collection for the 10-county area rises to $8.5 billion, Atlanta Regional Commission spokesman Jim Jaquish said.
The TSPLOST campaign took the form of two efforts. One was the “education” side led by developer Bob Voyles and lobbyist Michael Paris called the Metro Atlanta Voter Education Network, which raised $2.1 million largely funded by CIDs along with other groups like WellStar Health System.
Then there was the advocacy arm of the campaign, Citizens for Transportation Mobility, chaired by Post Properties CEO Dave Stockert, which raised about $6.5 million, Leithead said.
Some said the TSPLOST supporters did themselves no favors by the tactics used. For instance, Chris Leinberger with the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution chided metro Atlanta for “racializing” MARTA. Leinberger also said the goal of having a rail system is not for traffic relief, but for economic development.
Lee also resorted to name calling, referring to TSPLOST opponents as spoiled brats and in some cases even racists.
Baker warned that he was keeping a list of Republican lawmakers who opposed the tax increase and that they would be held accountable “in a different way than before” for undermining the proposed tax’s importance.
Stockert attempted to sell the tax by saying, “We don’t have quite the same sex appeal that we once did, and we’ve got to get it back.”
Stockert moreover scoffed at lawmakers who suggested there was a better way of doing things, calling them “absolutely naïve.”
That comment brought a response from state Rep. Rich Golick (R-Smyrna), who warned that it was hardly wise to insult the very lawmakers you would need on your side in the future if the tax proposal went down in flames.
Cobb Chamber CEO David Connell went so far as to shrilly declare that the failure to pass the TSPLOST would be “the worst thing that ever happened to Atlanta.”
And Paul Bennecke, founder of Red Clay Strategies, attempted to guilt opponents into supporting the tax, saying, “Shame on you for being so selfish.”
Some voters were also outraged by the way Secretary of State Brian Kemp worded the ballot. The anti-TSPLOST Transportation Leadership Coalition hired Atlanta attorney Pitts Carr to challenge what the group believes is biased language Kemp wrote on the ballot.
The ballot language raising the ire of the anti-tax group is a preamble that says the TSPLOST “provides for local transportation projects to create jobs and reduce traffic congestion with citizen oversight.”
“It is very improper for anyone to use a ballot for advocacy, and this is like having a billboard in support of Referendum 1 right on the ballot,” Carr said.
Now that the tax has been voted down, Leithead said the question becomes what happens next.
“We continue to move forward,” Leithead said. “We have the Plan 2040, the $7.4 billion TIP investment that we made over the next six years, and if I understand correctly the legislators who have opposed this have said they would bring forward almost immediately a new plan for transportation investment here in the region, so I would look forward to seeing that plan and hope that we could in future years put something in place that would allow us to address this issue, but right now I don’t know exactly what that solution would look like or exactly what it would be.”