The defeat was not unexpected. Tax hikes are never easy to sell to the public, especially when the economy is bad. Making matters worse, this one was poorly conceived and poorly sold. It failed to deliver enough rail transit to those who wanted more of it (south DeKalb, for example); while at least initially pledging to deliver rail to an area where most people wanted nothing to do with it (Cobb). And what began as a traffic-relief program ultimately morphed into a “jobs” program, an Atlanta version of President Obama’s discredited “stimulus” program.
The anti-rail backlash here was quick in coming and led Commission Chairman Tim Lee to prevail on his fellow TSPLOST planners to alter their plan and substitute “premium bus service” for rail in the I-75 corridor. But the perception was widespread that rail was what was in the TSPLOST “oven,” regardless of what Cobb residents voted for. As former Commission Chairman Earl Smith (a TSPLOST opponent) put it last week, “It’s kind of like Obama’s health care,” Smith said. “(They) passed the legislation, and then (they)’ll decide what’s in it once you passed it.”
Lee was unable to get a majority of the county commission to support it, was unable to sell it to the public and eventually tried, without much success, to put some distance between himself and the measure. The TSPLOST no doubt cost him sufficient support at the polls in Tuesday’s GOP Primary that he now faces a grueling runoff race against former Chairman Bill Byrne, an outspoken TSPLOST opponent.
And many of the legislators who had voted for the bill that put the TSPLOST on the ballot wound up contorting themselves to explain why they were no longer in support of it, once it became obvious how unpopular it was with voters.
The bottom line? The TSPLOST was DOA — “Dead on Arrival” on Tuesday.
SO WHERE do we go from here? The one thing everyone agrees on is that there is a pressing need for congestion relief. It’s also unlikely that the Legislature and governor will race to bring us “TSPLOST II: The Sequel.” Once bitten, twice shy, especially with a gubernatorial race looming in 2014.
That puts the onus back on local-level officials. And a locally conceived and oriented-road program should be easier to sell to voters than one that asks Cobb residents to share their sales tax dollars with counties clear across the metro area. It also would put elected Cobb leaders back in the driver’s seat on transportation improvements, rather than letting the mayor of Atlanta and faceless state DOT types take the wheel.
The good news is that significant improvements are already planned in the I-75 corridor, most notably the managed (reversible) lanes recently green-lighted by Gov. Nathan Deal.
But rather than rely on the state or the Atlanta Regional Commission to solve our road problems, Cobb’s next chairman and our legislators should combine with their counterparts in the neighboring counties that generate a disproportionate share of our traffic — namely Cherokee, Bartow and Paulding. Rather than being part of a metro-wide approach trying to address Atlanta’s congestion all at once, the more promising approach might be to create a northwest region consortium or commission — not to create a new layer of bureaucracy, but for the express purpose of focusing on relieving traffic congestion.
The other thing that all should agree on is that doing nothing is not an option, and that Tuesday’s TSPLOST turn-down should not be the final word on transportation improvements.