Fulton leaders hope to avoid repeat transportation sales tax defeat

The failed regional transportation referendum of 2012 has cast a long shadow over plans to pitch Fulton County voters on a new, more locally focused transportation sales tax in November.

The 2012 initiative would have funded $7.2 billion worth of road, rail and bus projects over a decade. But the sheer size of the 10-county metro region made reaching consensus nearly impossible as local leaders tried to balance the needs of extremely diverse communities — suburban and urban, car commuters and transit takers.

This time around, mayors and county commissioners are desperate to avoid a repeat of the public backlash and recriminations surrounding the former initiative. The 2012 Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST) was defeated by a nearly two-to-one margin in the metro region, but lost by only 51 percent in Fulton.

So far, Fulton elected officials don’t even have a proposed list of projects for the new initiative yet but are already worried about getting residents on board. The proposed 0.75 percent sales tax hike would last five years and bring in between $500 million to $600 million, all for use solely within the county.

Local leaders who met last week to discuss the referendum agreed there will have to be a grassroots effort to educate and involve the public in picking projects if they are to succeed. Roswell Mayor Jere Wood also has suggested conducting preliminary polling to gauge voter interest early on.

“I don’t want to go through a vote and learn after it’s over with that we didn’t have the right list,” said Wood. “I want to get the list to the public in front of this and find out if they support it.”

Commission Chairman John Eaves sounded optimistic about the prospect of getting public buy-in.

“We all hear the complaints about traffic and congestion,” said Eaves. “And now we have within our tool box one tool that can address our transportation challenges. I’m very excited about that.”

Eaves, who was involved on the roundtable tasked with choosing projects in 2012, said the sheer size of the 10-county Atlanta region made it difficult to reach a compromise.

When the effort failed, Eaves said it was a bitter disappointment — like “fumbling the football on the goal line.” The state Legislature had never before provided local governments with a mechanism to raise money earmarked for transportation. There was concern among county and city officials that after TSPLOST failed, it would be politically unpopular for lawmakers to try again.

Indeed, state legislators were loathe to pitch a Plan B for three years, even as the region became increasingly mired in traffic congestion. That is, until the passage last year of House Bill 170, a landmark piece of transportation funding legislation. The bill included a provision to let counties pursue another local transportation sales tax of up to 1 percent, either individually or in regional groups as before.

Initially, it seemed Fulton’s goals would again be undermined by competing priorities. The city of Atlanta was bent on using a half-percent of the sales tax for MARTA expansion, while North Fulton cities of Alpharetta and Johns Creek were advocating for a full penny to go to road improvements.

However, a last-minute compromise at the state Legislature this year brought about a solution that divorced Atlanta from the rest of Fulton for the purposes of the transportation sales tax, allowing each to proceed with their own vote.

The next step is for all the Fulton cities and the county to agree on splitting the proceeds of the proposed tax based on population, and then to begin vetting potential projects.

A series of six open houses are already planned in South Fulton. Elsewhere in the county, leaders say they will engage Community Improvement Districts and other community and civic groups to get their opinions on the most pressing investment needs. The public’s feedback will be used to help develop the draft lists for each city and the county.

Commissioner Bob Ellis said that when he ran for office, he was asked by a voter in his North Fulton district if he would support another TSPLOST. His answer at the time? No.

But Ellis said he feels differently about the new proposed Fulton TSPLOST.

“If each jurisdiction does the work of collaborating with other jurisdictions and reaching out to citizens, helping them understand there will be congestion relief, then we will have no problem getting this passed,” said Ellis.

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