Wheels and Heels: Post Mortem on the Transportation Sales Tax Phoners

Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd and DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis talk to thousands about next year's transportation vote.

An extra penny sales tax will spell the difference between more and quicker ways to get around metro Atlanta and continuing gridlock and congestion, according to DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis and Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd.

And they're depending on DeKalb residents to go to the polls next July to approve a new sales tax for transportation improvements. The two are DeKalb's representates on a 10-county Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable, and on Wednesday, they held that reached more than 26,000 county residents. 

Instead of asking residents to come to a meeting, the officials brought the meeting to the people. A Colorado-based company dialed more than 152,000 DeKalb households at random, inviting whoever answered the phone to stay on to give  Ellis and Floyd their opinion on pressing transportation issues.  An estimated 26,329 residents listened to at least 10 minutes of the telephone call, and many asked questions.

Touted as a session to gather opinion and answer questions, the session seemed more of a way to publicize the importance of next year's vote. Next July, residents of 10 counties in metro Atlanta will be asked to approve a penny sales tax that would fund an estimated $8 billion dollars of transportation improvements.

“We have more than $120 billion transportation improvement needs, but expect to have only $60 billion from traditional sources,” said Ellis. He warned listeners that if Atlanta wants to remain competitive with such cities as Charlotte, Denver, Seattle and Phoenix, the region is going to have to make serious improvements to its transportation infrastructure.

Because this audience didn’t comprise transportation junkies, many were unaware that the roundtable has already created a  $22.9 billion of proposed transportation investments, including projects requested by local governments and projects identified by the Georgia Department of Transportation. Since the tax is projected to bring in less than $8 billion, that will have to be trimmed.

In fact, the day after the call, the Atlanta Journal- Constitution warned that new economic predictions show that the proposed tax would raise only about $6.14 billion, meaning another $235 million must be cut.

But Wednesday’s session proved to be a great way of reaching people who know more about what pop musicians are up to than their local politicians. The woman who asked Ellis and Floyd to explain to her what it meant to live in unincorporated DeKalb, for example, is unlikely to ever show up at a board meeting. 

Basic civics lesson: if you don’t live within the city limits of one of the 20 incorporated cities in DeKalb, including Decatur, Avondale Estates, Atlanta, you live in unincorporated DeKalb and rely on the county to provide police, school and many other government services, they explained.

After the meeting, Mayor Floyd said he was so impressed with the format of the roundtable, he plans to propose that the city of Decatur use the service in the future to gauge public opinion.

During the call, listeners could vote by pressing a button.  Asked to choose the county’s most important transportation investment, most listeners (58 percent) chose transit service that expands train lines along the I-20 East corridor.  Just 26.4 percent opted for transit connecting the Lindbergh train station to the Emory University/CDC area, and another 15.6 percent thought neither was important.

Next year’s July vote isn’t tied to a hot-button political primary, so voter turnout is likely to be low. The issue will be decided by the majority of voters casting ballots, according to Floyd. Translation: if DeKalb, Fulton and a few other gridlocked counties can muster enough votes, it won’t matter how anti-tax suburbanites vote in Henry or Cherokee counties.

Concerns raised during Wednesday’s call included sidewalks, unemployment, public transportation, express buses, synchronizing traffic lights, and how to get on the citizen review board that would be created if the tax passes. Answers to the questions were, necessarily, more general than specific, since the panel hasn’t finalized its list of projects. But the officials promised that they're considering sidewalks, pedestrian improvements, bikeways, traffic light coordination and MARTA improvements are being considered.

To make the list, projects must serve regional needs, not just local needs, although 15 percent of any money raised would go to local projects, Ellis and Floyd said.

On the local projects list for Decatur and Avondale Estates is two Decatur projects that will potentially make it onto the referendum ballot:

--The Decatur to Clifton Corridor, which would upgrade  bicycle, pedestrian and transit support facilities on Clairemont Avenue, Commerce Drive and Church Street in an effort to improve connections between downtown Decatur and the Emory/Clifton Corridor regional employment center.

-- The Decatur Circulator Shuttle, which would connect the Decatur,
Avondale and East Lake MARTA stations and Decatur/Avondale activity
centers to the Emory/Clifton Corridor, Avondale Estates and Atlanta.

To see a complete list of proposed projects, including interactive maps, go to the Atlanta Regional Roundtable website, where you can also sign up to be notified of upcoming events.  The site also has posted an audio of the complete hour-long meeting in DeKalb and other counties.

KP June 20, 2011 at 06:19 PM
They can cheerlead all they want - I'm still not voting to increase my taxes for a bunch of projects that will not improve my Avondale-Buckhead commute.
Diane Loupe June 22, 2011 at 12:34 PM
KP, how do you figure it won't help, KP? Won't having more transit options siphon some folks out of cars and onto MARTA and out of your way? I do agree, though, that commuting from this area into Buckhead is a pain in the patootie.


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