Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed found himself playing the skunk at a dinner party Wednesday, raising an unwelcome stink in an otherwise congenial, cooperative meeting of the Atlanta region’s transportation roundtable.
But the stink was necessary.
The roundtable’s mission is to compile a list of needed transportation projects in the 10-county region, then build public support for funding those projects with a 10-year, one-penny sales tax estimated to raise $8 billion. (The vote is scheduled for 2012).
In hard times such as these, with tax dollars hard to come by, everyone understands that it’s going to be tough to get 50 percent plus one of the region’s voters to support such a tax. But as Reed and other members of the roundtable executive committee made clear Wednesday, success is crucial to metro Atlanta’s quality of life and its economy. Without a major surge of transportation investment, the region’s future will dim.
Earl Bender, part of the team hired with private dollars to elicit public input into the transportation plan and then build voter support for its passage, put the challenge well:
“It’s something that we all need to do together. It’s our region, our list, our future that’s at stake. It’s our families. We need to build the widest possible coalition both to give input and to support the eventual choices that will be made so that we can pass this to benefit the entire region.”
After Bender finished, Reed interjected, pointing out that Bender and the other three leaders of the messaging team hired to sell the referendum to voters were white males. No women. No minorities. Not the best way to build “the widest possible coalition.”
“This is a huge problem,” Reed said. “If they want to go down this road where they’re going to assemble a team that is not inclusive and not representative of this region, we’re going to lose.”
It’s important to note that Reed expressed his concern in terms of performance, not symbolism or patronage. In fact, he was building on Bender’s larger point: Passing a sales tax referendum in a 10-county area will require a coalition of exurban and inner city residents, the affluent and the poor, transit riders and auto lovers, bike riders, walkers and yes, even the golf-cart dependent. Reaching that diverse audience is going to require a diverse messaging team. They have to be able to appeal to the region as a whole, as an entity with a shared future, and also to individual communities more concerned about their own more narrow challenges. If they can’t do both, the measure will be rejected.
In fact, that defines the whole challenge, as roundtable members seem to understand. All of them are local elected officials, representing local constituencies with local concerns and local transportation needs. And it would be easy to make satisfying those local needs their top priority. However, they also understand that if each of them tries to get as much money as possible for their own districts, they will more likely get nothing because the tax will fail.
In fact, while Reed’s statement provided a shot of drama and tension in Wednesday’s meeting, the session as a whole was marked by a spirit of cooperation and a commitment to a regional vision. Ten years ago, or even five years ago, it was almost inconceivable that locally elected leaders would be speaking sincerely in such terms. But they do today.
Of course, the true test of that spirit will come as the executive committee sifts through the hundreds of projects proposed by local governments, deciding which to fund and which to reject. If roundtable leaders handle that difficult process with maturity and vision, and without rancor or jealousy, it’s going to go a long way in convincing voters around the region that they’re being treated fairly.