Given modern cynicism regarding politicians, it’s nice to see that at least one promise to the voters is being kept.
With construction bonds paid off, the 50-cent toll on Ga. 400 is scheduled to end at 8 this evening, just as our leaders had promised us more than 20 years ago when they sought public support for the project.
No more worrying about your Cruise Card account. No more digging 50 cents out of your pocket as you pull up to the toll booth. The freedom of the American road is being restored, just as promised.
For a week anyway.
At 8 p.m. July 1, the 50-cent toll will be reintroduced and will stay on for another 10 years to finance another set of projects. As former Gov. Sonny Perdue explained last year after arranging the scheme, it will be a “new toll,” as opposed to the now-expiring toll.
Nobody’s fooled, of course. In fact, the week-long suspension threatens to confirm the belief of many voters that a deal isn’t really a deal, and that government isn’t to be trusted.
That attitude came up repeatedly in a series of “telephone town halls” conducted in counties around the region by the Atlanta Transportation Roundtable over the last two weeks. Members of the roundtable, a group of 21 elected local officials created by state law, took questions regarding the proposed 10-year, one-penny sales tax for transportation that voters will be asked to approve in July 2012.
Time and again, voters participating in the calls expressed doubt that proceeds of the tax would be used for transportation here in metro Atlanta and not be diverted to other parts of the state and other uses.
“How long is the tax, and how can we be sure it won’t be extended without public approval?” one caller from Cherokee County asked.
Tim Downing, the mayor of Holly Springs and a roundtable member, offered reassurance.
“There is no danger,” he told the caller, “and by law no one can extend the tax without voter approval.”
That’s true. Unlike the Ga. 400 promise, provisions are written into the law guaranteeing that proceeds of the tax are used solely for transportation projects in the metro region. The same is true of provisions ending the tax in 10 years.
Roundtable members and transportation planners do hope that once the initial 10-year tax expires, voters will be so pleased by what it has accomplished that they will renew it. That’s not a cause for worry; it’s a means of keeping leaders accountable. If they want voters to renew the tax in 2022, elected leaders know they can’t promise more than they can deliver, and they know they have to keep what promises they do make.
Overall, tens of thousands of metro Atlanta residents participated in at least part of a telephone town hall in the last two weeks. And while participants can’t be described as a scientific cross-section — not every voter is going to listen by phone to an hour-long transportation discussion — the information they produced was interesting.
In Gwinnett County, 50 percent of respondents listed a rail connection to Atlanta as their highest transportation priority. In Cobb County, 61 percent rated a rail link downtown as their highest priority. In Henry County, the most popular project was a commuter rail line linking Hampton and Atlanta.
But such sentiments were not unanimous. One caller from Cherokee County wanted assurance from Downing and County Commission Chairman Buzz Ahrens that there were no plans to bring “MARTA or Cobb-type mass transit” to that community.
“I really don’t think that it is a viable solution for Cherokee County,” the caller said. “There’s too much other things that come along with public transportation that we and my constituents find to be undesirable elements that go along with public transportation.”
He was reassured that no such projects are on the current list. However, two other callers expressed strong concern that without an eventual rail link between Cherokee and the rest of the region, the county would be left behind.
Based on comments in the Gwinnett County town hall, sentiments have evolved in that community as well.
“My wife and I are senior citizens,” a man identifying himself as Eugene said. “We are on a limited budget, and we may or may not live to see this through. But we would be glad to pay the 1-percent sales [tax] to bring our wonderful area into the 21st century.”
– Jay Bookman