It would be great if next year’s region-wide referendum on a new transportation tax were to pass by the margin suggested in a newly released AJC poll. According to Mason-Dixon pollsters, 51 percent of registered voters say they would approve the one-penny tax, with just 36 percent opposed.
In fact, if repeated next year, such a result would be more than great. It would be downright shocking.
That’s not a reflection on the merits of the poll, which probably offers an accurate snapshot of public sentiment as it exists today. The only problem is, the vote won’t be held today. Given that Mason-Dixon found that just 29 percent of metro voters are even somewhat familiar with the proposed tax, a lot of minds are destined to change, one way or the other, in the months to come.
In fact, if the referendum does pass, I’d bet it would be by fewer than five percentage points. At the moment, even that would be a bit of an upset.
However, the poll results do offer a lot of pleasant surprises and cause for optimism, suggesting that the political landscape is not quite as forbidding as it might have seemed. It also offers one unpleasant result that isn’t a surprise in the least and may represent the proposal’s single biggest obstacle to passage.
For example, are suburban voters in Cobb and Gwinnett opposed to the measure before they even know much about it? No. By a margin of 48 to 42 percent, they say they support it.
Will transportation advocates have to overcome a knee-jerk opposition to new taxes in general? No again. Only 42 percent say they would refuse to support this or any other tax increase.
You also hear a lot of claims that metro Atlantans just won’t vote to spend money on public transit. Again, the poll suggests otherwise. Two-thirds of those responding believe that their community would benefit from expanded transit, and 82 percent agree that it’s important to encourage commuting via transit.
Overall, 91 percent of those polled said it was important to address the region’s transportation problems, and 67 percent said that congestion is causing a decline in quality of life here. Those are all good baseline numbers upon which to build a successful campaign. People understand there’s a problem and they want a solution.
So what’s the bad news? When voters were asked whether state and local officials would end the one-penny sales tax in 10 years, only 42 percent had faith the promise would be kept. The fact that the promise is written into law, ensuring that the tax could be renewed only if voters re-approve it come 2022, doesn’t change the reality that the public is deeply distrustful.
That lack of faith, driven in part by decisions such as keeping a toll on Ga. 400 beyond the promised time frame, is probably the single biggest obstacle to be overcome.
It also doesn’t help much that mechanisms for planning, funding and executing the regionwide transportation plan are awkward and unwieldy. That’s a direct consequence of a General Assembly and governor that were less interested in solving the problem than in finding a way to dump responsibility on someone else, in this case voters and local officials. If a camel is a horse designed by committee, this process is admittedly a camel.
On the other hand, if you’re stuck in the desert with no other options, a camel can be quite a fine transportation alternative. And that’s pretty much where we find ourselves. As voices rise in opposition to the referendum, it will be important to ask what alternative solutions they propose because realistically, there aren’t any.
– Jay Bookman