In any election, you’ll hear a lot about each side’s efforts to woo the woo-able. You’ve heard the names before: “soccer moms” and “NASCAR dads.” With that in mind, here’s a label for the group that might settle July’s T-SPLOST referendum: QuikTrip parents.
They live in the suburbs and have the area’s longest daily commutes. This costs them increasing amounts of gas money and family time. If you’ve seen or heard some of the advertisements about the T-SPLOST, the QuikTrip parents are the target audience.
This group may have become even more important this week when the Sierra Club said it was opposing the tax because, among other things, the project list devoted “only” 40 percent of the revenues to mass transit. In a region where only about 5 percent of commuters use transit, the Sierra Club’s stance displays a realism I’d expect from Don Quixote managing Buddy Roemer’s presidential campaign. Yet, I’ve heard the same concern from other pro-transit people.
And then there are those more concerned about the kind of transit projects the tax would fund. These projects are mostly inside I-285, even though the worst traffic is OTP. And they focus on light rail — the “light” refers to “light capacity” — rather than commuter rail options that would move more people, more efficiently, to Atlanta from the suburbs. Even if advocates are unwilling to bet that Plan B would include more transit, they might be willing to gamble it would include better transit.
So, the QuikTrip parents are becoming more central to this summer’s vote. And it will be very interesting to see if the sales pitch — pay 1 percent more for every good you buy, with a rebate in the form of less gas money and more family time — works with them.
For one thing, while they may be the most desperate for transportation improvements, they might also be the metro Atlantans least inclined to support a new tax.
According to the Atlanta Regional Commission, there are four counties (out of the 10 in the T-SPLOST region) where more than half the work force endures commutes of 30 minutes or more: Douglas, Henry, Cherokee and Gwinnett. Now, let’s use partisanship as a proxy for likelihood to support a new tax. In 2010, these counties split for Nathan Deal over Roy Barnes, 62 to 38 (for today’s purposes, I’m looking only at the two-party vote). That partisan split suggests an uphill climb for the pro-tax folks.
The key with undecided voters will be the project list. And here, too, there is reason to doubt the tax’s chances.
Look at the project map for the whole region, and you see a hub-and-spokes pattern that mirrors the layout of our interstates, with a particular emphasis on large employment centers such as Cumberland and Perimeter. The problem is that the counties where congestion is worst are also the places where commuters are least likely to work at these job centers.
Two-thirds or more of workers living in DeKalb and Fulton, for instance, head to one of the top 10 job centers each day. So, if projects are built to make it easier to reach those places, residents of DeKalb and Fulton are likely to see something that helps them.
The opposite is true, however, for QuikTrip parents. More than 60 percent of people in Cherokee, Rockdale, Douglas and Henry work somewhere other than in the top 10 job centers. This suggests they have more disparate commuting patterns, and may be less likely to believe T-SPLOST projects will reduce their drive times.
Now, one big factor is that there simply are more people in the counties that are more likely to vote for Democrats and have commuting patterns geared toward the biggest job centers. In all, the 10-county region in 2010 went for Barnes over Deal, 53 to 47. That would seem to be a good sign for the tax’s supporters.
But keep in mind that, for the most part, the counties that seem more naturally inclined to support the tax are also the ones where daily commutes are not as bad: If you live in Fulton, for example, you’re about half as likely as someone in Cherokee to have a 45-minute commute each way. The desperation, and thus the intensity at the ballot box, may be lower in those counties.
The campaign may be geared toward QuikTrip parents, but it’s not at all clear the project list was. In about three months, they’ll let us know.
– By Kyle Wingfield