When it comes to salesmanship, there’s not much to separate politics from a vacuum cleaner, denture cream or light beer.
A good product is always convenient — though not altogether necessary. More important is the confident face that closes the sale.
For months, supporters of next year’s transportation sales tax referendum in metro Atlanta have wondered who will be the public personalities behind a multimillion dollar push for the 10-year tax.
Two metro leaders, one Republican and the other Democratic, may have just been drafted — by the Legislature’s decision last month not to move the vote from the July 31 primary.
In the 10-county area that makes up the new metro Atlanta tax region, the heads of eight county commissions will be up for re-election in 2012.
But only in Cobb and DeKalb counties have the fortunes of the T-SPLOST been tied to the political futures of specific individuals.
In Cobb, County Commission Chairman Tim Lee has picked up a GOP primary challenge from former chairman Bill Byrne, generated by Lee’s participation in the negotiations that will produce a final list of $6 billion in road and rail projects by mid-October.
“I was put in this position. I didn’t select to be in this position. The [state] legislators wrote me into this process, and I’m now having to deal with it,” Lee said in an interview Wednesday.
The big issue in Cobb is commuter rail. Some critics of the T-SPLOST package argue that a 10-mile rail extension from downtown Atlanta, across the Chattahoochee River and one mile into Cobb’s Cumberland area is too little. Others argue against the need for rail altogether.
Lee has eight days to decide whether to push for any Cobb change to the T-SPLOST list. Only after the final list is compiled on Oct. 15 will he decide whether to endorse the final product. But he confessed a certain inevitability.
“Whether I’m promoting it or not, I am going to be tied to it by the mere fact that I’m on the [Atlanta Regional Transportation] Roundtable and part of the process,” Lee said. “So if I’m going to be tied to it, I might as well help guide the opinion that folks have.”
Byrne, who left the Cobb chairmanship in 2002 to run for governor, said he’ll crank up his campaign to retake the office in January, challenging the constitutionality of a law that could require the collection of a sales tax within the entire 10-county region — even if Cobb voters turn it down.
“It will be the powerful, big-money people against the little folk,” he said.
Marietta Mayor Steve “Thunder” Tumlin has been mentioned as a third GOP candidate, but his candidacy sounds unlikely. “Right now, I’ve got my options open, but I’m loving my job as mayor,” he said.
In DeKalb, County CEO Burrell Ellis may also be thrust into the role of reluctant champion of the transportation sales tax. While in the middle of a Democratic primary that determines whether he should keep his job.
But in DeKalb, there’s no hesitancy over whether commuter rail is needed.
“I’m not pleased at all where we have come out on the transit piece. There are certain pockets of the region that are just absent — and that is the south and southeastern part of the region,” said DeKalb County Commissioner Lee May, a Democrat who represents south DeKalb — and is thinking about a run against Ellis for CEO.
“I’m very concerned about the direction of the county,” May said. “I’m giving it some consideration.”
More immediately, May said he’s troubled by the lack of funding on the T-SPLOST list for an eastward MARTA line along I-20.
“The political dynamic is, if DeKalb County doesn’t overwhelmingly support this T-SPLOST, the thing will not pass,” May said. “As it stands now, with the absence of the I-20 rail project, it will fail miserably in DeKalb County. Which means the kiss of death for the T-SPLOST in the 10-county region.”
Early objections from DeKalb have resulted in $225 million toward an I-20 route. May says that’s not enough. But Ellis says it may have to do.
“I’ve said all along — let’s erase the jurisdictional boundaries, and let’s look at the traffic patterns. Let’s look at where the highest concentrations of people are, and let’s look where the employment centers are,” Ellis said.
Money currently allotted for the I-20 route might be enough, with some leveraged federal dollars, for light rail — or a bus rapid transit arm, the county CEO said.
But Ellis is prepared to argue that DeKalb County does pretty well under the current T-SPLOST list. MARTA, which DeKalb has helped fund for three decades, is fortified. A new rail line from MARTA’s Lindbergh Center station to the Clifton Corridor and Emory University area is a route with national significance — and a pathway to jobs for residents of south DeKalb, Ellis said.
“I don’t think we ought to throw the baby out with the bath water,” Eillis said. “What’s on the table right now, given the resources we have available, is smart.”
Like Cobb County’s Lee, Ellis said he’ll wait for the final list. But also like Lee, Ellis indicated he’ll probably end up betting his political career on the T-SPLOST vote.
“I think you’re going to have to have some visionaries who are willing to take some risks in order to see the region advance,” he said.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider