All sides agree the stakes are huge.

Voters go to the polls July 31 to decide whether to impose an extra penny sales tax on a 10-county region of metro Atlanta in order to finance transportation improvements. They’ll be deciding whether they to want to spend perhaps $8.5 billion over 10 years on roads, train tracks and bikeways.

The tax is expected to raise more than $7.2 billion in 2011 dollars. That money will be divided among regional and local projects. About $6.1 billion in 2011 dollars goes to 157 regional projects picked by a group of 21 mayors and county leaders appointed to choose the projects. More than $1.1 billion in 2011 dollars goes to local governments to spend on their own lists.

Backers of the proposed 1-cent transportation sales tax say it may offer metro Atlanta’s best chance to do something about its transportation troubles. The tax, usually called the “T-SPLOST” for “transportation-special purpose local option sales tax,” has drawn strong support from the local business community.

“This is not the answer. It is an answer to get us out from behind the eight ball,” Buckhead Community Improvement District Executive Director Jim Durrett said during a recent Sandy Springs Rotary Club meeting. “If we don’t [do something], shame on us.”

But critics of the new tax question whether the money will be spent as promised and whether the ways it’s supposed to be spent offer the best solutions to the metro area’s perennial gridlock.

“We’re picking up that the ‘no’ vote is building out there,” said Norb Leahy, head of the Dunwoody Tea Party and an opponent of the tax. “There’s way too much fluff in it [the project list] and it’s way too much money. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Fulton and DeKalb votes are very close, but there are still people in Fulton and DeKalb who say, ‘That’s too much money, so figure out another way to do this.’”

The current regional plan was developed in the state Legislature in 2010 as a compromise to break a logjam over transportation funding that had lasted for years. The contentious debate pitted rural interests against urban ones and set regions of the state against one another.

The plan divides Georgia into 12 multi-county regions. Each region developed its own list of projects to be financed by a sales tax and each region will hold its own vote in July. The metro Atlanta region encompasses Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett, Clayton, Cherokee, Douglas, Fayette, Henry and Rockdale counties. If approved by voters across the region, no city or county within the region would be exempt from the tax, regardless of the vote within that city or county.

A 21-member Regional Roundtable of local officials decided which projects in metro Atlanta should be financed by the tax. A roundtable committee winnowed a list of 400 projects initially projected to cost $22 billion to the current list.

“This isn’t about me getting mine. This is us getting ours,” Durrett said.

It’s also a good investment, Tad Leithead, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, told members of the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts during the group’s May 18 meeting. Projects paid for with the tax proceeds are expected to have a $34.5 billion impact on the economy, he said. “We’ll be investing $8.5 billion for a $34.5 billion return,” he said.

But some backers of the proposal worry that the voters won’t endorse a new tax, even one intended to do something as popular as fixing highway gridlock.

Heather Wright, past president of the Buckhead Business Association, backs the tax, but thinks the vote will be “close, real close.”

“I wouldn’t put odds on it,” she said. “There is a disconnect between leadership and those who are led. In this economic moment, when asking people to give up more of their money, you’ve got to be really transparent.”

She thinks the tax is needed, however. “We have to have something like this. There is no other money. We have to have buy-in by the people. I think people know we need it. I just don’t know if it’s fully been brought out. I think there’s a lot of confusion.”

The projects list has drawn public opposition from groups across the political spectrum. The Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group, calls it road-heavy. The Tea Party argues it puts too much into rail. The DeKalb branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People opposed the tax, saying it did not include enough mass transit for south DeKalb, and the state NAACP said too few black representatives served on the committees that drew up the project lists, according to press accounts.

Some potential voters say they simply are confused.

“I’m a little apprehensive about it,” said Dunwoody homeowner Eddie Sharp. “There are still some things I don’t understand about it. Number one, does it ever expire? It sounds like it does, but every time we go [through a sales tax] for the schools, [they’re renewed by the voters so] they never expire. Once we implement this, I question whether it will ever end.”

Sandy Springs homeowner Dick Farmer worries about how the tax money will be spent. “In theory, it’s a good idea,” he said. “The devil is in the details.”

Farmer, who lives near Hammond Drive in Sandy Springs, turned against the program because the widening of that road was included among the regional projects to be financed with the tax. Farmer argues the decision to include Hammond was a political one. The project was dropped from the list during the planning stages, and then put back. So was a project to make some improvements to Ashford-Dunwoody Road in Brookhaven.

“I don’t know how many others got back on the list,” Farmer said. “That’s a concern I have not only for Sandy Springs, but across the board.”

Proponents say they realize they must attack public skepticism and confusion about the plan before the July 31 vote.

Michael Paris, president of the Council for Quality Growth said critics question whether the money will be spent as promised. Some point to the state’s decision to extend tolls on Ga. 400 as an example of how politicians can change the rules, he said.

“Trust is at an all-time low,” he said. “But this is an opportunity for us to turn that corner by delivering on the promises we make.”

The transportation sales tax will last only 10 years, he said, and any money collected through the tax must be spent only on a set of projects designated by a regional transportation round table. “This is locked down pretty tight.”

Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation President John Sherman sees it differently.

“I think anything selected by the government, anything selected by elected officials, is subject to oversight,” Sherman said. “[Projects] in the Atlanta region were selected by elected officials, not by professional engineers and planners, and the foundation feels this should be reviewed by professionals. Who trusts government today?”

Here are proposed transportation projects in Reporter Newspaper communities to be paid for with the “regional” share of the penny transportation sales tax that goes before the voters on July 31.

$37 million for planning, engineering, improved interim bus service and possible rights of way purchases for an extension of the MARTA rail line north of the North Springs station.
$160 million for construction of collector/distributor lanes along Ga. 400.
$12 million for turn lanes, bike lanes, sidewalks and intersection improvements along Mount Vernon Road from the Fulton County line to Dunwoody Club Road.
$700,000 for MARTA tunnel ventilation.
$10 million of the $23.5 million needed to widen Hammond Drive from two to four lanes between Roswell and Barfield roads.
$112.5 million of the $450 million needed to reconstruct the I-285-Ga. 400 interchange.
$5 million for study, intersection improvements, signal upgrades, bicycle lanes and sidewalk along Ashford-Dunwoody Road from I-285 corridor to Peachtree Road.
$90 million to renovate aerial sections of MARTA rail lines and MARTA pedestrian bridges.
$25 million for a new road connecting Peachtree Industrial Boulevard to Buford Highway.
$12 million for pedestrian improvements on Buford Highway.
$50 million for bus rapid transit on Piedmont and Roswell Roads.
$525,325 for traffic improvements on Northside Drive from West Paces Ferry Road to Whitehall Street.
$1.7 million for traffic improvements along Peachtree Road from Peachtree-Dunwoody Road to Collier Road.
$612,000 for traffic improvements on Piedmont Road and Piedmont Avenue from Roswell Road to Edgewood Avenue.

For more information: http://www.atlantaregionalroundtable.com/map/tia.html
Source: www.AtlantaRegiona Roundtable.com

Local work to be financed by the tax

If approved by the voters on July 31, the proposed penny transportation sales tax will provide money for both regional and local projects.

The regional projects were approved by the Regional Roundtable, a group comprised of 11 mayors and 10 county commission chairs from the 10-county region. Those projects receive 85 percent of the money raised. To see the list, go to www.atlantaregionalroundtable.com/documents/final_report.pdf.

The remaining 15 percent of the sales tax money is returned to local governments. The cities of Sandy Springs and Dunwoody plan to use the funds to pay for projects already on their community transportation improvement wish lists.

Sandy Springs’ list includes more than two dozen projects, including work at Sandy Springs Circle at Hammond Drive; streetscape work on Roswell Road and Johnson Ferry Road; intersection improvements at Johnson Ferry Road and Sandy Springs Circle, Johnson Ferry and Glenridge, Johnson Ferry and Abernathy; sidewalks on Sandy Springs Circle, and other projects. For the list, go to www.sandyspringsga.org/SandySprings/media/Agendas/MCC/2012/0605/REG/14-Agenda-Item-No–12-143.pdf.

Dunwoody’s list includes resurfacing projects, sidewalks and intersection improvements. For a list, go to http://www.dunwoodyga.gov/Departments/Government/Document/Meeting_Agendas_Minutes.aspx.

The city of Atlanta has released a separate list of projects it plans to finance with its share of the sales tax money.

Here are projects listed in or near Buckhead: multi-use path for Atlanta BeltLine Trail from Peachtree Road to Peachtree Creek area; multi-use path for Atlanta BeltLine Trail from Peachtree Hills Park area to Adina Drive; improvements at Chastain Park for cyclists and pedestrians; install new pedestrian signal at crosswalk at Cheshire Bridge and Lenox roads; intersection realignment at Peachtree and Collier roads; pedestrian safety improvements along Piedmont Road from Sidney Marcus Boulevard to Garson Drive; multi-use path for Atlanta BeltLine Trail from Dellwood Drive to Peachtree Road; traffic calming on Deering Road from Northside Drive to Peachtree Road; repaving and intersection improvements at Mount Paran Road and Northside Parkway; add left turn lane to Northside Parkway from Moores Mill to Arden Road; sidewalk repairs and bicycle facilities along Jett Road and Hillside Drive.

Sources: various cities.

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.