A Well-Tied Knot: Atlanta's Mobility Crisis and the 2012 T-SPLOST Debate

Emory University
Published April 29, 2013

Edward Hatfield surveys the challenges of transportation planning in the Atlanta metro region by unraveling the complex history of the contentious T-SPLOST (Transportation Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax) initiative that was defeated in a 2012 referendum. Contextualizing the fractious public debate that surrounded the planning process, Hatfield provides insight into the legacies of white flight and the region's shifting demographic makeup upon transportation policy. What emerges is a portrait of a metropolitan area at odds with itself and of a politics as immobile as its people.

Edward A. Hatfield
Emory University


Percent of "Yes" vote in T-SPLOST referendum by precinct, August 2012, Atlanta Regional Commission.
Percent of "Yes" vote in T-SPLOST referendum by precinct, August 2012, Atlanta Regional Commission.

"We took on the governor, the lieutenant governor, the mayor, big business and slick political consultants," boasted Atlanta Tea Party leader Debbie Dooley on July 31, 2012. "[And] we emerged victorious." And, indeed, they did. Though the votes were still being counted when Dooley delivered her victory speech at Midtown's Hudson Grille after last summer's primaries, the outcome was entirely clear: the T-SPLOST (Transportation Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax), which supporters hailed as metro Atlanta's last great chance to solve its transportation crisis, was like its commuters, going nowhere fast.1

The story of Atlanta's T-SPLOST debate follows a long and winding road that began under the state's gold dome where, after four years of false starts, legislators passed the Transportation Investment Act of 2010 (TIA). The legislation carved the state into twelve transportation districts and charged elected officials in each with assembling a list of projects to be funded by a one-percent sales tax over ten years, essentially placing the fate of regional transportation planning in the hands of area voters. The mayors and county commissioners that composed the metro Atlanta "regional roundtable" then set to work crunching numbers, vetting projects, and trading horses in an effort that to longtime observers must have seemed a fool's errand. Competition, not collaboration, had long characterized metropolitan relationships and it wasn't altogether clear that area leaders could even agree on a slate of projects, much less persuade voters to foot the bill. But in the fall of 2011 the group announced that it had approved by unanimous consent a list of 157 projects in ten counties at a total cost of 6.14 billion dollars, surprising many a local cynic and perhaps even a few in the roundtable.2

Then the going got rough. From the outset, the Tea Party assailed a project list that squandered precious resources on transit. The Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club meanwhile announced their opposition on the basis that the list lavished generous sums on new roads. And for its part, the state NAACP took exception to a plan that did too little to promote transportation equity. Old resentments resurfaced, new alliances were forged, and with a hundred and fifty some odd projects included, almost everyone most found at least a few to dislike. For a majority, that was all it took. When the dust settled and the votes were tallied, Atlanta's T-SPLOST had failed. Miserably.

It failed not only in staunchly conservative, exurban counties like Fayette and Cherokee, but also in relatively progressive and populous Fulton and DeKalb—the supposed lynchpins of the regional campaign. Only thirty-seven percent of metro voters supported the T-SPLOST, and it won majorities in only two jurisdictions, the cities of Atlanta and Decatur. The final vote totaled 257,942 in favor and 417,593 against. In the first genuinely metropolitan conversation about transportation policy in nearly half a century, Atlanta area voters basically agreed to disagree. But about what?3

"We're saying you have screwed us . . ."

Campaign advertisement in support of the T-SPLOST referendum, July 2012, Citizens for Transportation Mobility.

Untangling the reasons for the T-SPLOST's defeat remains a difficult task, but at least one thing can be said with complete certainty: the campaign didn't lack for financing. Faced with the possibility of defeat in what area leaders were calling the most important vote in a generation, Atlanta business leaders closed ranks and opened their wallets. Georgia Power and Cox Enterprises, the parent company of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, donated $250,000 apiece. Longtime stalwart Coca-Cola added another $197,500. The construction and design industries contributed more than a million dollars alone and even the good folks at Waffle House chipped in $25,000. All told, Citizens for Transportation Mobility, the political action committee that waged the "Untie Atlanta" campaign, raised a war chest of six and a half million dollars, and spent widely on mailers, door-to-door canvassing, phone banks and television ad buys. The leading opposition group, the Transportation Leadership Coalition, made do with little more than $14,000 and shoe leather.4

Even given their tremendous spending advantage, supporters of the measure had reasons to worry. One was the region's history of white, suburban resistance to public transportation, particularly the Metropolitan Atlanta Rail Transit Authority (MARTA). When it appeared on area ballots in 1971, MARTA's suburban opponents erected a populist defense of local autonomy and defeated the measure by a four to one margin. In the years that followed, the system's critics consistently opposed its expansion, and as the ugly expression "Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta" suggests, a great many were motivated by the worst reasons. Given this tortured history of race and rail, one might expect racial considerations would impact the vote. Indeed, it's hard to imagine otherwise.5

Percentage of metro Atlanta white residents by 2010 census block group, 2013. Data from Social Explorer.
Percentage of metro Atlanta white residents by 2010 census block group, 2013. Data from Social Explorer.
Percentage of metro Atlanta black residents by 2010 census block group, 2013. Data from Social Explorer.
Percentage of metro Atlanta black residents by 2010 census block group, 2013. Data from Social Explorer.
Percentage of metro Atlanta Hispanic or Latino residents by 2010 census block group, 2013. Data from Social Explorer.
Percentage of metro Atlanta Hispanic or Latino residents by 2010 census block group, 2013. Data from Social Explorer.

Still, there are a number of reasons to suspect that the 2012 T-SPLOST referendum is not the latest chapter in an all-too familiar story. For one, the metropolitan demographic landscape has been significantly altered in recent decades. Between 1960 and 1980, no fewer than 170,000 whites abandoned the city and Atlanta's white population was reduced from two-thirds of the total to a mere third. Even by 1971 when MARTA appeared on area ballots, white flight had produced a black majority inside the city limits and white majorities that exceeded ninety-five percent in the suburban counties of Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton. However, the "white suburban noose" that Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell famously described some four decades ago has largely come apart at the seams. Today, Clayton has a two-thirds black majority, Gwinnett is majority-minority, and even Cobb, that bastion of lilly-white suburban conservatism, retains a non-Hispanic white majority of only fifty-five percent. Exurban counties like Cherokee or Fayette have demographics more in keeping with suburban stereotypes, but proposed transit lines would not have even approached their borders. In fact, only a single project on the entire list would have linked majority-black and majority-white counties by transit—a $690 million dollar bus rapid transit line traveling north from Atlanta to Cobb County. What's more, recent polling suggests that suburban hostility to public transportation may be in decline. According to a poll commissioned by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the wake of the vote, sixty-eight percent of Cobb and Gwinnett residents "strongly or somewhat" supported extending rail lines beyond the core counties of DeKalb and Fulton. Only twenty-two percent were "strongly" opposed, and in 2010, voters in Clayton overwhelmingly approved a non-binding referendum in support of MARTA's expansion.6

To be sure, these figures should be regarded with some caution. In Atlanta and elsewhere, public transportation has been saddled with racial and class anxieties that are not easily overcome, a fact best illustrated by the forty-two percent of metropolitan poll respondents who still believe that crime and transit go hand in hand. And it bears repeating that while white residents have been relocating to the city proper in recent years and while suburban communities are now home to a wide variety of minority groups, beneath the veneer of metropolitan statistics, segregation by race and class remains a persistent feature of metropolitan life. Clayton County even earned the unhappy distinction of having the single highest rates of resegregation in the entire nation at the turn of the last century according to a study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. Whether on account of the persistence of segregation at the neighborhood level, the developing phenomenon of secessionist cities within core counties, access to quality schools or a host of other quality-of-life measures, it remains true that in metropolitan Atlanta, race still matters. Even so, shifting demographics, evolving views on public transportation and in this particular instance, the nature and location of transit projects under consideration, all suggest that a simple bifocal lens that focuses on white suburbs and black cities may no longer be the best tool for interpreting metropolitan transportation debates. In short, metropolitan relationships have become more complicated and more interesting, too.7

When coupled with their spending advantage, evidence indicating newfound support for transit must have given the measure's supporters reason to hope that it might succeed where past efforts had failed. Nevertheless, a great many observers were of the opinion that the referendum stood little chance of passing all along. Ironically, that group even includes the man charged with leading the "Untie Atlanta" campaign. David Stockert, chief executive of Post Properties and chairman of Citizens for Transportation Mobility, told reporters after the vote that the referendum was bound to fail; voter distrust in government was simply too great. "We could not overcome the bigger dynamics out there," Stockert admitted. "I don't think there's anything we could have done that would have changed the outcome." Indeed, local polling on the eve of the vote indicated that some ninety-one percent of the voters opposing the referendum were motivated by a profound lack of faith in government and a poll commissioned by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution months later confirmed that some sixty percent of metro residents believed few public officials were worthy of their trust and that government was wasteful. And there was a good deal of government here, to be sure. MARTA, a perennial conservative punching bag, was to receive $600 million in repairs and upgrades. The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), which oversaw the roundtable's planning efforts, was no more popular with voters, having recently extended the tolls on Georgia 400 past their promised expiration date. Add to that the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and various jurisdictions within the ten county area and you have a veritable alphabet soup of governmental oversight. Without clear lines of accountability or a history of regional decision-making, voters were asked to support not just their locally elected officials, but, as transportation reporter David Goldberg recently put it, "government writ large." The trust just wasn't there.8

Robert Carpenter, Tax day Tea Party protest, Atlanta, Georgia, April 15, 2009.
Robert Carpenter, Tax day Tea Party protest, Atlanta, Georgia, April 15, 2009.

According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jay Bookman, the region's trust deficit did not develop by accident either. Instead, it reflects the organized efforts of conservative state lawmakers who have undertaken a "crusade to destroy public faith in the institutions that they themselves lead." While prominent conservatives still routinely inveigh against bloated government agencies, it may be that Georgians today may require more government, not less. According to the conservative think tank Tax Foundation, in the decade since Republicans assumed control of both houses of the state legislature, the Governor's office and virtually every statewide post of any consequence, state tax collections have declined by a quarter, making Georgia's leadership among the most parsimonious in the nation. Meanwhile the state ranks among the ten worst in the country in such categories as high school graduation, percentage of the population living in poverty, infant mortality and access to healthcare. While such ignominious distinctions suggest that state leaders have been penny wise and pound foolish, perhaps the greatest danger is that in Georgia and elsewhere, government's inability to solve problems has become a self-fulfilling prophesy.9

While Goldberg, Stockert, and Bookman are undoubtedly correct in their assessments, it may be that voter distrust in government cannot fully account for the referendum's dismal failure at the polls. After all, with a sour economy, a predominantly conservative electorate and a historic reluctance to embrace transportation alternatives, such concerns should have been expected. And as it happens, they were. The campaign's architects understood that the T-SPLOST would encounter stiff resistance in conservative jurisdictions and plotted a path to victory that required support from only thirty-five percent of the region's Republican males and just half of Republican women. With such limited support from conservatives, however, the campaign needed to win votes from sixty percent or more of the region's transit-supporting Democrats. And it is here, among area progressives and their interest groups, that the T-SPLOST's story becomes most interesting.10

Overview of the projects included in the T-SPLOST referendum, July 31, 2012, Atlanta Regional Commission.

Because many of the same anxieties that animated suburban resistance to MARTA's expansion were shared by state elected officials, the legislature has for more than four decades refused to divert any revenue from the state's gas tax to fund public transportation, making MARTA the nation's only big city transportation system to make do without assistance from the state. More recently, a combination of fare hikes and service cuts has resulted in declining ridership, raising serious doubts about the system's long-term financial viability at a time when other metro transit systems have experienced modest gains. Given the paucity of prior investment, campaign managers expected that public transportation advocates would have supported the measure with few reservations. After all, a slight majority of the measure's spending was devoted to transit-oriented projects and it would have established some twenty-one new miles of light rail, including worthy projects such as the Clifton Corridor MARTA extension, the Atlanta Streetcar, and the Beltline. Perhaps for this reason, the campaign focused most of its efforts on swaying suburban commuters, touting roadway improvements at the expense of rail and transit investments in its advertisements and promotional materials. Even in Democratic Clayton County, campaign spots promoted the creation of a super-arterial highway along Tara Boulevard, but said precious little about the resuscitation of C-TRAN, the county's bus system that folded in 2010 due to a lack of funding.11

The campaign's decision to downplay its investments in public transportation caused a rift between its central leadership and its more transit-minded supporters who even opted to watch election returns separately following the vote. But it was likely the transit advocates who had jumped ship months earlier, as opposed to those still on board, who sealed the referendum's fate. In the weeks and months prior to the vote, liberal leaders condemned the measure for failing to meet what state Senator Vincent Fort called "the fairness test." Not only would the proposal be funded by a regressive sales tax, but it would be levied on essentials such as groceries and medicine while motor fuel was inexplicably exempted. It provided some $600 million in new funds to MARTA, but required they be spent only on capital improvements as opposed to operations where deficits were greatest. And it entrusted the GDOT with more than six billion dollars in new tax receipts despite that agency's woeful record of letting as little as two percent of state contracts to minority-owned firms. The campaign meanwhile appeared to be unconcerned by its growing liberal opposition. According to spokesmen from both the state branches of the NAACP and the Sierra Club, campaign officials did little to court supporters from either group during the months prior to the vote and failed to even arrange meetings where their concerns could have been addressed. The DeKalb branch of the NAACP urged its supporters to oppose a sales tax that was "unfair, short-sighted, racist and deceitful." The group objected to the composition of the "regional roundtable," the refusal of state leaders to raise the gas tax, and the fact that residents in DeKalb and Fulton counties alone have supported MARTA with a penny sales tax since its inception in the early 1970s. But most of all, it took exception to the roundtable's decision to provide only $225 million for transit to South DeKalb—enough for buses, but not rail. "We're saying you have screwed us for years," thundered branch leader John Evans, "and we've paid all this money and you won't even give us this rail line to Stonecrest Mall." For its part, the Sierra Club was less concerned by the fate of any one project than by the steady erosion of transit funding during the final round of debate last fall, while the Atlanta Transit Riders Union registered its opposition on the basis that the referendum did little to expand MARTA's operations.12

However compelling, doubts about governmental accountability cannot fully explain the referendum's defeat. Instead, it would seem that Atlanta's T-SPLOST was undone not by tax-averse, suburban conservatives as so many had feared, but by the one constituency that campaign leaders had taken for granted: transit-supporting liberals in the metropolitan core. Or perhaps the best explanation sits somewhere at the intersection of these two narratives. Historically, transportation referenda have been contests between roads, rails, and supporters of both. But as Michael Lewyn, a fellow at the Congress for New Urbanism has recently observed, the rising tide of cynicism and "taxophobia" has engineered a new, "three cornered politics" of transportation policy where small government conservatives, road supporters, and transit advocates all vie in contention with one another. When transit supporters are divided, as was the case in Atlanta, tax-averse conservatives carry the day. Whatever the case, at least one thing now appears certain. The cooperation and unanimity demonstrated by members of the regional roundtable was less the rule than the exception, and metropolitan Atlanta is more fractious and more at odds with itself than anyone might have guessed.13

"You're not Hotlanta anymore . . ."

Transit providers and routes in the Atlanta MPO area, 2009, Plan 2040, Appendix T-2, Atlanta Regional Commission.
Transit providers and routes in the Atlanta MPO area, 2009, Plan 2040, Appendix T-2, Atlanta Regional Commission.

"Atlanta is a perfect example," Robert Bruegmann said recently, "of a place like Los Angeles, Houston, Las Vegas or Phoenix that has done everything the wrong way according to the experts—and has thrived in spite of it." To be sure, Bruegmann should know whereof he spoke. A professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois-Chicago and author of the controversial Sprawl, Bruegmann has parted ways with the vast majority of his peers in the planning profession by touting the very patterns of expansive, leap-frogging development that are so apparent in Atlanta and its Sunbelt peers. And his assessment of Atlanta at least, is more or less correct. Even after decades of robust postwar growth, Atlanta was still posting gains that made it the envy of metropolitan centers nationwide in the 1980s thanks in large part to the expansion of suburban counties like Cobb and Gwinnett, the latter of which was the single fastest growing county in the nation for much of that decade. During the 1990s, the baton was passed to exurban counties like Forsyth, Henry and Paulding, each of which doubled in size enabling the metro population to grow by nearly 40 percent. All together, metro Atlanta has welcomed more than four million new residents and grown by some 6,700 square miles in the last four decades alone—rates of growth that led urban redevelopment impresario Christopher Leinberger to speculate in the mid 1990s that it was "probably the fastest-growing of any metropolitan area in the history of the world."14

At about the time of Atlanta's greatest civic achievement, however, there began to appear dents in the metropolitan armor. Just two years after hosting the 1996 Olympic Games, Atlanta ran afoul of federal air standards and became the nation's first metropolitan region to lose access to federal highway funds. Funding was restored a few years later when the city produced a plan to reduce its air pollution, but its reputation as a "poster child" for suburban sprawl has hardly improved. And while the recent recession has revealed weaknesses in many a metropolitan economy, Atlanta has suffered more than most of its peers. Its home values have plummeted further and faster than other major metros and its unemployment numbers have stubbornly remained a point or two north of national averages. Altogether, the city shed a remarkable 9.4 percent of all jobs during the recession. However, the most ominous numbers to emerge from the recent downturn may be those pertaining to the city's young, educated workers. During the 1990s, Atlanta was bested by only San Francisco as a magnet for college educated workers in the coveted twenty-five to thirty-four age bracket. Recent numbers indicate that the region's advantage in that department has all but disappeared, however, and Richard Florida, the author and academic who introduced the "creative class" to the national lexicon, now pegs the city a humble forty-seventh in his ranking of the country's best cities for recent college graduates. As Christopher Leinberger, now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute put it in a recent address to area leaders, "you're not Hotlanta anymore."15

"Clifton Corridor LPA-LRT 1," recommended locally preferred alternative, Clifton Corridor Transit Initiative.
"Clifton Corridor LPA-LRT 1," recommended locally preferred alternative, Clifton Corridor Transit Initiative.

Of the myriad challenges confronting the city and its leadership, three rise to the very top: education, which has long been a point of concern; water, which, due to the parsimony of the state's conservative leadership and their inability to resolve the long-standing, tri-state "water wars" amounts to an existential crisis, and yes, to be sure, and by all means, transportation. According to the Clean Air Campaign, the average metro Atlanta resident travels a full thirty-five miles to work each morning and spends more than $360 commuting to work every month, making the region's commutes the most costly in the country. All told, Atlantans spend an average of 260 hours a year commuting, which as the "Untie Atlanta" campaign helpfully reminded voters, is "like working another full time job for a month and a half without pay." And according to Adie Tomer of the Brookings Institute, the city's transit system "ranks dead last among the country's ten largest metropolitan areas when it comes to connecting people with jobs." None of which is to suggest that a successful referendum would have solved all of the region's troubles. While commuters traveling on roads covered by the referendum would have seen congestion cut by a quarter, and while select transit projects like the Clifton Corridor rail line would have dramatically improved the accessibility of large employment centers, the average Atlantan would have seen little more than a six percent improvement in commutes on a daily basis—evidence according to regional planners that reductions in congestion do not come cheap. It may be then that the T-SPLOST's greatest impact may have been to signal to national and even international audiences that Atlanta has the wherewithal to at least address its debilitating mobility crisis. With federal expenditures for transportation expected to decline in the coming years, policy experts have predicted that states and municipalities will have to shoulder greater financial burdens for transportation improvements. And so far they have. Of the sixty-two ballot initiatives it tracked last year, the Center for Transportation Excellence counted forty-nine victories for public transportation—a success rate of nearly eighty percent. Sunbelt cities such as Los Angeles and Phoenix and southern peers such as Durham, North Carolina have approved referenda to improve their transportation networks, focusing predominantly or even wholly on rail and transit. That makes the message from Atlanta perfectly clear: we're not keeping pace. Throughout the campaign, advocates warned of potentially dire consequences to the regional economy if the measure were to fail. As if on cue, Moody's announced a "credit negative" for Atlanta and downgraded MARTA's bond rating two days after the vote. The bond-rating agency did not mince words either: "The Atlanta region needs major upgrades to its dated and limited transit system and congested roadways to maintain its long-term position as an influential economic center."16

"There is No Plan B . . ."

Throughout the campaign it hung on the lips of local leaders, chamber men and advocates of every stripe. Governor Nathan Deal said it; so too did Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce President Sam Williams, and Norcross mayor and roundtable chairman Bucky Johnson among many others. It was repeated so often and in so many venues, in fact, that it acquired an almost liturgical quality, becoming less a talking point than an incantation to ward off doubt and cynicism. "There is no Plan B."

Strictly speaking, of course, it was not entirely true. The 2010 TIA-enabling legislation does provide area residents the opportunity to vote on a reconfigured project list after a two-year waiting period. If the experiences of other national metros are any indication, it might stand a better chance of passing the second time around. Certainly that is the preference of recently-retired Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers who called on officials to begin work drafting a second project list, albeit one more focused on roads. For her part, the Sierra Club's Colleen Kiernan began calling for a transit-intensive Plan B even before votes were cast. Recent polling by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has indicated that a majority of metro voters would support serious transportation improvements under the right circumstances, but splitting the difference between these two poles of opinion will not be any easier in a few years time and there are a great many other impediments to a second round of voting besides. Consider, for example, the matter of political will. A handful of local officials who supported the plan subsequently lost reelection bids and others were narrowly reelected. That means that a second referendum would need to be an awfully safe bet to ensure the requisite support from the ranks of metro Atlanta officialdom. In any event, it is not altogether clear that a second campaign would enjoy the same financial advantages as the first. Area business leaders bankrolled the "Untie Atlanta" campaign and prudent businesspeople, the thinking goes, are not inclined to throw good money after bad. But the single greatest obstacle to a second referendum may be Governor Nathan Deal.17

"Percentage operations budget funding source," Figure 4, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority Revenue and Expense Forecast Evaluation 2011–2016.
"Percentage operations budget funding source," Figure 4, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority Revenue and Expense Forecast Evaluation 2011–2016.

In the wake of the referendum's defeat, Deal signaled his opposition to a second round of voting, and indicated that he would personally take the initiative for state transportation improvements, assembling a "need to do" list of high priority projects like the Georgia 400/I-285 interchange. He also forswore new taxes of any kind to fund transportation investments. In a state that ranks a woeful forty-ninth in the nation in per capita transportation spending, that leaves precious little to pay for an awful lot. According to many planners, metro Atlantans can expect to encounter more toll roads in years to come, making the near future a lot like the recent past. And if transit-supporting opponents of the referendum and their allies in progressive interest groups like the Sierra Club thought that some combination of public advocacy and budgetary alchemy might result in a better deal for transit, the governor had a message for them, too. "Yesterday's vote slams the door on further expansion of our rail network anytime soon," said Deal.18

Intransigence at the state level has prompted many observers like longtime Atlanta opinion leader Maria Saporta to conclude that the time has come for Atlanta and the core counties of DeKalb and Fulton to "retake control of their own destinies." If state leaders are unwilling to invest in the region's future and exurban voters insist on nursing an anti-tax nihilism, she reckons, then the metropolitan core must take the reigns and lead the way. However smaller in physical reach, such an approach would undoubtedly result in a project list that privileges rails above roads and that signals to corporate concerns, rating agencies, and even the "young and restless" members of the "creative class" that Atlanta and its immediate environs at least are serious about planning for the future. If truly successful, it might even compel neighboring communities to keep pace and follow suit. Left unsaid, however, is the fact that such an approach would likely require state approval to even appear on area ballots, and Atlanta, as George Hooks, dean of the state senate recently admitted, "has always been the whipping boy." State leaders are none too keen on public transportation either, and in the legislative session that just concluded, genuinely regional solutions to the city's mobility crisis were not even debated. What's more, if recent legislative proposals are any indication, state legislators may demand a handsome pound of flesh in return for any support tendered Atlanta. One measure that failed to come up for a vote during the General Assembly's 2012 session would have taken important steps towards consolidating metro Atlanta's patchwork of transit providers under a single agency—but it also would have vested state leaders with veto power over the agency's decisions despite their devoting nary a cent to local transit operations. In the most recent legislative session, officials debated one measure that would have required MARTA to privatize many of its services and a second that would have lifted its onerous spending restrictions—but only for three years and only on the condition that that the newly-minted, conservative secessionist cities of North Fulton enjoy greater representation on the agency's board. All of which begs the question: what poison pill would Atlanta be forced to swallow simply to pay its own way?19

Jim Pickerell, Passengers board a MARTA bus during rush hour, June 1974, National Archives at College Park, DOCUMERICA Series 556787 .
Jim Pickerell, Passengers board a MARTA bus during rush hour, June 1974, National Archives at College Park, DOCUMERICA Series 556787.
Wesley Fryer, Passengers exit a MARTA train, Atlanta, Georgia, June 26, 2007.
Wesley Fryer, Passengers exit a MARTA train, Atlanta, Georgia, June 26, 2007.

It is worth considering, too, what changes could be made to future proposals, not only to guarantee their success at the polls, but also to enhance their effectiveness for commuters. While all of the projects included in the T-SPOLST were subjected to rigorous analysis to ensure that they resulted in reduced travel times, the project list as a whole was not paired with thoroughgoing changes in land use regulations, meaning that regional transportation policy was still chasing development rather than shaping it. While it's hard to imagine suburban county leaders surrendering their right to approve the development of land within their borders, it's not impossible to contemplate a pared back proposal, focusing on the region's core counties, that leveraged rail investments by promoting greater density in their vicinity. Still more questions remain, particularly with respect to the constituencies and organizations that took part in the debate. Among the more interesting subplots to develop during the T-SPLOST debate has been the "odd bedfellows" pairing of the Sierra Club and the Tea Party. In the wake of the referendum's defeat, leaders from both organizations hastened to reassure their supporters that the alliance would not be permanent, though they did identify areas of common agreement. Of particular interest may be the Tea Party. The group was correctly identified as a "tax slayer" for its steadfast and influential opposition to the T-SPLOST, but it remains an open question as to whether the tight-fisted, grass roots organization can retain a seat at the high-dollar table that is Georgia politics. So far, Dooley and her fellow insurgents have been content to watch from the sidelines while others debated alternatives. The Sierra Club has been no more active, and despite being one of the first groups to call for a "Plan B," has preferred to devote its resources to other initiatives. And then there is the city's business establishment. Whether leading the successful bid for the Olympics, luring major league ball clubs to town, helping to establish MARTA, or even ridding the state flag of the Confederate battlefield emblem, Atlanta's business community has been the unseen hand in large-scale regional developments. The transportation referendum, however, may well have exposed the limits of business influence in a twenty-first century metropolis that spans ten counties by some measures and many, many more by others.20

The single, most profound question facing Atlanta remains what to do next. Denver's Tom Clark may have the answer. Eight years after Denver voters approved the FasTracks transit, which he calls the "nation's most ambitious transit program," Clark and his colleagues at the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation are still basking in the glow of their own success. They seem more than a little pleased by Atlanta's failure, too. As Clark put it in a recent blog post, "'A wise man does first what a fool does finally.' What do you call a fool who doesn't do anything?" Clark didn't say, but the answer, of course, is "Atlanta." When pitching FasTracks to voters in 2004, campaign managers even invoked Atlanta's example as one that Denver could not afford to follow.21 Perhaps not coincidentally, Denver recently surpassed Atlanta among the nation's best places for young workers. It is worth noting, however, that Denver's success came only after an earlier, failed referendum. What will it take for voters in the southern capital of the Sunbelt to follow Denver's lead and approve a second referendum in years hence? They may just need to decide that they do not want to be the next Atlanta either.

Southern Spaces invites your comments on this essay on our blog »

About the Author

Edward A. Hatfield is a PhD candidate in the history department at Emory University. His dissertation, The Too-Busy City: the Politics of Growth and Development in Atlanta, 1946–1996, examines metropolitan development in Atlanta and the Sunbelt in the half century after World War II.

  • 1. Craig Schneider, "Tea party stakes claim as tax slayer," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 1, 2012.
  • 2. The "regional roundtable" consisted of one mayor and one county commissioner from each of the region's ten counties as well as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Ariel Hart, "FAQs: What you need to know about the referendum," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 4, 2012; Ariel Hart, "Less-grand plan a political reality: collaboration can only go so far, leaders admit. Voters will say in 2012 if it's enough for a start," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 16, 2011; Atlanta Region Transportation Investment Act (TIA) Roundtable, "Final Investment List," October 13, 2011, accessed, August 26, 2012, http://www.metroatlantatransportationvote.com/documents/Final_project_list_5-3-2012.pdf.
  • 3. Atlanta Regional Commission, "Draft Precinct Results, % Vote Yes," August 3, 2012, accessed August 26, 2012, http://www.metroatlantatransportationvote.com/images/atl_voting_map.jpg; "General Primary/General Nonpartisan/Special Election, July 31, 2012," Georgia Election Results, accessed April 24, 2013, http://results.enr.clarityelections.com/GA/40378/95366/en/select-county.html; Ariel Hart, "A loud and clear 'no': metro Atlanta's $7.2 billion transportation tax referendum fails. For 37%, Against 63%," The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, August 1, 2012.
  • 4. Shannon McCaffrey and Ariel Hart, "TRANSPORTATION REFERENDUM: Business behind sales tax push: T-SPLOST rests on millions in funds from Ga. Firms," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 24, 2012; Jim Wallis, "Real estate, contractors top T-SPLOST's $8M donor list," Atlanta Unfiltered, July 24, 2012.
  • 5. MARTA first went before voters in 1968 when it was defeated in the city of Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties, largely due to opposition from black voters. Over the course of the next three years, the MARTA board invited its critics to the negotiating table and the system was reinvented as a genuine public service capable of winning support from the city's diverse constituencies. In 1971, it appeared on ballots for a second time and was approved by voters in the city of Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties but defeated by voters in Clayton and Gwinnett counties. Though Cobb county had been included in MARTA's early plans, its residents voted against the system's expansion in 1965. For more on MARTA and the politics of race, see Larry Keating, Atlanta: Race, Class, and Urban Expansion (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001) and Edward A. Hatfield, MARTA and the Making of Suburban Conservatism (M.A. Thesis, University of Georgia, 2006).
  • 6. Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 5, 263; "White Suburban Noose," Clayton News Daily, November 1, 1971; United States Census Bureau, "State and County QuickFacts: Clayton County, Georgia," accessed March 25, 2013, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/13/13063.html; United States Census Bureau, "State and County QuickFacts: Gwinnett County, Georgia," accessed March 25, 2013, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/13/13135.html; United States Census Bureau, "State and County QuickFacts: Cobb County, Georgia," accessed March 25, 2013, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/13/13067.html; Jennifer Mayerle, "Cobb County T-SPLOST: Rapid bus transit," accessed March 25, 2013, http://www.cbsatlanta.com/story/19046752/cobb-county-t-splost-rapid-bus-transit; Ariel Hart, "Poll: Need seen, but trust lacking," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 9, 2012; Curt Yeomans, Clayton News Daily "Transit advocates call for MARTA referendum," August 14, 2012, accessed March 26, 2013, http://www.news-daily.com/news/2012/aug/14/transit-advocates-call-marta-referendum/. A similar non-binding referendum was narrowly defeated by Gwinnett voters in 2008 despite the fact that the wording seemed intended to produce a negative response. Maria Saporta, "Outcome of MARTA vote in Gwinnett signals shift to regional transit," Business Insider, July 20, 2008, accessed March 26, 2013, http://alt.coxnewsweb.com/blogs/content/shared-blogs/ajc/businessinsider/entries/2008/07/20/.
  • 7. Ariel Hart, "Voters reject transportation tax," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 1, 2012, accessed January 25, 2013, http://www.ajc.com/news/news/state-regional-govt-politics/voters-reject-transportation-tax/nQXfq/; Erica Frankenberg and Cungmei Lee, Race in American Public Schools: Rapidly Resegregating School Districts (Cambridge: Harvard University, 2002), 6–7.
  • 8. Greg Bluestein, "TRANSPORTATION REFERENDUM THE AFTERMATH: Exec: Tax bid had no chance: Leader of T-SPLOST campaign cites outside forces; critic rips rigid mentality," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution August 13, 2012; Ariel Hart, "Government distrust sank tax," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 2, 2012; Ariel Hart, "Poll: Need seen, but trust lacking," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 9, 2012; David Goldberg, "Is metro Atlanta vote a bellweather for transportation funding?" Transportation for America, August 8, 2012, accessed August 23, 2012, http://t4america.org/blog/2012/08/07/is-metro-atlanta-vote-a-bellwether-for-transportation-funding/.
  • 9. Jay Bookman, "The self-induced paralysis of Georgia government," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Jay Bookman Blog, August 8, 2012, accessed January 25, 2012, http://blogs.ajc.com/jay-bookman-blog/2012/08/08/the-self-induced-paralysis-of-georgia-government/; Gracie Bond Staples and D. Aileen Dodd, "State's high school graduation rate in 'crisis,'" The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 23, 2009; Nathan Deal, 2013 State-of-the-State Address, accessed January 25, 2013, http://bettergeorgia.com/2013/01/17/gov-nathan-deals-2013-state-of-the-state-address/; 24/7 Wall St., "The States with the Widest Gap Between the Rich and Poor," accessed January 25, 2013, http://247wallst.com/2012/05/31/ten-states-with-the-worst-income-inequality/3/; "Georgia: Infant Mortality (1990–2012)," United Health Foundation, accessed January 25, 2013, http://www.americashealthrankings.org/GA/IMR/2011; "Georgia, 2012: Overall Ranking," United Health Foundation, accessed April 29, 2013, http://www.americashealthrankings.org/GA/2012; Nathan Deal, "Deal: Focus on foundations that strengthen Georgia," Office of the Governor, January 17, 2013, accessed April 29, 2013, http://gov.georgia.gov/press-releases/2013-01-17/deal-focus-foundations-strengthen-georgia.
  • 10. Aaron Gould Sheinin and Greg Bluestein, "Deal: Rule out revote," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 2, 2012; William E. Schmidt "Racial Roadblock Seen in Atlanta Transit System," The New York Times, July 22, 1987; Hart, "Voters reject transportation tax"; Ariel Hart, "Transportation tax campaign makes 300k calls," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 31, 2012.
  • 11. Since 2001, ridership has fallen on MARTA's trains and buses by fifteen percent and thirty-one percent, respectively. Overall ridership declined by nearly five percent in 2012 alone; among other major metros, only Philadelphia experienced a decline in 2012 (one percent) and ridership increased by an average of 1.49 percent nationally; Steve Visser, "MARTA bucks national trend; Ridership keeps falling," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 31, 2013; Eric Sturgis, "Group says Georgia transportation plan needs more rail," May 25, 2012, accessed August 23, 2012, http://www.politifact.com/georgia/statements/2012/may/25/colleen-kiernan/group-says-georgia-transportation-plan-needs-more/; Ariel Hart, "Transportation tax campaign makes 300k calls," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 31, 2012; Hart, "Voters reject transportation tax."
  • 12. Vincent Fort, "Fairness, inclusion lacking in T-SPLOST," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Atlanta Forward Blog, July 24, 2012, accessed March 26, 2013, http://blogs.ajc.com/atlanta-forward/2012/07/24/1583/; "T-SPLOST - Vote No.: The DeKalb Branch NAACP's Opposition to the Transportation Investment Act," DeKalb NAACP, July 3, 2012, accessed August 23, 2012, http://dekalbganaacp.blogspot.com/2012/07/t-splost-vote-no.html; Colleen Kiernan, "Metro Atlanta turning winning season into losing one," Saporta Report, October 9, 2011, accessed August 23, 2012, http://saportareport.com/blog/2011/10/metro-atlanta-turning-winning-season-for-transit-into-a-losing-one/; Steve Visser, "Cracks grow in DeKalb's support for transit tax," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 26, 2012; Steve Visser, "MARTA riders wary of tax," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 28, 2012; Ariel Hart, "A Loud and Clear No: Metro Atlanta's $7.2 billion transportation tax referendum fails," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 1, 2012; Hart, "Voters reject transportation tax."
  • 13. Michael Lewyn, "Three Cornered Politics," Congress For New Urbanism Website, August 1, 2012, accessed August 23, 2012, http://www.cnu.org/cnu-salons/2012/08/three-cornered-politics.
  • 14. Michael E. Kanell, "Time for hard choices," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 31, 2011; John Helyar, "The fragmentation of greater Atlanta raises vital questions about its future," The Washington Post, February 29, 1988; Charles Jaret, "Suburban Expansion in Atlanta: 'The City without Limits' Faces Some," in Gregory D. Squires, ed. Urban Sprawl: Causes, Consequences and Policy Responses (Washington DC: The Urban Institute Press, 2002); Adie Tomer and Jessica Lee, "What's Next for Transportation in Atlanta," The New Republic: The Avenue, August 1, 2012, accessed August 29, 2012, http://www.tnr.com/blog/the-avenue/105651/what%E2%80%99s-next-transportation-in-atlanta.
  • 15. Jason Henderson, "The Politics of Mobility and Business Elites in Atlanta, Georgia," Urban Geography 25, no. 3 (2004): 196–197; Jaret, "Suburban Expansion in Atlanta," 168; Kanell, "Time for hard choices," A9; Dan Chapman, "Youth appeal fades," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 4, 2011; Tammy Joyner, "Passage of transportation referendum critical to ailing metro region, some south metro leaders say," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 9, 2011.
  • 16. "Commuting and Traffic Congestion Fast Facts," Clean Air Campaign, accessed August 31, 2012, http://www.cleanaircampaign.org/For-the-Press/Press-Kit/Commuting-and-Traffic-Congestion-Fast-Facts; Airel Hart, "T-SPLOST 'education' campaign push starts," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 15, 2012; Tomer and Lee, "What's Next for Transportation in Atlanta"; Adie Tomer, "Where the Jobs Are: Employer Access to Labor by Transit," The Brookings Institution, July 11, 2012, accessed August 31, 2012, http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2012/07/11-transit-jobs-tomer; Ariel Hart, "Will tax shorten Atlanta commutes, reduce traffic?" The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 20, 2012; "Will metro Atlanta rise? That's up to us?," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 31, 2011; Eric Jaffe, "We Shouldn't Be Surprised That Most Transit Referendums Won," The Atlantic Cities, November 13, 2012, accessed April 23, 2013, http://www.theatlanticcities.com/politics/2012/11/we-shouldnt-be-surprised-most-transit-referendums-won/3885/; Eric Jaffe, "The End of Federal Transportation Funding as We Know It," The Atlantic Cities, March 11, 2013, accessed April 23, 2013, http://www.theatlanticcities.com/politics/2013/03/its-end-federal-transportation-funding-we-know-it/4931/; "Transportation Ballot Measures," Center for Transportation Excellence, accessed April 23, 2013, http://www.cfte.org/elections; Scott Thomasson, "Advice for Passing a Massive Infrastructure Referendum," The Atlantic Cities, August 14, 2012, accessed August 31, 2012, http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2012/08/advice-passing-massive-infrastructure-referendum/2945/.
  • 17. Eric Stirgus, "T-SPLOST supporter says options are slim if referendum fails," PolitiFact, June 20, 2012, accessed September 6, 2012, http://www.politifact.com/georgia/statements/2012/jun/20/terry-lawler/t-splost-supporter-says-options-are-slim-if-refere/; Jim Galloway, "Defeat gives Deal more control, few options," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 1, 2012; Maria Saporta, "Georgia's Sierra Club opposed to regional transportation tax," Saporta Report, April 30, 2012, accessed September 6, 2012, http://saportareport.com/blog/2012/04/georgias-sierra-club-opposed-to-regional-transportation-sales-tax/; Ariel Hart, "Poll: Need seen, but trust lacking," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 9, 2012.
  • 18. Aaron Gould Sheinin and Greg Bluestein, "Deal: Rule out revote," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 2, 2012; Kim Severson, "For Transit Relief, Congested Atlanta Ponders a Penny Tax," The New York Times, July 15, 2012, accessed September 6, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/16/us/atlanta-area-residents-to-vote-on-tax-for-transportation.html; Bookman, "The self-induced paralysis of Georgia government"; Eric Stirgus, "Does Georgia have a pothole in transportation spending?" PolitiFact, August 7, 2012, accessed September 6, 2012, http://www.politifact.com/georgia/statements/2012/aug/07/stacey-abrams/does-georgia-have-pothole-transportation-spending/; Nathan Deal, "Deal: We'll reprioritize on transportation," Office of the Governor, August 1, 2012, accessed April 29, 2013, http://gov.georgia.gov/press-releases/2012-08-01/deal-well-reprioritize-transportation.
  • 19. While it would appear that significant public funding for transportation projects may not be available in the near term, Mayor Reed has indicated that public-private partnerships may feasible for the Beltline in particular. Ariel Hart, "After T-SPLOST defeat, transit plans slowed, but not stopped," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 3, 2013, accessed April 29, 2013, http://www.ajc.com/news/news/transit-plans-slowed-but-not-stopped/nTkzh/; Maria Saporta, "It's time for Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb to retake control of their own destinies," Saporta Report, August 5, 2012, accessed September 6, 2012, http://saportareport.com/blog/2012/08/its-time-for-the-city-of-atlanta-fulton-and-dekalb-counties-to-retake-control-of-their-own-destiny/; Thomas Wheatley, "T-SPLOST failed but Atlanta hasn't," Creative Loafing, Atlanta 8, 2012, accessed September 6, 2012, http://clatl.com/atlanta/t-splost-failed-but-atlanta-hasnt/Content?oid=6060933; Chapman, "Youth appeal fades"; Dan Chapman, "1 region, many voices," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 3, 2011, A1, A9; Ariel Hart, "Prospect of regional transit plan raises ire," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 9, 2011, accessed September 6, 2012, http://www.ajc.com/news/news/state-regional-govt-politics/prospect-of-regional-transit-plan-raises-ire/nQPPb/; Ariel Hart, "Boon for toll lanes, not transit," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 2, 2012, Accessed September 6, 2012, http://www.ajc.com/news/news/local/boon-for-toll-lanes-not-transit/nQShc/; Steve Visser, "MARTA privatization bill stalls in the Senate," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 19, 2013, accessed April 8, 2013, http://www.ajc.com/news/news/state-regional-govt-politics/marta-privatization-bill-stalls-in-senate/nWxpq/; Aaron Gould Sheinin and Kristina Torres, "What survived, what sank in legislative session," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 29, 2013, accessed April 8, 2013, http://www.ajc.com/news/news/state-regional-govt-politics/what-survived-what-sank-in-legislative-session/nQSgd/.
  • 20. "Tea Party and Sierra Club Points of Agreement for Georgia's Transportation Future," Sierra Club, Georgia Chapter website, accessed September 9, 2012, http://action.sierraclub.org/site/PageNavigator/20120430_TSPLOST.html; Craig Schneider, "Tea party stakes claim as tax slayer," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 1, 2012; Aaron Gould Sheinin and Ariel Hart, "T-SPLOST: Plan B? Not this year," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 2, 2013; Greg Bluestein, "Defeat puts Metro Atlanta Chamber at a crossroads," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 2, 2012.
  • 21. Tom Clark, "Atlanta makes choice to help Metro Denver grow jobs," Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation website, August 2, 2012, accessed September 11, 2012, http://www.metrodenver.org/blog-tags/fastracks/atlanta-makes-choice-to-help-metro-denver-grow-jobs.html; Ariel Hart, "Atlanta's transportation future could have road map in Denver," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 24, 2011, accessed September 11, 2012, http://www.ajc.com/news/news/state-regional-govt-politics/atlantas-transportation-future-could-have-roadmap-/nQJwM/.

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