Metro Atlantans voted 62.7 percent to 37.3 percent to defeat the Transportation Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax.
More than 416,230 people voted no. The yes votes numbered 247,970 in the 10-county Atlanta area.
DeKalb voters narrowly defeated the measure with 51.3 percent, or 64,689, voting no to 61,374, or 48.7 percent, voting yes.
An analysis of the voting shows that precincts in Central and North DeKalb voted in higher percentages against the T-SPLOST.
Statewide, most similar T-SPLOST referendums, which would raise $19 billion if approved district by district, met wide margins of defeat. Only three of 12 districts approved it.
Opponents hailed the landslide no vote as a clear message that voters are tired of taxes and being left out of the process.
They said the vote offers an opportunity for the region to return to the table to craft a solid transportation plan that can fix the region’s traffic problems with a sensible mix of rail and road projects.
DeKalb NAACP President John Evans, who fought the plan from the start, said the people spoke loud and clear.
“People want to be part of a real plan for the betterment of the region,” he said. “What kind of system are we going to have? How much rail? MARTA ought to be the hub of anything we do. We need to get input from everyone, not just elected officials and the fat cats. And when you have the right stuff, you can think about how you are going to pay for it.”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who fought for passage of the referendum, was visibly disappointed when he addressed supporters to acknowledge the defeat. He said he is not giving up.
“The voters have decided,” he said. “But tomorrow I am going to get up and work just as hard to change their minds.”
Reed and Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, thanked the business community, which contributed $8 million for an aggressive media campaign to pass the referendum.
Williams said that coalition was a first for the region and that it would look to the future.
District 3 Commissioner Larry Johnson, who along with District 5 Commissioner Lee May was in the forefront of DeKalb’s opposition to the plan with their Rail 4 South DeKalb Web site, said the large no vote means that we must return to the table.
“We have to go back and start over,” he said. “We have to do it the right way. When we were telling them that it wasn’t right, they wouldn’t listen. We just have to go back to the table and work it out.”
Johnson said that South DeKalb needs rail and that any new plan must include rail for the area.
May said the referendum failed because voters did not see projects on the list that were worth the additional tax burden.
“Today, working families need rail more than ever to reduce their transportation costs and a MARTA rail line extended to South and Central DeKalb should be a part of that plan,” he said.
May said that dialogue to fix the region’s transportation problems needs to include all of DeKalb’s leaders, not just CEO Burrell Ellis, and added that he is willing to start working right away on a comprehensive solution.
“DeKalb County and its residents are still willing to be a part of the dialogue and process of making our region better and more competitive across the country,” he said. “The constituents of DeKalb have shown in the past that they are willing to support regional solutions such as MARTA and Grady Hospital.”
The failed tax was expected to raise $8.5 billion to fund 157 projects across the 10-county metro area. The plan was immediately unpopular in DeKalb and Fulton, which would have paid two pennies in taxes while the other eight counties paid one.
Those two counties have been paying a penny tax to support MARTA for 40 years. Through 2011, they had paid $7.5 billion to support MARTA.
Under the plan, DeKalb was to get $556.8 million for projects entirely within the county and would have shared in another $700 million in projects with Atlanta and Fulton County.
South DeKalb leaders and residents opposed the referendum because a long-promised I-20 rail line to Stonecrest was not fully funded. Instead, the area was to get $225 million to build five bus stations that could be converted to rail stations later.
That was on Larry Harper’s mind when he went to cast his ballot at the precinct at Wesley Chapel Library in Decatur on Tuesday.
He said he doesn’t understand how DeKalb and Fulton counties were being asked to pay twice to benefit the other counties.
“They need to come up with a plan that will benefit everybody,” he said. “Why should we pay for something that will help others but not us? They said it’s going to create jobs but not for minorities. There should be something in the referendum that says some of the [construction] contracts will go to minority companies.”
Felton Glass, who lives in Lithonia, said he had no choice but to vote no.
“We already pay a penny tax for MARTA,” he said. “We have been paying for 40 years. They have to catch up. They are giving Emory a train and we are getting bus service. MARTA needs to go to all 10 counties.”
State Rep. Pam Stephenson, who watched the results with a group that included state Reps. Howard Mosby and Dee Dawkins-Haigler and DeKalb School Board member Jay Cunningham at Java Delight cafe in Decatur, said the message was clear.
“It says that we all should go back to the table together to solve this traffic problem,” she said. “When all the people are at the table, good things happen. It has to be inclusive. We are a region, but we can’t just say we are a region without recognizing that it’s all-inclusive.”
May called on Gov. Nathan Deal to give strong consideration to calling a special session this November to have a new T-SPLOST referendum put before voters. “I hope that our regional leaders heard the voice of hard-working families who are willing to invest to improve transit but only if they can see the benefit,” he said.
Evans said that the price of food and gasoline is going up.
“Our water bill is going up,” he said. “The County Commission raised our taxes. The School Board increased our taxes. Unemployment is up. People are not working. On top of that you are talking about another sales tax. It’s just too much.”
Mosby, who chairs the DeKalb Delegation to the General Assembly, said it’s time to create a real plan that brings everyone to the table.
“We need to have a statewide transportation discussion to make Georgia competitive nationally and internationally,” he said. “We need to have a serious discussion about MARTA and what we want to do with that transit system. The next plan should be a more inclusive plan that includes election officials and special interest groups. Everyone needs to be at the table. People need to know that their voices were heard.”
Mosby said that the discussions need to start as early as December. “We don’t need to wait for next year,” he said. “We need to start right away.”