August 6, 2012
An Open Letter to Sierra Club Members and Supporters on T-SPLOST and What’s Next:
of you have expressed your concerns, disagreement and anger about the
position we took on the July 31st sales tax referendum. Many other of
you have expressed your support, enthusiasm and thanks for that same
position. And all of you want to know what the Georgia Chapter’s plan is
to bring about the transportation vision that we share. I would like to
take this opportunity to try to address those topics.
me start by telling you a little bit about how we were involved in the
project development process that the Regional Roundtable undertook about
a year ago. I realized last August that if we were going to engage in a
credible way on this issue we had to participate fully throughout the
project list development. We hired two temporary organizers for six
weeks who helped coordinate our effort around the 10 town hall meetings
that the Atlanta Regional Commission held last September. We sent out
action alerts to our members and supporters in each county, encouraging
them to attend their local meeting and providing them with talking
points on the projects that were being considered in their area.
I personally attended every meeting of the Roundtable and made public comments at each of them, distributing an open letter
to the members. The crux of our message throughout the project list
development process was that the list needed to be geared toward intown
transit supporters who would be excited about the list to provide a
genuine grassroots ground game that Sierra Club would help with.
was dispiriting, to say the least, to watch the Roundtable pluck away
at the transit projects to the point of making many of them unviable. I
wrote a column for the Saporta Report
describing how the Sierra Club viewed what was happening. I continued
to express these concerns to the the Roundtable directly, but it felt
like I was talking to a wall every time I stood at the podium. Mayor
Reed confirmed my suspicion when he was quoted in the Marietta Daily Journal in May on opponents: “some of it is foolishness from the left, that I can ignore.”
we were disappointed with the final project list, the RAIL committee,
the Chapter committee responsible for transportation policy, chose to
see if the legislature would get transit governance right in the 2012
session, which would have boosted our confidence that the huge influx of
money for transit would be appropriately managed. As you may recall,
the primary bill that was introduced would have consolidated regional
transit decisionmaking authority under the state, despite no provision
for state support of transit. Fortunately, that bill didn’t pass.
Unfortunately, the failure to take meaningful action made us even less
optimistic about the transit components of the project list.
process by which T-SPLOST and other positions are taken at the Sierra
Club is approval by two bodies. If it is a City of Atlanta issue, the
Atlanta Group would vote on a position and make a recommendation to our
Executive Committee who would take a vote. In this case it was our RAIL
committee and our Executive Committee. Sierra Club is different than
almost every other group because the people who make the decisions are
the people who are involved, the people who show up. We don’t take
corporate or government money, and our Executive Committee is not
populated by well connected people; we are governed by our mission to
explore, enjoy and protect the planet.
help make sure that the position we took was consistent with our
members’ views, we conducted a survey for dues-paying members in the
10-county Metro Atlanta area in March. Some highlights we observed
there is not overwhelming consensus, The RAIL Committee and Chapter
Leadership appear to lean toward opposing the T-SPLOST
membership is split but somewhat more supportive, with roughly half
planning to vote Yes and half either opposed or undecided. However, many
indicate that their position could be swayed by the Chapter's position
- Leadership and membership are supportive of the Chapter taking a position
- If the Chapter supports the T-SPLOST, there is limited interest in being an active participant in the "Yes" campaign
the Chapter opposes the T-SPLOST, there are multiple ways the position
could be framed, including a more positive framing where we focus on
"supporting Plan B"
addition to considering the preferences of chapter members and leaders,
there was also the question of the political ramifications of the vote
and the Chapter's ability to impact that. As we got further into 2012,
it was clear that many factors were working against the sales tax. The
July 31 timing of the election, expected to produce a relatively
tax-hostile electorate, had long been a concern. The legislature had
failed to address concerns surrounding equitable transit governance and
oversight. The pro-T-SPLOST campaign was beginning to take shape, and it
was becoming evident that the campaign would focus overwhelmingly on
suburban, conservative voters, a losing strategy in our view. The
conclusion of the Chapter's political leadership was that chances of
passage in the Atlanta region were extremely slim, with or without the
support of Sierra Club.
the same time, opposition to the T-SPLOST was beginning to crystallize.
Much of the early opposition focused on the transit component of the
project list; the road spending, despite being just as substantial, was
largely receiving a free pass. With various other environmental /
pro-transit groups lining up in favor of the tax, we sensed that the
emerging narrative of the vote as a "referendum on transit" could be
very dangerous given the likelihood that the referendum would fail.
Opposition was seen as a way to reframe the debate and to shift the
conversation toward discussion of alternative options that would need to
be considered going forward. With these considerations in mind, the
RAIL committee recommended the option of opposing the referendum with an
emphasis on supporting "Plan B."
for a moment and consider what the message would have been on the heels
of the colossal defeat if the Georgia Chapter had not opposed it. I
believe it would have been that Metro Atlantans voted against transit.
Instead, our thorough and well-researched position paper elevated the
level of debate about transportation issues across the region. Now, the
primary message coming out of the election is that voters didn’t trust
the government. While we recognize that the Governor is not an ally on
transit, we did prevent $4 billion in additional road spending that
would have worsened sprawl and pollution, and now have the opportunity
to fix the things that are broken, restore trust, and lay the groundwork
for a viable rail expansion program.
The Tea Party
me be clear that there is no formal alliance or coalition with the Tea
Party at this time. Tea Party leader Debbie Dooley gained my respect
during the legislative session when she partnered with labor and
watchdog groups to oppose SB 469, which would have limited protesting.
When the sponsor of the bill tried to peel off the Tea Party opposition
by limiting its application to unions, she stuck with her principles
saying, “This is a bad bill and it needs to die.” Before we announced
our opposition to the T-SPLOST, I decided to sit down with her and see
if there were opportunities to work together. Interestingly, we found
significant ground in that the proposal was essentially “business as
that “Plan B” as outlined in our Position Paper gained little traction
on its own, and given our lack of political power at the Capitol, it
made even more sense to see if the “strange bedfellows” could advance an
alternative. Working with our longtime lobbyist, Neill Herring (who has
grown very skilled at framing our issues in terms of property rights)
we were able to get Atlanta Tea Party agreement with several of our
long-standing goals. Tactically, the best way for our ideas to gain
traction was to issue a joint statement with the Tea Party right before
the vote. I have found that once people get beyond the unfathomable idea
that we can agree on something, their response is along the lines of
“yeah, that makes a lot of sense.”
forward, we will be initiating a fundraising effort to support hiring a
transportation organizer, who will be able to effectively capture the
energy and interest T-SPLOST generated in these issues to achieve our
goal of getting a better solution that the project list. With your
continued support, I am confident in our success.
Ways you can help:
Sign up for our transportation mailing list and stay informed on progress and opportunties to make a difference
Join our RAIL Committee, which meets the last Monday of the Month.
Yours for a better transportation future,
Georgia Chapter Director