August 6, 2012

An Open Letter to Sierra Club Members and Supporters on T-SPLOST and What’s Next:

Many 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.

Let 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.

It 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.”

Although 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.

The 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.

To 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 included:

  • Although there is not overwhelming consensus, The RAIL Committee and Chapter Leadership appear to lean toward opposing the T-SPLOST
  • Chapter 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
  • If 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"

In 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.

At 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."

Stop 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

Let 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 usual.”

Given 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.”

Moving 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.
Contribute generously

Yours for a better transportation future,

Colleen Kiernan
Georgia Chapter Director