Mike Lowry and Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell took opposing sides of a debate Saturday about the upcoming T-SPLOST referendum, with Lowry opposing it and Bell supporting it.
In a presentation that pitted the bigger picture against more careful planning before spending billions, Clayton County Chairman Eldrin Bell debated the upcoming T-SPLOST referendum Saturday in Morrow with an anti-T-SPLOST advocate invited by Clayton’s GOP chairman to represent the opposition.
Mike Lowry, of Roswell, an IT professional who volunteers for the Transportation Leadership Coalition and its website, traffictruth.net, presented his side to an audience of almost 40 area residents, most of whom were already against the T-SPLOST.
In a nutshell, Bell emphasized the larger idea of regionalism while Lowry argued for more thorough planning, privatization and paying for local projects locally. Neither changed the other’s mind, but the tone remained cordial and friendly.
Before the debate, pre-recorded patriotic music played at the pavilion near Morrow City Hall while Bell, Lowry and other attendees ate hot dogs side by side at picnic tables. In fact, even with reporters from two Atlanta television stations present, the atmosphere was like nothing so much as a family reunion or a church social.
Their presentations, though, were to the point.
Bell’s five-minute opening statement emphasized the need to get mass transit back into Clayton County by using the T-SPLOST to access matching federal money. He also acknowledged that the Transportation Investment Act that would be supported by the tax was less than perfect but “better than nothing.”
“As I talked to my opposing side, we both agreed, if we don’t get it (the T-SPLOST) it’s a disaster. If we do get it, it might be a disaster,” Bell told the audience. “But to get it as a disaster gives us the opportunity to change it to get through it.”
Lowry responded with 10 minutes of what he described as a “left-brained” presentation informed by his IT background and his Georgia Tech education.
Citing what he said were projects on DeKalb’s list that would add amenities but no extra traffic lanes, Lowry asked whether it was fair to be taxed as a region for local benefits.
“Aren’t those more appropriate as local projects for Dunwoody and Stockbridge and Jonesboro and so on?” Lowry asked the crowd.
Lowry argued further that Clayton shouldn’t re-start public transit because the county doesn’t have the population density necessary to either require a system or make it self-supporting. Instead, he pointed to the popularity of privately run buses on Buford Highway as proof that if people really needed transit, a business would step in to provide it. He added that he felt the same way about roads and that only roads that “match the demand” should be built.
Lowry concluded by offering what he called a “Plan B” alternative to the T-SPLOST, which included putting the Georgia Department of Transportation under the control of transportation professionals to be supervised by an elected board, much like Georgia’s Public Service Commission.
The opening statements were followed by 45 minutes of audience questions, written on index cards, all skeptical of the T-SPLOST and delivered by by Clayton County GOP chairman and event organizer Carl Swensson.
At the end, Swensson asked the audience who favored the T-SPLOST and who didn’t. Only Bell and one other person raised their hands in favor of the T-SPLOST, while most of the rest of the audience didn’t, with a scattering of people who either weren’t sure or who didn’t raise their hands.
“Obviously, the crowd was pretty much weighted against the T-SPLOST, and that was from the outset,” Lowry said later. “I was frankly disappointed that the crowd wasn’t larger and didn’t have more T-SPLOST people here. I think that would have been a more productive meeting.
“I have a lot of respect for Eldrin Bell,” Lowry added. “He’s in a very challenging role.”
Bell, for his part, stayed positive, too.
“When you look at it in terms of what we will provide for the region, I think people are still a little undecided, even some of those that raised their hands and said no,” Bell said. “What we have to understand is that what we do with this tax goes far beyond our various communities and even the region. I want them to get to know the whole picture.”