Supporters say the projects would add jobs, reduce congestion around Atlanta and fix aging sidewalks and bridges in rural communities. The plan has been endorsed by Republican state leaders including Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston, in addition to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat.
"If we don't do something substantial, our competitiveness as a region and as a state is going to be significantly harmed," Reed said. "If we want to have the kind of growth and success we've enjoyed over the past decade, we have to have rail, road and transit."
Critics blast the plan — the first statewide referendum in Georgia history — as not only the heftiest tax proposal in state history, but as a false strategy that they say addresses neither sprawl nor smart growth. The showdown pits power and money against an unlikely grassroots coalition, and could have economic, legal and political implications.
Supporters are bankrolling an $8 million ad campaign to push the referendum. Opponents have spent little, but say they aren't the ones who need to fund their case.
"If we can't trust them to spend our tax dollars wisely now, why are we going to give them more?" said Georgia Tea Party Patriots state coordinator Debbie Dooley, who opposes the tax. "They're trying to sell voters a pipe dream."
If passed in all 12 regions, the tax would generate more than $18 billion to pay for transportation projects statewide over the next decade. But the referendum is really a dozen separate regional elections.
The vote is all-or-nothing in each of the multi-county regions. If a majority in a region votes in favor of the referendum, it passes there — even if other regions defeat it. So two regions could approve it and 10 could reject it, and referendum money would still flow to those two regions that voted "yes."
Regions that do not pass the referendum get nothing. Revenues would not be shared across regions.
Early voting in the primary election began Monday and ends July 27.
Regional commissions gathered public input for months before coming up with local project lists of varying scale and budget. For instance, more than $112 million would be used to reconstruct the interchange of Interstate 285 North and Georgia 400. Another $59 million would help pay for a widening project in the heart of the state that officials say would boost economic development and regional employment.
The stakes are highest in metro Atlanta, the region which stands, by far, to gain the most if the tax passes there. Supporters estimate an economic impact of more than $8.4 billion between 2013 and 2022 if the tax is approved. The second-highest economic impact would be in the Savannah area, at $1.6 billion.
Supporters in metro Atlanta have launched an $8 million campaign with the motto "Untie Atlanta," and are making an emotional appeal to road-weary commuters by saying their time in traffic is keeping them from their families and diminishing their overall quality of life. In contrast, groups like the tea party, the state NAACP and the Sierra Club — which are all opposed to the tax — have been using e-mail and social media and latching on to town hall meetings to get their message out.
"We've been taking advantage of any public speaking opportunity we can get," said Neill Herring, a lobbyist with the Sierra Club. "They've got a bad idea to put over and I just don't think people are going to bite. I've encountered very little grassroots support for it."
Georgia NAACP President Edward DuBose said the projects were decided with little input from African-American stakeholders.
"Black contractors were not included in a meaningful way," DuBose said. "We did not see a genuine effort to reach out to the African-American community. We didn't see African-American representation on the roundtables that has been assembled across Georgia."
Dooley said the tax actually takes away local control from counties and that the projects are fiscally irresponsible and do not address traffic congestion. She added it is out of step with conservative principles — a factor that could weigh heavily during an election dominated by Republican primary candidates.
The point was not lost on supporters, including Democrats, who attempted to move the referendum to the general ballot in November — which features an incumbent Democratic president — to increase its chances for success. Many Republican legislators who voted to approve the ballot measure in 2010 have been mostly silent on the issue this year, perhaps not wanting to jeopardize their own political fortunes.
Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce President Sam Williams acknowledges he and other supporters face an uphill battle with voters.
"It's going to be a tight election, because I think the economy is such right now that people are very concerned about any kind of financing," Williams said. "They want it proven to them that the traffic relief and the jobs are going to come out of this."
The 10-county metro Atlanta region stretches from Cherokee to Fayette counties and includes Gwinnett, DeKalb, Fulton and Cobb counties — among the state's most populous. Williams said the jobs created from construction alone could create up to 70,000 jobs over the next decade.
And he said traffic has been the Atlanta area's greatest handicap in attracting companies.
"Tampa, Charlotte, Denver, Dallas ... they all hope we lose because they see Atlanta as an economic capital," he said. "The competition has been taking advantage of this."
Lose now and the state isn't likely to get another shot at tackling its transportation woes for years to come, Williams and other warn.
"It took all of these years to pass the legislation," said Williams, who pointed out that the last time there was a multi-county referendum was in 1971, when Fulton and DeKalb counties narrowly approved the MARTA transit system.
"I don't think there's going to be any appetite for another referendum," he said.