Transportation: Is the sales tax a good route for the future?

Moderated by the AJC’s Tom Sabulis

Imagine Spaghetti Junction twisted with geographical realities, snarled by political choices and paved with billions of taxpayer dollars. What you get is metro Atlanta’s T-SPLOST referendum. Controversial? Sure. Necessary? Absolutely, say many experts and officials. Will it pass? We’ll know next year. Below, we offer the latest thoughts from leaders on both sides of this issue.

Yes.

It’s an investment in region’s future for jobs, preserving quality of life.

By Chuck Warbington

At a recent event, Chris Leinberger, a real estate and planning expert at the Brookings Institution, said something that caught many by surprise: “Atlanta,” he declared, “is a city that really shouldn’t exist.”

He continued to explain that it was the foresight and leadership of the city and the region to invest in transportation that put Atlanta on the map. In the 19th century, it was investment in rail and freight. In the 20th century, it was the airport, now known as Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and our interstate road network.

If Atlanta wants to continue to prosper and be a jobs leader in the southeastern U.S., Leinberger contends, investment in a regional transit system will be the next driving factor. He said transportation needs to be viewed with the understanding that the goal is economic development and that the means moving people and goods.

The Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable recently took a major step forward in another potential milestone decision in our future regarding transportation investment. Through the leadership of the executive roundtable and its chairman, Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, a list of $6.14 billion in transportation projects was unanimously approved, one generally considered to be balanced from both a geographic and mode of transportation perspective.

The blend of projects uniquely meets the needs of the growing outside-the-perimeter counties by proposing much-needed roadway improvements in the outer reaches of the suburbs while beginning to expand transit into the denser portions. There is also a significant amount of investment aimed at supporting the transit and interchange needs of Atlanta’s inner urban core, which in turn benefits all of the surrounding communities.

This will be the first time in metro Atlanta’s history in which transit and road funding will marry, providing a true transportation funding plan connecting our region. I applaud the executive roundtable in finding that sensitive balance. I also challenge residents and businesses to review the project list carefully to ensure your community’s transportation needs are met.

Metro Atlanta’s future success hinges on voters approving the referendum in 2012.

Over the past 20 years, Georgia has consistently ranked 49th in investment for transportation while at the same time ranking top tier for population growth. The result: traffic congestion, loss of quality of life, and ultimately loss of businesses and jobs. Meanwhile, surrounding metro areas such as Charlotte have made significant investment in transit and transportation and use Atlanta’s congestion as a marketing tool to attract business to their community.

The investment that this referendum for transportation provides will send the message that “Metro Atlanta is Open for Business.”

Many people want to “look back” on the lack of investment or a perceived mismanagement of transportation over the years. I urge businesses and residents alike to “look forward” in investing in our future for sustainable communities, better quality of life and new business.

As a seventh-generation resident of metro Atlanta (Gwinnett County), I like our prospects for success with a new investment in transportation that will bring new job growth to our community in the near future.

Chuck Warbington is the executive director of the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District.

No.

It’s taxation without representation and misleads on projects.

By Debbie Dooley

Back when Richard Nixon was president and the Vietnam War captured America’s attention, metro Atlanta voted to purchase a private bus operator and establish the MARTA system.

In November 1971, Fulton and DeKalb County voters barely adopted a permanent, 1 percent sales tax to finance MARTA buses with plans to build a rail line. In exchange for votes, proponents got MARTA to initially drop fares from 40 cents to 15 cents.

But while DeKalb and Fulton said “yes,” Gwinnett and Cobb counties rejected the referendum. And under the terms of the vote, Gwinnett and Cobb residents were not obligated to pay for MARTA if they did not join.

Forty years later, we have quite the opposite proposal put forth in a referendum slated for next year by a Republican-controlled General Assembly. In metro Atlanta — where the stakes are highest and the greatest revenue would be generated — counties that could vote “no” for a 10-year, 1 percent sales tax such as Cherokee, Rockdale or even Gwinnett would still wind up paying millions of dollars to finance MARTA.

And they would have never had a specific vote on whether they really wanted to be part of a MARTA system.

That’s because the T-SPLOST would be used to send hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for MARTA upkeep, planning projects and a new rail line to places such as Emory University. It is bundled with other transportation projects as well.

This is one of the many reasons why we believe the T-SPLOST is bad idea. It is taxation without representation and is not a transparent vote for residents who are being sold a package of transportation proposals.

If you want to ask metro Atlanta voters to join MARTA, then make it an honest and forthcoming vote on MARTA alone — not one bundled in a referendum that includes bike paths, sidewalks and airport and road projects.

Advocates will soon launch a slick, multimillion-dollar campaign to try to persuade us that sometime in 2012 we should vote ourselves a 10-year, 1 percent increase in our sales tax in order to ease congestion. But 85 percent of the funds collected in each county will be redistributed elsewhere — not spent in the county in which it is collected.

That means if DeKalb County raises hundreds of millions of dollars over a decade and wants to spend it on filling potholes, synchronizing lights or providing turn lanes, it is out of luck. It has to send the money to the region for redistribution on an already-determined project list. That list will be finalized in October.

Georgia is in an awful bind right now. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last month our state was 50th in job creation in July. When business and consumers have to pay an additional tax, it will only damper our economy — and job growth — even further. Jobs are created by the private sector; they are not created by a new tax or government spending. President Barack Obama’s stimulus is a testament to that.

The tea party recognizes that Atlanta has a congestion crisis and improvements are needed in other parts of the state. But reaching for taxpayers’ wallets in the greatest economic downturn since the Depression is not the way to accomplish it.

Instead, we suggest Gov. Nathan Deal and the legislature stop playing games by trying to shop the date of the T-SPLOST vote to ensure passage and instead think creatively.

We can reduce traffic by embracing corporate and individual tax credits for telecommuting as technology is the path to the future. We also should embrace more public-private partnerships including toll roads and the private management of highways, as Gov. Mitch Daniels did in Indiana.

Throwing money at a problem shouldn’t always be the first remedy. Instead, the T-SPLOST issue should open the dialogue of how to address transportation in a 21st-century platform, not one that taxes us more and returns us to the past.

Debbie Dooley is national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots. She lives in Dacula.

38 comments Add your comment

Bryan -- MARTA supporter

September 7th, 2011
1:57 pm

Oh… almost forgot “No taxation without representation”… have you looked at the MARTA board? There are a few folks that aren’t even from Fulton or Dekalb. Looks like it’s ok for representation of someone that has no stakes on how MARTA is run or expanded and probably doesn’t want MARTA to succeed in the first place, but them or the counties they represent don’t pay a dime torward MARTA, i.e. no taxation. Representation WITHOUT taxation…. how many like the way that sounds? That’s what I want someone telling me what to do with my money and they don’t give me a dime!!

Bryan -- MARTA supporter

September 7th, 2011
1:47 pm

@ Debbie Dooley and other Tea Party thinkers

It’s YOUR ideology that is causing Atlanta and the region to lose it’s choke hold as the leading city of the south.

Transit is needed, bottom line! This is not the south of 1971. We are in 2011 and Gwinnett, Cobb, and Clayton all have completely different demographics. You are so worried about financing MARTA though every county in the metro area benefits from it, whether directly or indirectly. M.A.R.T.A — METROPOLITAN ATLANTA rapid transit authority!

People need to stop living in the past and think about the future. What major city or metro area DOESN’T have a major transit system? New York, Chicago, L.A., Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong. Most would consider them major and successful cities. All have major mass transit lines. Even Washington D.C., which has about the same population in its metro area and started its system about the same time has double the miles in its rail system and it goes OUTSIDE of D.C. into the suburbs.

How many tags that are not Fulton and Dekalb are in the parking lots of MARTA stations? How many people commute in Atlanta daily? You can only build so many roads before they become clogged with commuters. Supporting growth of transit is not going to solve ALL problems but it gives commuters options to get around.

You say the governor needs to “think creatively” for solutions, so let’s hear yours. Expanding MARTA and creating one regional system isn’t a smart idea so what is? Taxing is not the way so what is?

Let’s do what Bush did and give tax breaks to all large companies. Then bail them out. Oh wait, didn’t they keep all the money, pay out large bonuses to the upper management teams, didn’t hire more people but instead “crosstrained” folks. Now you still have no jobs and over worked and under paid employees. Now lets not expand transit to now have clogged commutes to and from these types of jobs. No new taxes… that’s great! Now we can’t even pay for the ROADS out there that need to be upgraded.

We are all waiting on the conservative tea party remedy’s to “address transportation in a 21st century platform.” We don’t want to go back into the past like we did 40 years ago where we didn’t expand transit in all the major counties, built a ton of roads that caused sprawl, and now have some of the worst traffic in the nation. Wait… that sounds like what conservatives want to do now! Things that make you go “HHHHHhhhhmmmmmmmmmmmm.”

[...] Transportation: Is the sales tax a good route for the future? Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 6, 2011 At a recent event, Chris Leinberger, a real estate and planning expert at the Brookings Institution, said something that caught many by surprise: “Atlanta,” he declared, “is a city that really shouldn’t exist.” [...]

Reagan Conservative

September 7th, 2011
6:44 am

I find it funny that many GOP elected officials loved the tea party as long as they were fighting Democrats. Now that the tea party has proven itself not to be an arm of the GOP, many elected officials are extremely critical of the tea party because they fight their agenda. We have many elected officials in power that are RINOs and not true conservatives. How can true fiscal conservatives want to expand MARTA and mass transit?

Reagan Conservative

September 7th, 2011
6:40 am

“Taxation without Representation”= counties that say no to the T-SPLOST can still be forced to pay the sales tax if the total vote of other counties says yes. The voters in each county should have to approve T-SPLOST in order for the sales tax to pass in their county. There is no opt out. I can assure you that my Representative that voted to pass this seriously flawed bill will not receive my vote next year.
This is nothing more than smoke and mirrors to expand MARTA into metro Atlanta counties. I expected more from a GOP controlled Legislature. The sponsors of this bill should be voted out of office.

Mama Says

September 6th, 2011
5:58 pm

Citizen and all others who don’t understand the tea party logic,

We are facing a situation in which money for projects is a unneeded expectation. What those of you who see the tea party as a foe instead of your ally, can’t apprently understand is that the money is already there. The fact that the government can raise 601 billion dollars with a simple one cent tax should allow you guys to understand how much money the government already obtains via the everyday taxes we already pay.

To ask for more money, as government wastefully throws the money around that they have already gotten via over taxation, is the height of a lesson we should have learned many many years ago.

GOVERNMENT will never spend our money wisely. This proposal is simply yet another way for the government to collect our money and throw to it to the district which happens to be governed by the politician to whom payback is owed for the last vote, which most likely was a monetary consideration anyway.

To even think that the government can function without political consideration is laughable. When politicians are busy trying to make back room deals the district that benefits is the one with the most muscle and/or the most likely to offer political payoff (or even monetary).

MARTA is the example of this. When 3 counties vote against MARTA in individual votes it is the citizens of that county saying no to that project. When the politicians decide to offer a “new transportation tax” from which MARTA will be expanded and maintained it is taking money from those same people and putting it into MARTA–the very thing they voted against.

It is also why people who actually care what the government is doing with our money will not support more waste.

Edit the projects list to include actual projects that are truly regional and it will be easier to support it. Fill the list with Atlanta based economic progression projects, while leaving the rest of us with only wider roads and we will not.

DawgDad

September 6th, 2011
5:29 pm

“The ideological intransigence of the anti- tax tea party is going to lead us down the road to ruin — the clogged and polluted road to ruin.”

What hooey. The Tea Party hasn’t led us anywhere – yet. Fact is, we got plenty clogged and polluted BEFORE they sprang to life politically, or maybe the transportation needs aren’t really as great as people are claiming? Oh, excuse me. You want to have it both ways. Well, go spend your own money and leave mine alone.

DawgDad

September 6th, 2011
5:21 pm

This plan will tax me for improvements in other areas while I will have to pay fees to use the major improvements in my area. I cannot conceive of a more ill-conceived proposal. Who elected these people???