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

Really!?!?

September 6th, 2011
12:12 pm

“Taxation without representation”- Really??? I’m about as conservative as they come, but this is starting to get a little silly.

Another Cynic

September 6th, 2011
12:02 pm

I think Dumb and Dumber nailed it.

This vote will fail because the state “leadership” in Georgia’s Gold Dome has been an EPIC FAILURE in pulling this region together and in finding effective ways to deal with our transportation and water resources. It’s much easier for them to play the tired, political game of pitting urban communities vs suburban and rural ones and just kick the can down the road than to actually deal with the important issues at hand. Personally, I hope this vote fails miserably so that it will force our “leaders” in the gold dome to actually address the issue instead of passing the buck like they always do.

zeke

September 6th, 2011
12:00 pm

The so called beltline is a feel good socialist redistribution boondoggle that will do nothing for the city, county or the taxpayers!

zeke

September 6th, 2011
11:59 am

This ridiculous vote must be county by county! If Cobb or Cherokee or Clayton or any other votes against this boondoggle, they should not be taxed to support it! A screwy as the marta tax is, it was at least done the right way, allowing Dekalb and Fulton to go ahead because they voted for it, and, Cobb and Gwinnett to opt out because their tax paying citizens did not want it, thankfully!

No Artificial Flavors

September 6th, 2011
11:58 am

At first I was supportive of this new consumption tax, however, after the details emerged, I have changed my mind. First, there is no reduction in state income tax to offset the new broadened tax base. It’s a rather large tax increase instead. Secondly, the bill is bad in that it punishes local governments in regions that the TSPLOST fails as far as they have to pay more to match DOT funding. Third, these projects, no matter which region we are discussing, are half-hearted at best. And ignore real problems with infrastructure and transportation.

Also, I’ll agree with others. PPP’s will not work without substantial government investment up front. I’m conservative/libertarian but even I realize that governments exist to provide economies of scale for major transportation and infrastructure projects that must be supported with general tax revenues.

roughrider

September 6th, 2011
11:47 am

The author obviously does not realize that people are taxed to death already.

DagnyT

September 6th, 2011
11:26 am

When someone can tell me how a new tower at McCollum field (airport) helps with traffic congestion, I’ll vote for the plan.

Road Scholar

September 6th, 2011
11:17 am

Is the sales tax a good route to the future?

It’s the only route we have unless you continue to underfund neccessary transportation improvements. The legislature has lacked the ability to pass a gas tax increase, or even adjust it to inflation. They continue to place their long term planning ( and I use that phrase loosely) on Private Public Partnerships (3P) which calls for private companies to finance and run toll/managed lanes. If you haven’t noticed, no takers yet. They desire to go to a mileage tax where all vehicles including electric and hybrids pay “their fair share”, which is weak on details of rates (probably tied to different types of roads, congestion levels, vehicle weight, Air quality, etc). So this is all we have to move forward.

Any new tax increase in any city/state has come under the process being persued. A list of projects which SHALL be delivered/constructed during the period of the tax…here it is 10 years. Accountability…as good as it gets!

Tea Party: ” But 85 percent of the funds collected in each county will be redistributed elsewhere — not spent in the county in which it is collected.”

They will be spent on projects that RELIEVE congestion. Don’t people from other counties/cities travel to their jobs and shopping elsewhere?Just look at the major system to system interchanges at rush hour and at other times. Check out the license plates while you sit in congestion! If transit is included and ridership encouraged won’t that remove vehicles to reduce congestion and improve mobility.

Since MARTA was conceived, the cries of the “undesirables” coming to the suburbs have been heard. Untrue information concerning the safety of MARTA has been spread by rumor and innuendo. Yes there is some crime (like there is none on the roadways?) but wouldn’t more people using it help to police it? Ya’ know more eyes, more cell phones etc.would be available to report crimes?

Finally, 15% of the income from the tax goes to local governments ; cities and counties will also benefit for transportation from the tax directly. While I haven’t seen a list of “local”projects, that would be a plus to further define the benefits to be expected.

DC

September 6th, 2011
11:02 am

I wonder what we could have bought with all the money that has been sunk into MARTA over these past 40 years. A bus service that not only goes where people need to, but can change as the city changes (isn’t locked into routes and stations that go where no one wants to go). Better roads, that continue to (and always will) carry the vast majority of Atlantans and Georgians. A “bypass freeway” to route I-85 and I-75 traffic away from metro atlanta. Amazing how many things we could’ve done.

Dumb and Dumber

September 6th, 2011
10:32 am

The funny thing is…they’re both wrong.

The mix of projects is designed to win votes, not reduce traffic. The Tea Party vision of roads paying for themselves is dim-witted at best.

And the Georgia Legislature? I’d give them a D minus on this effort. Instead of actually formulating a vision and transportation policy, they kicked the can to a ‘Regional Roundtable” of local pols who only really care about being re-elected or furthering their careers. Besides, the transportation tax bill gets the one big thing wrong — instead of creating tax revenues for a host of competing public transit agencies, the legislature should have figured out how best to complement existing infrastructure. I don’t mean expanding MARTA, we all know the Gold Dome cannot stomach that fight, but at least they coulc decide who will run transit outside of Fulton and DeKalb. GRTA, ARC and GDOT already have the authority to operate transit systems, so… choose one. Instead we have GRTA running bus routes that compete with Cobb, Gwinnett and MARTA. Publicly funded transit agencies should not be competing with each other, that’s stupid. If we have one transit agency for the suburbs, maybe it could coordinate with MARTA. Instead we have an empty Cobb County bus sitting behind and empty GRTA bus which is sitting behind and empty Gwinnett County bus. How many empty buses do we need running the same routes?

Oh, and resurrecting Clayton Transit, that’s even dumber. I ride MARTA every day and I chose to live in a place where I can do so, its not dangerous, nor even smelly. But its OK with me if people choose to drive – but I don’t drive to the suburbs (seen one TGIF and you’ve seen them all).

As for road improvements and expansion? Bring them on. Just quit pretending that roads pay for themselves and transit doesn’t; they both rely on tax revenues. Don’t vote for this tax, but not because the Tea Party is against it, vote no because its a lame effort and won’t do much to alleviate traffic congestion.

Its time for the Gold Dome to try a do-over.