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

Road Scholar

September 6th, 2011
1:54 pm

NAF: I agree with you that the legislature kicked the can down the road, but letting each county/city set priorities by themselves does not address regional needs. it would if every trip began/ended within a county, but…

As for consumption taxes ( which is a user fee I also agree wih you on), how does hybrid or electric car owner/operator pay their fare share, esp if its a gas tax?

GDOT hasn’t been inept ( I agree that they have had their problems though), but the political intrusion into the department has been! I lived it! They are down to 4600 employees from a high of 12,500 in 1980. Most if not all project/program management has been outsorced including most construction, maintainace, design, etc. How does one train qualified and competent successors to run the Department? Besides being a politicians friend? Right now they can’t even hire from the outside to fill high quality jobs vacant due to retirements and people quitting? Consultants are now trainning personel; in house training is limited if not non existent.

Ernest

September 6th, 2011
1:49 pm

I forgot to mention, this could help kickstart job opportunities in the state given these would be infrastructure projects addressed. Assuming many local contractors and employees are used, this could really stimulate the economy as those wages are spent in communities across the state and help with our unemployment numbers.

Ernest

September 6th, 2011
1:46 pm

Tony is correct, GA has the lowest gas tax in the continental US. With this being a consumption tax, I’d rather we increase this up to 5 cents with the following outlay:

2 cents – State wide projects
2 cents – In place of TSPLOST for various regions
1 cent – for local use where the money was collected. Could be used for MARTA if desired and provide some rollback on sales tax in DeKalb and Fulton counties.

Using this algorithm, the tax would increase by a minimum of 3 cents, with the TSPLOST being optional. This is one suggestion, are there others?

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Tony

September 6th, 2011
1:27 pm

Roads should be funded by gasoline taxes. This is the perfect opportunity for all the “fair tax” advocates to get behind their ideas and support one of the very best consumption taxes already in place.

Unfortunately, the governor and politicians derailed this concept this summer by blocking the increase in the gasoline tax that was to take effect in July. If consumption taxes are such a good thing, then why did we nix this increase? The people who buy fuel for vehicles are the ones who should pay for the roads.

No Artificial Flavors

September 6th, 2011
12:52 pm

@ road scholar, you just made my point on that it is a bad bill. Yes, legislators have not gotten the job done so they passed the buck in a shoddy, un-unified attempt to say they did something. They couldn’t girder their loins and fight the good fight on their own. If they did this either county by county or state wide it would be better off. That and reduce income tax. I personally like consumption taxes better. Also, i am not just talking about DOT plan reviews but if the tax fails in a region these counties will have to foot a much greater match on projects than they currently do. Thus, the legislature has incentivized the counties to play along or you will get hurt. Also DOT has passed the buck to these regional agencies because DOT has been inept at doing their job for the past 30 years. Cronyism destroyed that agency.

I think TSPLOST could work, it just needs a bit of a rewrite.

Jack

September 6th, 2011
12:45 pm

Who’s gonna make sure the money is spent on transportation?

Pompano

September 6th, 2011
12:43 pm

The T-Splost is not about solving traffic or providing Transit – it’s to create a bigger cookie jar for all the Developer hands and Politicians. Most of the funds will be siphoned off.

Lamar Willis is on the ARC and is probably already cashing checks on this one. If he’ll steal from High School kids, how much do you think he plans to pull down from this deal?

And in Gwinnett, Charlotte Nash added a $95 million slush fund under the guise of “Rail Feasibility Study” to funnel money to Wayne Hill and her other connected cronies.

Road Scholar

September 6th, 2011
12:40 pm

AC: “… it will force our “leaders” in the gold dome to actually address the issue instead of passing the buck like they always do.” They are republicans in today’s mold; what do expect them to do? They haven’t done anything new to fund transportation since the early 1980’s. They couldn’t manage a one car funeral procession!

Zeke: It’s called REGIONAL! And how has the way in the past this was done working for ya’? Why do you think this is being floated? It’s called to fund difficiencies!

NAF: There hasn’t been enough spent on transportation in years.This is why they are asking for the increase.
“… that it punishes local governments in regions that the TSPLOST fails as far as they have to pay more to match DOT funding. ” Local governments get 15% of the tax revenues with no strings attached. It is all regional state funds with little to no match. It can be used to match available Federal funds. If you are talking about the recent policy at GDOT to have the local Governments pay for GDOT’s time in reviewing projects, that is miniscule compared to these project costs.Besides, why should GDOT spend dwindleing gas tax money collected statewide to pay for one governments reviews? Also, if the quality of the plans are adequate, then it does not cost much!

Rough: “The author obviously does not realize that people are taxed to death already.”

Good let’s stick our heads in the sand; just maybe it will go away? NOT!
Our tax rates are now lower than they have been in the last 30-40 years. When will people learn you have to pay for the collective good in this country?

Dagny: I’m still trying to figure that one out unless they have expect more frieght flights.

The list of projects were prepared by the Atlanta Regional Commission which is the Metropolitan Planning Organization for the Atlanta area. It is required under Federal law and they work with other state agencies planning for the future transportation, water, and elderly services. They also model to confirm our air quality status.

They took the “wish lists” from the local governments and analyzed the projects for benefit/ cost, AQ and how they fit into ourregional network. Through the census they track probable trips by metro Atlantans using demand models. The master list was cut down to what is proposed for the referendum.
It’s called PLANNING!

No Artificial Flavors

September 6th, 2011
12:23 pm

BTW, Mr. Warbington makes a better argument for the tax than Ms. Dooley does against it. If the nays want to win they better drop the anti-everything government does mantra on ignorant tea party leaders and stick to the facts. The facts alone are enough to defeat the tax increase. Apparently Ms. Dooley forgot that her representation has been meeting at roundtables to put all this stuff together for the past year. LOL @ taxation without representation. Please dont mke that important line a cliche.
-NAF