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

TruthBe

September 6th, 2011
5:13 pm

NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Why because T-SPLOST and the GDOT lied to all of us and broke a legal contract with the People of Georgia about Toll Road 400 remember? They ALWAYS lie and waste money thru polical corruption and race baiting deals. The tax isn’t the answer to our traffic problems, because if it was than ALL problems would have already been solved because of tax increases of the past. They never reduce or elimate taxes or increases once you idiots vote infavor of them. Shame on you for believing these crooks again. NO NEW TAXES FOR ANY REASONS PERIOD. Live within your means and budgets. Cut spending, reduce salaries of the government managers, city and state counselors and politicans first.

Citizen of the World

September 6th, 2011
4:58 pm

That anyone could sit in, or even just see, Atlanta traffic and not recognize the need for this sales tax to fund transportation initiatives just blows my mind. We can say no like Gwinnett County did on the MARTA expansion issue a few years ago and just watch things go from bad to worse — or we can recognize that the marginal utility of improved traffic flow around the region far outweighs extra pennies in our pockets. 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.

Swede Atlanta

September 6th, 2011
4:41 pm

I can’t quite follow Debbie Dooley’s assertion that this is taxation without representation. How more representative does it have to get? We are allowing the electorate to DIRECTLY vote on this tax because the clueless under the Golden Dome are afraid to take a stand. I appreciate that the process for agreeing the projects and priorities lacks the same transparency as a direct vote by the electorate and perhaps that process should be improved. But to claim this is taxation without representation doesn’t correspond with the facts.

Me-Party

September 6th, 2011
4:40 pm

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

This defies mathematical logic – maybe we have an education issue here.

If everyone contained all the taxes they pay to only helping their tiny fiefdom, absolutely nothing will ever be done anywhere, and the world’s infrastructure will crumble.
I’ll agree that those that say the projects would best be selected via cost/benefit by real transportation planners, but that won’t help in a voting situation.
Building more roads won’t solve the problem, and neither will building huge transit systems. You need all the options. Where there are lots of people, there will always be congestion. People must have alternatives, and automobiles are very, very expensive – just nobody really sits down and figures what they really cost.
Private industry is not going to build a transit system, and they won’t build roads either. The expense is too big and the risks are huge. So who is going to do it? The tooth fairy?

Road Scholar

September 6th, 2011
4:04 pm

NAF: I believe that there are teams of consultant bridge inspctors under contract for”just in time” services. I know that they are used when we have massive flood events and All affected bridges are inspected.
What is interesting is that the only program that has “extra” money is bridge replacements. The state route overlays used to happen once in every 10 years (10%of SR/yr); now thy are overlaying about 3 % /y- falling futher behind!

I agree a user fee system is the preferred way of financing the planning, design, construction and maintenance of roads; the gas tax does not get hybrids or electric cars to pay. A mlieage tax would be better based on vehicle weight, miles driven, and in what congestion (higher rate during peak hours) the driving is done. It is in testing using your cell phones as a way to gather travel info!

But I still haven’t come up with better way to fund transit. A sales tax at least gets the visitors to pay for transit. Maybe the motel and hotel tax should be used for transit? Or a regional sales tax like Fulton, Dekalb, and the COA pay now. Maybe we should keep the sales tax for transit and a gas/mileage tax for roads? A regional transit is preferred, and those who say transit has no benefit…they can then drive with all trips being made in personal vehicles! Transit reduces congestion on the roads!

sliderule

September 6th, 2011
2:53 pm

I would support a plan laid out by competent planners, e.g. a Ga Tech panel of city planners, engineers , & architects. I will not support a plan created by incompetent politicians.

Trent

September 6th, 2011
2:46 pm

If they don’t pave a lane directly from my driveway to my place of work, I don’t want it! Make it extra wide, too (I drive one of those six-wheel dualies, you know). It’s all about me!

Gary Abbott

September 6th, 2011
2:34 pm

I see many reasons taxes are necessary for the public good, but I have a hard time seeing how a 1% tax increase for regional transportation is going to benefit me. None of the proposed projects come anywhere near me and even if they did who benefits? OK business benefits, construction companies benefit, government officials in charge of the new billions benefit, but what do I get? As a homeowner and consumer I get the bill. Businesses, developers and politicians love this potential new money bonanza and why not if they can persuade you and me to fund their next big pork banquet?

No Artificial Flavors

September 6th, 2011
2:33 pm

@ Roads, I should have clarified, GDOT has been broken at the top for all these years. I’m not trying to bash the few remaining and overworked engineers and inspectors. You’re right, it became a honey hole for our politicians to stick their hands in.

As for the consumption taxes, I would prefer a gas tax comparable to other states but I do not oppose an additional sales tax. I just think the legislature should roll back the income tax as the revenue base is greatly broadened before I would vote for TSPLOST.

BTW, I do find it reprehensible That we only have a handful of bridge inspectors to handle thousands of state bridges, while other questionable DOT programs are run with high priced consultants. Not that the state wants to fund basic bridge repair. Not sexy I guess.

BW

September 6th, 2011
2:24 pm

If this is about “taxation without representation” then this region is doomed to fall back to the 18th century. No spending on anything that makes this region worth anything…no education spending, no infrastructure spending, no reservoir building…no no no. This idea that monies raised in one town not helping the region is asinine. I’m sorry that people forgot how Atlanta came to be but if we don’t invest in infrastructure as a region we are all doomed. If companies move anyway…good luck maintaining your home values in Milton. This is what this is all about…I got mine the others better find another way to get theirs. Ms Dooley resolution is telling in that it isn’t a resolution….a call for committees to “think creatively”. That committee will then recommend one of two options…a very regional T-SPLOST or variable pricing toll roads…both remove money from the taxpayers pocket. The cynicism of legislators that are elected by their community is stunning in that they are elected by the same people now crying about everyone else’s legislator but theirs. Money will be required to maintain a certain standard of living…you know paved roads, timely ambulances, that type of thing. Get real…this state consists of 10 million people…no one will be 100% happy 100% of the time.