Moderated by Tom Sabulis
Public distrust of elected officials is a big reason undecided voters are hesitant to vote “yes” on the Transportation Investment Act referendum on July 31. Many of those responding to a call-out on our transportation blog said they feared the 1-cent sales tax would be extended without voter approval, like the extension of tolls on Ga. 400. (In the T-SPLOST’s case, the law prohibits it.) We hear from some fence-sitters in my column. Also, an opponent and supporter of the T-SPLOST write.
By Tom Sabulis
Opponents and supporters have had their say on metro Atlanta’s transportation special purpose local option sales tax (T-SPLOST). But a harder-to-read swath of the electorate — undecided voters — will have a loud voice in what happens July 31, when residents in a 10-county region vote on a 1-cent sales tax designed to raise $6.1 billion for transportation improvements.
According to the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s voter-identification research, 24 percent of “high-propensity” — i.e very likely — voters are on the fence. That’s a big number. (A recent WSB-TV poll found 13 percent of respondents were undecided.)
“You don’t want voters going in undecided because usually they vote no,” said Paul Bennecke, a Republican campaign strategist for the chamber’s pro-tax forces, at a recent editorial board meeting at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Given that focus, we solicited feedback from readers who had not made up their minds on the T-SPLOST. A majority of respondents said distrust and accountability — more than the balance of transit and roads on the project list — kept them in the undecided camp.
Several pointed to the extension of the tolls on Ga. 400 as a motivation to vote no, even though the Transportation Investment Act of 2010 states that an extension in this case is prohibited without direct approval of voters.
“My concern is with this turning into another Ga. 400-like Pandora’s box of spending,” said Bobby Norwood, 29, a real estate financier who lives in Midtown. “That toll was supposed to have been shut down years ago. My concern is that we’re just stuck with this tax forever, and that makes it even more unattractive.”
Barry Haney of Stone Mountain said the vote is difficult for him because a unified transportation plan is desperately needed.
“However, an ever-growing distrust of our local political leaders makes me hesitant to give them additional funds to waste,” Haney said. “Whether the corruption exists on the Gwinnett County Commission, in DeKalb [County] or the Atlanta school administration … it seems to be everywhere. Even without the inevitable corruption, I fear the scope of the overall project is too large to be a managed effectively.”
Decatur resident Keith Beaver, 45, said the primary reason he’s undecided is that local governments will make some decisions about how tax revenues are spent.
“There are two proposed projects that will be very close to my residence,” Beaver wrote. “But if the DeKalb County junta decides who gets the money to build it, I have no faith that the process will be transparent. I am not willing to pay a penny more in order to enrich the well-connected. That being said, the improvements would be significant if completed on time and within budget.”
Some readers had specific project concerns.
Marketing and sales worker R.J. Schlitt, 52, who lives off Windy Hill and Powers Ferry roads near the Cobb-Atlanta border said, “For me … this is a lot about taking our current HOV lanes that the taxpayer paid for and turning them into the toll lanes. If any of that is included or possible with any of these monies, then I vote no. Otherwise, I am for improving the roads and the mass transit.”
Marietta resident Steve Greenwood is pro-transit, but he questions the mix of rail and roads on the project list.
“I live in Cobb County, and we just have no good transit options,” he wrote. “We really need light rail (not some poor attempt at a rapid bus system) in the I-75 corridor.
“While I feel the list doesn’t include nearly enough transit, I have to decide whether this bad list is better than doing nothing at all. So far, I haven’t made that decision.”
Vote an investment in the asset of time
By Bill Sengstacken
I think we can all agree that we don’t like to pay taxes and that when we do, we would like to see a good return. That said, we need to be willing to make investments that will allow for our regional economy to grow, that encourage tourism and enhance our quality of life. A “yes” vote on July 31 on the transportation sales tax will address all of these issues.
Time is an asset that we can’t bank or save for later. I run a small business. I am often traveling from one side of town to another. One recent Friday, I left an office in Alpharetta at 3:30 p.m. to meet another client downtown at 5 p.m. To travel the 27 miles between the two points took well over two hours and 30 minutes. I missed the meeting and the opportunity. That cost me a significant revenue source — thanks to traffic.
You have a family. You want to spend time with them. You want to see your son pitch his first Little League game. You want to see your daughter in the school play. But you can’t. You’ve missed a moment — an ineffable moment that can’t be re-created — thanks to traffic.
Businesses want to come to the South. They like how Georgia seems to have a pro-business environment. They like the major universities and the talent pool they offer. But they don’t like the traffic congestion. They don’t like how it makes people late for work. They don’t like how it impacts employee morale. They end up looking at Charlotte, Jacksonville, New Orleans or Tampa — thanks to traffic.
As a major metropolitan area, we need to look long and hard at what is important to our long-term success. We can’t just say “we’re Atlanta” and expect that will win the day. We need to look at transportation infrastructure as a core investment and not as a luxury.
No matter your political leanings, this is simply a crucial investment into the one asset none of us can afford to waste. That asset is time.
Bill Sengstacken, a small-business owner, is president of SengStrategies.
Tax does little to relieve congestion
By Claire Bartlett
The Transportation Investment Act could the biggest tax increase in modern Georgia history. T-SPLOST is rampant with legal issues and poor project selections.
Many have questioned the constitutionality of the T-SPLOST, forcing a regional sales tax pact without authority.
Your county may vote against the referendum, but if a majority from other counties votes for it, you pay the tax.
Our metro T-SPLOST allocates 52 percent ($3.2 billion) for transit, promoting it as a solution for congestion on Atlanta’s roadways.
The brutal truth is it does little to relieve our congestion. Effective transit relies on very high population densities.
A recent Georgia Public Policy Foundation study demonstrates Atlanta is one of the least dense cities in the world. Moreover, rail projects rob money from congestion-relieving road projects used by the majority of commuters.
Rail transit has the highest cost per passenger mile of any form of transportation.
Additionally, although Atlanta’s population has increased, MARTA ridership has declined (-7 percent train, -23 percent bus, per MARTA’s own 2011 financial reports). Less than 5 percent of our commuters use mass transit.
The leadership has not defined how long-term transit operating and maintenance costs will be paid nor what will happen to partially funded projects if the T-SPLOST is not passed for a second 10-year period.
Let’s take a rational, commonsense approach looking at reforms of how Georgia divides federal funds between congressional districts. Get the Legislature to mandate transportation priorities, congestion relief foremost.
Also, seek innovative, cost-effective techniques to advance congestion relief (technology, construction and policy).
Claire Bartlett a high-tech executive in Roswell, is founder of the North Fulton Chapter of Americans for Prosperity.