Sunday issue: T-SPLOST referendum

Hirers have the right idea

By the AJC Editorial Board

Metro Atlanta business leaders have drawn flak for urging employees and the general public to back the transportation sales tax. But if they don’t know the high cost of gridlock, who does? Read the three essays and comment below.

It’s impossible not to know by now that metro Atlanta faces a momentous choice. The marketing machine for the transportation sales tax is winding up as election day nears.

High-powered messaging on everything from yard signs to billboards has rankled some who complain that the business community is unfairly marshaling clout and dollars to overwhelm grass-roots opposition to the transportation special purpose local option sales tax, or T-SPLOST.

Business leaders have been criticized for using their bully pulpit to inform workers or, worse yet in the minds of opponents, urge employees to vote “yes.” Critics argue that amounts to coercion.

We’ll acknowledge the sincerity of these concerns. We also believe they are misplaced.

On July 31, voters will be free to do what they’ve always done — vote their conscience as they stand alone before balloting machines. Our cherished right to vote yea or nay in private without fear of repercussion remains unchallenged. Which, in effect, means that all of the marketing tactics, employee information meetings and letters from the big bosses amount to just another information source that voters can use. In that sense, the T-SPLOST campaign is akin to the letters from political candidates that are starting to fill mailboxes.

In our view, the more facts out there, the better.

It’s also worth analyzing more deeply the role of metro Atlanta’s business leaders in the campaign. While their actions have opened them up for criticism, it is noteworthy and, we’d argue, commendable that they’ve stepped up.

Their work is in keeping with the legendary Atlanta businesspeople of old who played a large part in guiding, if not outright pushing, our great metro toward the leading region that we’ve become.

Which isn’t to say that the counsel from our captains of commerce has always been sterling. Yet they’ve remained courageous enough to step up on big civic issues.

When warranted, this newspaper has been critical of some of their actions, and we plan to keep doing just that when the situation calls for it.

Yet, Atlanta’s commercial leaders live here too. Traffic snarls no doubt make them late for meetings or otherwise frustrate their lives in multiple ways, just like the rest of us. So it makes sense that they’ve gotten involved in the only potential solution now on the table.

That’s a stunning insight into just how severe our problems really are, given that the private sector is usually among the loudest cheerleaders for ever-lower taxes. Consider then how dire our transportation plight must be to drive leaders of companies large and small to, in effect, proclaim, “Please tax us!”

Businesspeople know how to hunt down and calculate costs, whether they lurk in spreadsheets or ride aboard trucks wasting fuel on a locked-down I-285. If analysts’ calculus indicates that the positives of tax-powered infrastructure improvements outweigh the red-ink cost to them and their customers, then who can legitimately claim that the T-SPLOST’s cost would hobble job-creating businesses or their workers?

To argue otherwise is to invoke visceral reactions, not sound quantitative vetting, in our view.

All of the above is worth consideration as voters prepare to make their choices.

As citizens slog through all the T-SPLOST data and information out there, they should not forget the advocacy of Atlanta’s business community and the dire factors that led them to this point. Our job creators deserve at least that much.

Andre Jackson, 
for the Editorial Board

Big claims, huge costs, little proof

By Billy Wise

This month, citizens can vote on a new 1 percent sales tax created by the Transportation Investment Act of 2010. The TIA is supported primarily by state and local politicians, and by companies that stand to benefit directly by building the projects.

Gov. Nathan Deal has offered to campaign for local officials who will support the TIA tax. Local politicians are promised a share of $1.08 billion for local projects. Could this be the reason for their strong support of the TIA?

MAVEN and Untie Atlanta, coalitions of chambers of commerce and engineering, design, construction and transportation equipment supply companies, have reportedly amassed a war chest of $8 million to support passage.

The manner in which the TIA is to be implemented mitigates against any substantial impact on traffic congestion. Taxpayers are assured by politicians that proceeds will be spent only on a pre-approved list of transportation projects prepared by the regional roundtable. Here is where the implementation problems begin.

The roundtable first prepared an initial project list that was a wish list of every project anybody could think of. After validation by the Georgia Department of Transportation, the roundtable executive committee trimmed the initial project list to an affordable size.

The projects on the initial list were never subjected to a comparative cost-benefit analysis to determine which ones offered the most congestion reduction for the tax dollars spent. Thus, the final list is still little more than a wish list.

Fifteen percent of the tax proceeds are to be distributed to local counties and municipalities, with no requirement for any kind of project list. There is no way of knowing what impact, if any, those projects will have on reducing traffic.

Of the remaining $6.1 billion, 55 percent is to be spent on transit projects and 45 percent on road projects. This seems odd given that only 5 percent of total annual miles traveled by the average metro Atlantan are provided by transit.

MARTA offers a prime example of the problems with rail transit systems nationwide — declining ridership, huge operating losses, and staggering construction cost. Between 2000 and 2010, while the metro population increased 20 percent, ridership on MARTA decreased 10.9 percent.

Another rail line is proposed from Lindbergh Station to Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This 4.5-mile section will cost $700 million to build, a cost of $155.6 million per mile. A bus transit system on existing roads can be created for $2 million to $3 million a mile. Why are taxpayers being asked to pay 60 times the cost of a bus system and then be forced by yet another sales tax to subsidize its operation forever?

The business community and politicians tout the TIA tax as the answer to traffic congestion. Taxpayers are underrepresented in this issue and are being bombarded with specious claims and promises.

The TIA process leaves much doubt whether the expenditure of taxpayers’ money will have any measurable effect on reducing traffic congestion and commute times.

Billy Wise is a taxpayer advocate who lives in Duluth.

Atlanta’s future requires bold step

By Billy Payne

In a few short weeks, London will host the 2012 Summer Olympics. Sixteen summers ago, Atlanta stood tall and proud to welcome the world as we hosted the Games of the XXVI Olympiad.

The Centennial Olympic Games produced many stirring moments. Who can forget the emotional and dramatic image of Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic flame at the opening ceremonies? Or witnessing the historic double win of Michael Johnson flashing his gold-colored shoes as he became the first Olympian to win the 200- and 400-meter races? Or cheering Kerri Strug’s gutsy vault that captured the gold medal for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team?

Those 17 days in 1996 also left a permanent imprint that accelerated Atlanta’s growth from the capital of the New South to a global capital. Many legacies of the Atlanta Summer Games remain today: the Olympic Village Dormitories and Aquatic Center at Georgia Tech; the athletic facilities at Morehouse College; Turner Field was our Olympic Stadium. And, more importantly, the amazing spirit of our 53,540 volunteers.

Our city and state benefited for over a decade from the “Olympic dividend,” with 64 foreign consulates, international exposure and several hundred thousand jobs created from new and homegrown businesses. We were known as “Hotlanta.”

During the last several years, our shining city has lost some of its luster. Since 2000, we gained 300,000 jobs but lost 250,000 jobs in the last six years. That decline is unacceptable.

I believe in our city and its ability to reinvent itself. I have great respect and confidence in our leadership. We all stand on the shoulders of giants who faced obstacles and made big decisions that were not without conflict. Leaders like Mayor William B. Hartsfield building the airport and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. moving Atlanta through the civil rights movement.

Today, many people don’t remember the years of public debate, political conflict and funding required to win the Olympic bid. It wasn’t easy, but because we are Atlanta, we persevered.

We need another major economic dividend like the Olympics. The Centennial Olympic Games invested almost $3 billion in our region, and we saw solid results for everyone. The regional transportation referendum is an Olympic-sized investment that will build more than $8 billion in badly needed transportation projects.

Over 200,000 citizens gave input to the 21 mayors and county commissioners who picked the 157 projects that are legally tied to this historic vote. We will get home earlier to our families, thousands of jobs will be created and our quality of life will be greatly improved.

Atlanta needs bold leadership to restore our momentum and to reclaim our place as one of the world’s great cities. We need to unify our metro area to jump-start our economy by voting “Yes” on the July 31 regional transportation referendum.

Billy Payne was president and CEO of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.

52 comments Add your comment

WeNeedAlternatives

July 15th, 2012
9:29 pm

Oops, my apologies. I just thought of a reason to vote ‘NO’!
If we have less traffic, fewer people will die on their commute, and the local news media will need fewer reporters to report the carnage!
There are deaths every day – and we’ve got to keep those reporters busy!

WeNeedAlternatives

July 15th, 2012
9:26 pm

Middle,
Don’t you understand… those metal plates are designed to keep you off the local streets (paid for by scarce local city funds).

The gas tax is barely covering maintenance – and just wait ’til some bridges need replacing. Then the excrement will hit the rotary device when a toll has to be instituted to cover the cost.

But then again, I don’t commute…. so my YES vote will only be for this round. If the ethereal ‘Plan B’ is hatched – it will likely have many more roads – and that would get a big ‘NO’. But, for that matter, by then, I will probably be way too old to drive anyway and won’t care… but would still vote!