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 14th, 2012
4:22 pm

Chris, I’m just a bit confused… please enlighten me…

Transit requires maintenance in the future…. and roads don’t? Huh? Not so says transportation experts. ALL transportation is subsidized and ALL transportation requires future maintenance, repair and upkeep. What you don’t pay for in transit that you do in automobile rides is insurance, emergency room subsidies, auto maintenance, police services, EMS etc. That’s not even mentioning the pollution contribution to the atmosphere, and the time lost sitting in traffic.

Road congestion won’t go away ever, no matter how many roads you build – another factoid that is never discussed. Traffic always increases to fill (or overfill) the capacity of roads. The only way to get around congestion is alternative transportation.

The GA400 toll debacle has absolutely nothing to do with this. That was a verbal promise (unfortunately), and the TSPLOST is a law, and that gets embedded in the verbiage of bond issues – it can’t be changed (unlike what most of the great unwashed think…. ). It becomes a legal, binding contract. Did anyone vote on GA400? No… it was created by (ugh) the DOT… and yes, that organization could improve – but also it is/was supported by the … here we go again … those pesky politicians.

I’m so glad you are willing to vote out the politicians – there are few that actually do what they say on that.

Oh, yes – congestion was only one of the criteria that were used in selecting the projects – but somehow that fact has gotten lost in the shuffle.

DontTreadOnMe

July 14th, 2012
4:11 pm

In Gwinnett alone, this next tax would increase sales tax from 6% to 7%, a 17% increase, hitting low and fixed income families hardest.

Fifteen percent of the revenue taken from our pockets would fund TWO transit projects – a $40M check to the county transit system and a $95M gift to “study” an I-85 light rail system for which construction would NOT START before 2040!

Another 15% of our tax money would provide an open traffic project slush fund for local politicians and bureaucrats.

NONE of these 22 projects have been evaluated for a cost-benefit; there is no proof that they will reduce traffic or add jobs. But it’s proponents WILL benefit mightily.

Gwinnett is representative of the rest of the state.

THERE ARE MANY, MANY ALTERNATIVES TO REDUCE TRAFFIC AND BRING IN JOBS. BUT NONE OF THEM WILL LINE CERTAIN PEOPLE’S POCKET LIKE A NEW TAX THEY CAN BLAME US FOR CREATING.

Georgia, you are being lied to – sold a bill of goods. That USED to be called fraud.

Visit TrafficTruth.net and learn why this tax MUST BE DEFEATED.

Then REMEMBER its supporters at their next election. And TAKE OUT THE TRASH.

Chris Sanchez

July 14th, 2012
3:44 pm

@Angus & WeNeedAlternatives: I am disgusted that Gov. Deal supports this proposal and will eagerly be seeking his replacement when he stands for re-election. My state Senator, however, has called this proposal what it is: a plan that will not help solve traffic congestion. Rogers also rightly points out that many of the projects will require funding beyond the ten years the TSPLOST is to be collected. Translation: this tax will not go away in ten years. It will be renewed or renamed but this is a permanent tax increase.

You may not like the fact that many in the metro ATL do not trust politicians but the fact remains. TSPLOST will likely be defeated in spite of it being placed on a primary ballot using language much similar to an advertisement. It will be defeated because the people were lied to about the tolls on Ga 400. It will be defeated because over half of the money is slated to be spent on transit. It will be defeated because it is a deeply flawed proposal.

Once the voters clearly let the politicians know exactly how we feel about this proposal, perhaps they will listen, get in a room, and work on a proposal has has a possibility of passing on the merits (e.g. actually addressing congestion). They will know they have it right for several reasons: it will not need a million dollar ad campaign to try and convince voters to support it; they will have no fear of placing it on a general election ballot; experts will widely agree that the proposed project list will actually relieve congestion.

WeNeedAlternatives

July 14th, 2012
2:57 pm

Angus,
I was tempted to say very much the same thing. Folks that don’t like this, complain about the politicians that THEY vote into office… and re-elect again and again!
I believe the ‘distrust’ argument is just an excuse to justify voting against this to themselves. It makes them feel better.

Sadly, this negative reaction portends bad economic times, with more congestion, and a serious potential for job losses. It is impossible to get most of the naysayers to think beyond their next paycheck, so they keep complaining. We, as a region, must think out 20+ years. No problem of this magnitude is solved in 5-10 years. It takes decades to fix the problem that has taken many other decades to create.

And for those that complain this doesn’t solve congestion – guess what? It doesn’t!!! It is a start, and it will take much more than this to fix this mess. If you don’t get started fixing the problem, you will never, ever solve it. It won’t fix itself.

Angus

July 14th, 2012
1:56 pm

If only we dedicated more time and distrust in electing our officials.

We’re all guilty, but I’m going to pick on you, Gwinnett. You’re going to vote down the TSPLOST because you don’t trust the government, but yet you are going to re-elect Balfour (Rep.- GA Power).

There is no good ending to this story.

Hillbilly D

July 14th, 2012
12:21 pm

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?

But aren’t those same businesses exempt from the tax?

WeNeedAlternatives

July 14th, 2012
12:12 pm

That sounds like a good idea – tax those that benefit.
Do I hear commuter tax???/

…. I didn’t think so….

yuzeyurbrane

July 14th, 2012
11:42 am

Despite the rousing words from Professor Harold Hill, excuse me, Billy Payne, this dog don’t hunt. And the AJC’s wonderment at businesses willing to advocate for more taxes on themselves flies right in the face of the AJC’s own reporting about TSplost tax exemptions for Delta, trucking companies, etc. who stand to benefit directly from TSplost projects. Not to even mention Emory, which never saw a project effecting its campus which it did not support taxpayers paying for! And then to have the gall of pressuring their employees! It may not be illegal but it is certainly hypocritical. The whole thing smells of potential corruption. Some of the projects are good but the pork, corruption, and big businesses not really having any skin in the game are just too great a negative. Go back to the drawing boards, eliminate the pork and the special interest tax breaks, tax those entities more that will benefit the most and have the legislature vote up or down on it.

Zakiyyah

July 14th, 2012
11:19 am

I was on the fence regarding how I would vote in the T-SPLOST referendum until a few days ago, then I saw in the news that employers are strong arming their workers to support it. That did it for me, probably other people too if the polls are to be believed. No one likes to be bullied.

Not Fooled Again

July 14th, 2012
10:25 am

Seriously, does anyone think this tossing of money at an impossible to correct problem is really about improving our commute? Does anyone not realize this is about politicians, developers, DOT and local governing boards paying back campaign contriibutors, lining their pockets and enjoying the high that spending other peoples money bring to useless bueraucrats?

Atlanta’s commuter problems stem from too rapid growth bringing on sprawl created by these same lackeys, or their same predecessors who rezoned property for profit for their developer buddies. People compare rapid transit from cities like Washington DC, Portland, Seattle, etc which are compact, tightly congested areas, while we meander over hundreds and hundreds of square miles.

Bottom line, if you can answer yes to the following, you should vote for this, if you can’t you should vote no- do you trust the politicians, DOT, developers to do the right thing and devote the resources from this tax effeciently, honestly and without corruption and with the taxpayers best interests at heart? I thought so. Hence, I vote no.