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

Rick

July 15th, 2012
8:31 pm

Road Scholar,

Except for Peachtree Dekalb Airport, all GA airports are woefully under-capacity to justify their overall cost (loss of property taxes, unreimbursed administrative cost to general funds, federal subsidies, ….) Any business that regularly uses GA airports to transport its goods, will not stay in business too long. A good try on your part; are you going to directly benefit from these projects? You arguments are losing credibility, the more you argue for the projects.

I thought you were arguing all these T-SPLOST projects were designed to reduce pollution. I have travelled to the cities you mention, and they are much better designed that Atlanta and much more interesting. Streetcars are touristy, and often hang-up traffic in major cities, causing back-up, hence more pollution. While the project may seem to be worthwhile if it pulls in more tourist, it seems a City of Atlanta Development Authority should be seeking funding for the project.

Vote NO. The case has not been made for this all this waste of our money.

middleground

July 15th, 2012
7:08 pm

Government belongs to those that show up. Don’t let the crooked Chamber of Commerce vote this scam in. Call and get your friends and family to vote no.

Road Scholar

July 15th, 2012
5:46 pm

WeNeed Alt: Yeah, the goods in our stores and the people who work on our homes don’t need an efficient way to get to their markets! That food and clothes and services are to appear out of thin air.

Tyronda: I have a county pipe on my property in an easement. It was 95% clogged. It took Dekalb Co 1.5 years to finally come out and unclog it! City of Brookhaven, here we come! Oh and there is a school zone/speed limit sign on Asford Dunwoody Road at Windsor Parkway which is covered by growth on the side of the road. It’s been like that for 2 years…waiting for the county crew to prune it back…they just last month cut the grass on the shoulder. Finally (I wish that was true) go over and look at the shoulder of Briarwood Road west of Buford Hwy; the shoulder resembles a highly eroded moonscape in a highly pedestrian area. Sidewalk you ask? Not even gravel put down. And the runoff from the road goes down a hill into an apartment complex. Incompetence!

Rick, the last time I checked, air travel is a form of transportation. What goods and services does that airport provide? Can it be expanded to reduce the load at other local airports in the region, thus reducing travel times and increase commerce?
The beltline is a form of transportation also. As with transit are you proposing No transit in the COA? Just dump all those trips on the surface streets? They’ll operate just fine, by your standards. Also many people have stated that MARTA does not go anywhere. So, when the transit network is proposed to be expanded, people complain? Whine on!

Have you been to San Diego, Baltimore, and Portland (light rail) or Washington DC (heavy rail)? Every major city in the world has transit. To increase the capacity of those system you don’t have to widen, buy more land or repave (asphalt uses oil); just add another rail car!

Chris Sanchez

July 15th, 2012
4:45 pm

One thing about it: voter turn out will be higher than normal for a primary!

Rick

July 15th, 2012
2:45 pm

Road Scholar,

I missed it, how does paying Cobb’s portion of a federal matching grant for airport improvements at McCollum Field help improve air pollution? And, Beltline streetcars?

I think folks are saying get the pork and political gaming out of this, and come up with real plan for improving traffic and transit.

Carole

July 15th, 2012
1:35 pm

If we wait until there’s zero corruption and 100% competence, then we watch other cities, counties and countries benefit from and enjoy the fruits of progress.

Not-yet-senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan quoted the Wall Street Journal in 1960 on the Interstate Highway Program calling it “…a vast program thrown together, imperfectly conceived and grossly mismanaged, and in due course becoming a veritable playground for extravagance, waste, and corruption.”

Tyronda

July 15th, 2012
1:21 pm

The news story this weekend about the guy who took it upon himself to fix long neglected potholes speaks volumes about how government works, or rather doesn’t work.

Soon as DeKalb County heard what he was doing…the same day in fact…they got their lazy butts in gear and repaired the road. It didn’t require any additional sales taxes, just one individual’s initiative and some media attention.

WeNeedAlternatives

July 15th, 2012
12:25 pm

And another thing Middle,
You might want to check the amounts of gas tax that goes to maintenance vs. construction.
I believe this is about 2:1 …

We are barely holding our own in maintenance, and don’t have enough money for any significant construction (this is one huge state!). And, for that matter, we are getting seriously behind in maintenance. Hopefully our bridges don’t get any worse (they will.)

There is a disadvantage in having the lowest gas tax in the nation.

WeNeedAlternatives

July 15th, 2012
12:18 pm

Middle?
Are you serious?
If the exurbs is where ‘everybody wants to live’… then why are the intown neighborhoods holding their own in real estate value (and in many cases increasing)? Houses sell quickly. But I guess that’s just imagination…. (check the latest zip code statistics on home value, check with a real estate agent, you might be seriously surprised.)

Businesses want to locate near other businesses in order to reduce inter-business transportation costs. If they want to move a long distance, they can always move to Shoulderbone (sorry… just had to pick a random town – it does have an interesting history….) But they choose NOT to – they want to be near airports, services, other businesses and most of all, a pool of talent.

Moving a business ‘way out’ to one side of town, restricts its access to businesses way out on the other side of town. It also reduces access to a mobile community of talent. People don’t want to drive 80 miles across town to another job, and for that matter – on what roads? Who is going to build the transportation system necessary to handle all that far cross town traffic? The roads aren’t free, and require ongoing maintenance.

Moving everything out of town is an unworkable solution. But you can always move way out of town… way, way out of town….

bigbill

July 15th, 2012
11:49 am

It is amazing to me that most of the big business types and government officials pushing hard for (and spending millions to promote) this T-Splost tax for Atlanta citizens are Republicans who have vigorously opposed any new taxes or tax increases of any kind starting with Governor Deal and the staff of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. Never, never, increase taxes on corporation, they say, because they are the “job creators.” Utter nonsense. Unemployment in Atlanta remains at a punishingly high level. Never increase taxes on the wealthiest in this country because they too are “job creators.” More utter nonsense. And now we have Andre Jackson advocating as the official editorial position of the AJC that we should now support this tax increase because the business leaders of atlanta want it. We should do what they say, says the AJC. “Our job creators deserve at least that much.” Utter, utter nonsense. Here’s why. The business leaders want this T-SPLOST because they cannot get taxpayer funds from the General Assembly for their never-ending billion dollar road and construction projects and so they want you, the citizens of Atlanta, to pay. God forbid that they should have to suffer losses and deprivation like the rest of us in this big bank-created recession. Oh, no. We have to cough up the tax revenue to keep Billy Payne and his billionaire friends rolling in dough and paying their dues Augusta National. Vote NO on T-SPLOST. Send them the message that for once you agree with them: NO NEW TAXES! Right? Right.