Moderated by Tom Sabulis
The transportation sales tax referendum comes up for a vote July 31. Today’s commentators agree that MARTA and its customers are being treated unfairly, but then part ways. One slams the proposal for not engaging the African-American community. The other says the economic boon resulting from $6.14 billion in transportation improvements is too good to pass up.
Fairness, inclusion lacking in T-SPLOST
By Vincent Fort
The T-SPLOST does not pass the fairness test. Residents in Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties already pay a 1 percent transportation tax — the MARTA sales tax. If the T-SPLOST passes, Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb residents will incur an increase from 1 percent to 2 percent. In effect, they will be double taxed. Outlying counties will pay only 1 percent. Atlantans will see their sales tax go from 8 percent to 9 percent, an increase of 12.5 percent. That rate is one of the highest in the country. That’s not fair.
Sales taxes are regressive. Billionaires pay the same rate as middle-class families, senior citizens on fixed incomes and the poor. The T-SPLOST will be applied to groceries and medicine. At the same time, lobbyists for big corporations got an exemption for motor fuel when the T-SPLOST legislation was being considered under the Gold Dome. So trucking firms and corporations with large vehicle fleets whose trucks cause a disproportionate amount of damage to the roads will not pay into the T-SPLOST pot. All of this for a plan that will save only 2.5 minutes on the average round-trip commute. That’s not fair.
The project list has a monumental flaw. While the Emory University area gets a rail line, south DeKalb, after 40 years of paying the MARTA 1 percent tax and fighting for a rail line, is getting a bus line. That’s not fair.
MARTA cannot use any of the T-SPLOST money it receives for operations. MARTA’s budget deficit is in operations. No other transit agency in the state functions under such an onerous restriction. In addition, MARTA’s T-SPLOST money will be funneled through the state of Georgia — an ominous arrangement for a government with a history of directing money away from its intended use. That’s not fair.
If this T-SPLOST passes, African-American businesses will continue to be left out in the cold. A recent study commissioned by the Georgia Department of Transportation itself showed that African-American companies receive only 2.4 percent of GDOT’s federally funded contracts. Even worse, African-American companies receive only 1.1 percent of state-funded contracts. The study indicates that if all things were equal, African-American businesses would receive 22 percent of GDOT’s contracts. Eighty-five percent of the T-SPLOST revenues will go to the state of Georgia and GDOT. GDOT cannot be trusted to do the right thing by African-American companies. That’s not fair.
A look at the history of the defeat of the first MARTA referendum is instructive. That first MARTA referendum failed in 1968 after the African-American community was excluded from the process. After that, the civil rights community and African-American leaders were brought to the table and negotiated items for inclusion. As a result, a minority business and hiring program was implemented, a 15-cent fare was adopted and the Bankhead station was included. Therefore, the next time the MARTA referendum was on the ballot, it passed.
The July 31 T-SPLOST should be defeated, and fairness and inclusion should be made a part of the process.
Vincent Fort is a state senator representing the 39th District.
‘Yes’ vote is necessary transportation triage
By Stacey Abrams
Next Tuesday, I will walk into my precinct in East Atlanta and vote “yes” on the metro Atlanta T-SPLOST. This choice will be in sharp contrast to the last time I voted on this issue.
On March 25, 2010, I voted “nay” on HB 277, the Georgia 2020 Transportation Act. After a hectic day of reviewing the legislation and arguing against its treatment of the state’s major public transit system, I joined dozens of my colleagues in opposing a bill that failed to address our key demands. That is the role of a state representative — to speak for the people he or she represents.
In South DeKalb and parts of Atlanta, which comprises a significant portion of my district, MARTA had stagnated and suffered cuts during its decades of service, starved by an inchoate and draconian financing scheme that holds the region hostage to a bygone era of prejudices. When HB 277 refused to fix what the Legislature had broken, I said “no.”
However, as a resident, I owe my region and my state a “yes” vote July 31. This is a generational choice that will set the course for our economic and environmental futures. Opponents of the T-SPLOST are not wrong in their concerns: This is a tax increase on those who have funded MARTA for 30 years without receiving a rail line. The T-SPLOST does not adequately fund public transit, which is critical if we are to be a livable community well into the 21st century. And it is unclear which projects will receive priority status in the spending.
But for every flaw in the T-SPLOST, on balance, this referendum is vital to our communities. Through the quiet, hard work of county leaders, Gov. Nathan Deal and key CEOs, important progress has been made. Workforce development initiatives will help secure training and jobs throughout the region as these projects come online. Small businesses will have a chance to bid on procurement projects that can transform their futures much as Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport did in the ’70s and ’80s. Billions of dollars will flow through our network of cities and counties and towns, binding us together more tightly through commerce and transit.
From the small corner deli on Memorial Drive to the aggregate producer in Rockdale County, the transportation projects funded will transform our region. The issue of funding public transit will not be solved with a single referendum or tax; it must instead be woven into how we think about transportation overall. The T-SPLOST is not a cure for our transportation woes, but it is the triage we need if we are to survive as a region.
My role as House minority Leader requires a difficult threading of politics. My job is to help guide our caucus by collaborating where we can and competing where we should. I understand those who will continue to demand answers of the T-SPLOST and its outcomes. They are essential to the process of government and to being good stewards of the people’s money.
However, if we are to have a prayer of moving our region forward, we must begin with a leap of faith. Vote “yes” July 31.
Stacey Abrams is House minority leader and represents the 84th District.