Voices for and against the Transportation Investment Act

Today, the AJC Editorial Board writes in support of the Transportation Investment Act, while Joshua Culling, state affairs director for Americans for Tax Reform, writes that it is a wasteful plan that won’t curb congestion.

And because the issue is so important, below you will also find eight other voices — four for the proposal and four against, who have their say. Read the commentaries below and then add your own at the end of the blog post.

By the AJC Editorial Board

“Time and again during the past half-century, Atlanta’s pathfinders managed to pick the right fork in the road.”

From “Atlanta Rising,” by Frederick Allen.

Metro Atlantans must vote “yes” Tuesday on the 1-cent transportation sales tax referendum.

Our future, prosperity and survival as a leading city — all that we’ve worked for and built toward — stands in peril of being lost if the Transportation Investment Act falls to shameful defeat. If that happens, we’ll find ourselves in the very un-Atlantan role of fearing the future. We will be forced to watch as competitors first gain on us, pull abreast with and pass us by, snatching the jobs and growth we will surrender by voting “no.”

That’s a path foreign to us, as we’ve been a hard-pounding front-runner for so long. On Friday, London celebrated the opening of the Olympic Games. For two weeks, it will do all it can to seize the rare and beautiful moment. Sixteen years ago, Atlanta held the world’s attention with the Centennial Olympic Games. Atlanta was the envy of every American city, and in that shining moment we forged a legacy of ambition that we now risk squandering.

Other cities know well the pain and loss of faltering badly at a critical time, then falling behind. That’s not the Atlanta Way, and it should never be. When white-hot partisan rhetoric, facts, half-truths and everything in between are stripped away, here’s the question before us: does this region take one step up or at least two steps back?

The choice is momentous enough that this Editorial Board presents today our first formal endorsement in several years. It is critical enough that AJC Editor Kevin Riley has promised that, if this tax is approved, our newsroom will double-down on its watchdog reporting, questioning and challenging how every cent of your tax money is spent. (Our parent company Cox Enterprises Inc. is a top donor of the campaign pushing for passage of the tax, having given $250,000 to this cause. It is worth noting that this board advocated for the TIA long before any check was written. That was not a hard call to make, then or now.)

Think about this. For every penny in new tax that would be saved by a “no” vote, Atlantans will waste multiples of that solitary cent in a thousand hidden ways — in congestion-squandered gasoline, penalty fees for missed medical appointments, or insert your own traffic horror stories here.

Do not be seduced by the mirage of a false economy of “no.” Gridlock’s tax is as real as anything ever dreamed up by government, and its scattershot tally will only increase if we do nothing.

And this has never been a do-nothing region. Not the city that collectively shoveled through the ashes and ruin of the Civil War and began a generations-long climb toward a spot on the world’s A-list. Atlanta’s reaped a plenteous harvest from our labors, and we must keep going.

Voting “no” would hand the best possible news to competing cities, which are the biggest TIA opponents. They already now see Hotlanta as Not-lanta. They shrewdly see opportunity in our 9.3 percent regional unemployment rate and the persistent, world-class traffic snarls that hobble our economic competitiveness.

A decisive “yes” vote on Tuesday will tell our challengers, and the entire world really, that Atlanta will not count itself out, and that others discount us at their great peril.

We can begin to fix our epic transportation problems.

To vote “no” would be to fire up an engine that will run only in reverse, powering a Super Speeder trip toward decay. We must avoid that downbound journey.

Even tax-shy politicians understand that reality. With rare exceptions, state and local elected leaders of both parties support the TIA. That they’ve found common ground speaks to the grave challenge facing Georgia, which ranks a miserable 49th in transportation investment.

The detrimental drag of congestion is bipartisan. There is no Republican lane on I-285 nor a Democratic one along I-20.

Even an understandable disdain for new taxes should not spur a tragically negative outcome. Here’s the real dollars-and-cents question in play: Do you believe in the power of a free people to put hard-won capital at risk to create jobs and economic benefit through private enterprises large and small? If yes, then vote “yes.”

To cast a “no” ballot will stifle Atlanta’s innovation and capitalism more effectively than misguided government overreach could ever hope to do. Our business leaders — the real job-creators — have said as much, as bluntly as Southern politeness will permit. Take them at their word.

And do not be swept up in the discordant chant that the TIA is a wasteful misuse of taxpayer money that would do little or nothing to begin reducing the congestion here that all the world can see.

Yes, the TIA is imperfect. It is also the best and only opportunity before us to begin repairing this mess we face.

Given the multiple years of fruitless maneuvering that culminated in a skittish General Assembly finally granting us even this flawed choice, it is unrealistic, if not a fool’s errand, to place pipe-dream hopes on a better “Plan B” miraculously arising from a pothole somewhere to save us from ourselves.

No, each day wasted in search of a more-perfect congestion cure is a day lost to competing cities that aim to chisel away our prosperity,  job by job, and company by company.

A fundamental rule of financiers is the time value of money. Put simply, a dollar today is worth less next year. That truism applies here. Waiting until 2014 — the earliest that a re-do could be voted on — will do nothing but make needed work more expensive and harder to actually get done.

Last year, Mayor Kasim Reed said Atlanta had “lost its lustre,” that the city which once burned bright with dreams and ambitions stands on the verge of faltering. He was right. This vote is as much about the region’s regaining its mojo as it is about the desperate need to solve our traffic woes.

Too many men and women have dreamed too big and worked too hard to elevate Atlanta to being a world-class city for us to now choose the fork in the road that leads nowhere. We owe it to them and our children to vote “yes” Tuesday.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board

Wasteful plan won’t curb congestion

By Joshua Culling

On Tuesday, Georgia voters will decide the fate of T-SPLOST, a multibillion-dollar sales tax increase to fund a variety of new transportation projects across the state. In the Atlanta region specifically, the tax increase will total a whopping $7.2 billion.

Proponents argue that this tax hike and accompanying spending package are necessary to alleviate Atlanta’s infamous rush hour traffic problems. In reality, studies suggest that the transportation projects associated with T-SPLOST will reduce commute times by an average of 2.5 minutes. That’s a tax hike of $2.8 billion per minute in the Atlanta region.

There is no disputing that Atlanta has transportation issues. The metro area’s traffic congestion kills productivity and hampers economic growth. But rather than focusing on alleviating congestion through highway construction, T-SPLOST advocates wrongly believe that mass transit projects will get Atlanta drivers off the road and into rail cars and buses. In all, 52 percent of the T-SPLOST funds earmarked for the Atlanta region will be dedicated to mass transit, predominantly rail.

The problem, of course, is that only 3.6 percent of Atlanta commuters currently use mass transit. In fact, mass transit use has declined by almost half since 1979, when Atlanta opened its first rail transit lines. There is no evidence that suggests that in a sprawling metropolitan area like Atlanta, building more rail lines will cause an uptick in mass transit use and a decline in highway congestion.

And while the T-SPLOST is billed as a temporary, 10-year tax increase, the operating costs associated with expanding mass transit would continue after the tax hike is set to expire. That means more pressure for another round of multibillion-dollar tax increases in 2022, even though the traffic problem will likely persist and rail cars will remain mostly empty.

Voters shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Georgia doesn’t have any wiggle room to raise its tax burden and remain competitive with neighboring states. Georgia, with its 6 percent top income tax rate, is wedged between Tennessee and Florida, neither of which levies income taxes at all. And should T-SPLOST pass, Georgia’s sales tax burden will be higher than all but one if its neighbors. Extracting up to $19 billion (should T-SPLOST pass in all 12 regions of the state) out of the private economy and handing it over to government bureaucrats will only exacerbate Georgia’s competitive disadvantage with its neighbors.

Georgia politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, have said for years that transportation reform is a priority. But by claiming they need billions in new taxes to fund reform suggests transportation is elected officials’ lowest priority. They fund the rest of state government, run out of money, and then ask for more tax dollars in order to tackle the transportation problem. If transportation were the top priority, tax hikes would be unnecessary.

Georgia needs leadership on this issue, not higher taxes and more wasteful spending. The projects funded by T-SPLOST will do almost nothing to lessen commute times in the metro area. Advocates hope to see a sudden uptick in transit ridership that simply will not materialize.

It reminds of a headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion: “98 Percent of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation for Others.” In other words, the majority of the public prefers to drive to work, hoping instead that everyone else will get on the train and out of their way. At 3.6 percent transit ridership, this is certainly the case in Atlanta.

And at $2.8 billion per minute, wise voters will recognize they’re getting a raw deal.

Joshua Culling is state affairs director for Americans for Tax Reform.

Leaders’ sales tax pitch: pro and con

The Atlanta metropolitan area faces a momentous choice Tuesday, as voters head 
to the polls to decide the fate of the controversial penny sales tax authorized 
by the Transportation Investment Act. The local purpose special option sales tax 
would pay for more than $7 billion in transit, road and other improvements intended 
to get the region moving toward repairing our epic traffic congestion. 
Given unprecedented interest in the TIA, we’re offering today a balanced, expanded selection of opinions pro and con on an issue that will impact our area for decades to come.

Yes:

Kasim Reed, Mayor of Atlanta

Ted Turner, founder of CNN, Turner Broadcasting, the Turner Foundation and the United Nations Foundation.

Lisa Borders, president of the Grady Health Foundation and was president of the Atlanta City Council, 2004 to 2010.

Helen Preston Tapp, a land, transportation and environmental planner and policy analyst.

No:

Chip Rogers, state Senate majority leader.

Steve Brown, a Fayette County Commissioner and member of the Transportation Leadership Coalition.

L. Matt Wilson, an attorney in Atlanta.

John Evans, president, DeKalb County NAACP.

63 comments Add your comment

Rick

July 28th, 2012
2:28 pm

Mr. Jackson,

You make note that a “re-do” (creating a new list of needed projects) will cost too much in terms of the present value of dollar of construction, as a the justification to accept this fatality flawed bill, “as is”, RIGHT NOW. This is reminiscent of well known unethical sales tactics frequently used to pressure the ignorant. There is absolutely no reason to believe the construction companies, and manufacturer’s of steel, building materials, etc, are overworked or are in high demand right now, or the foreseeable future. Prices are expected to stay depressed for quite some time. GOOGLE any business publication.

If we are to be good stewards of all these hard earned treasures we should make very sure, all the pork is removed from the wish list (and everyone knows there is an immense amount yet to be removed on this pig). We have plenty time to do this, and longer the list is vetted, the better the finalized new and improved T-SPLOST will be.

middle of the road

July 28th, 2012
2:25 pm

“For Joshua: um, dude, the MARTA trains are full. Go downtown and try to get on one.”

So with a little fare increase, MARTA should pay for itself. Also, as someone pointed out, it is easy to increase capacity as ridership increases, just add trains.

Hevad

July 28th, 2012
1:43 pm

I read in the AJC that citizens had input to the TSPLOST list, I was on one of those so called citizens input calls. There is no Freedom of Speech in Atlanta metro, every meeting of the governemnt you must tell what you are going to say, be monitored, or be ignored. If your comment is not with the issue you are just not allowed to voice it. Everything is pre-censored. If you were on this call you know the censoring happened. You know that on a telephone townhall meeting in GA there is now freedom to say what you really think of an issue. Your AJC Politifact got it wrong, ther was no real citizen input to the TSPLOST, only politicians and developers …dreams. This is not for the good of the people, but as usual, for the good of the few.

BrittanyUnderwwod82

July 28th, 2012
1:38 pm

The passage of the T-SPLOST will not only improve the quality of life for metro Atlantan’s but it will aid in progressing the city as a whole. Houston has caught on and has recently decided to invest in light rail transit. The project list presented is not perfect, but it we wait on a perfect list then we will never get anywhere. Giving people mobility options that are easy and convenient to use will inedible add to more people using transit. Improving roads and interchanges that are in desperate need of repair is what we should be doing. I will be voting yes for the T-SPLOST and will be encouraging everyone I know to vote yes as well.

ErinRogers

July 28th, 2012
1:32 pm

Passing the T-SPLOST is critical for the future success of Atlanta. Other cities such as Houston, Memphis and Charlotte are getting the picture and are working on ways to bring positive transportation reform to their cities. If you think raising funds for the T-SPLOST is a waste of money then think of all the money that will be lost when Atlanta continues to lose businesses to other nearby cities.

Forgot to Mention

July 28th, 2012
1:22 pm

“I guarantee you that 98% of people working in Atlanta cannot make the same boast.”

They won’t be able to make this boast after this fiasco is enacted either. I’d encourage you to take a look at the project list and you’ll see why.

mike

July 28th, 2012
1:15 pm

Atlanta is not layed out for mass transit/rail. I am not walking two miles to my office once I exit the rail. This will not and should not be passed. Vote “NO”.

Forgot to Mention

July 28th, 2012
1:09 pm

SIERRA CLUB IS AGAINST

drp

July 28th, 2012
12:29 pm

Unfortunately, the project Selection Committee selected projects for their “Political” benefit and not for the good of the metro area. I challenge everyone to look at the project list and evaluate how each one will help Metro transportation or is it Pork for Politicians to say “look what I got you.” Why should we pour money into MARTA which has proven it doesn’t work and won’t reform itself with Political Board Members. When the proposal is to roll all Metro transportation into an organization controlled by a Non Political Metro Wide Board, elected by the voters in their District, with the goal of Metro Wide transportation, then I will support it. With the Atlanta Area’s low population density, transportation will always be difficult as is Houston, TX. Boston, Chicago, New York and many others have relatively high population density that makes it economically viable to have good Mass Transit. Sorry, this is a Boondoggle for well connected contractors and Political pundits, not for us. A real reform would be to change the allocation of Georgia Department of Transportation funds to a prorata basis rather than a evenly split region basis and take political decisions out of GDOT (legislation addressed this recently). Look at the great roads in South Georgia funded by tax dollars from the Metro Area (this a result of Rural politicians controlling the legislature in the past, which is great for them), now it is time to shift the funds to Metro Atlanta that should have been spent here over the 30 or so years.

James S. Kennedy MD

July 28th, 2012
10:45 am

My office is right by the MARTA. I can fly into Atlanta, take the MARTA to my office, and save dollars and pollution all in one swoop.

I guarantee you that 98% of people working in Atlanta cannot make the same boast. They must sit in their cars, hoping that WSB may give them insight as to a shortcut they can take to get around the jam in front of them.

Atlanta had led the nation in having the largest local telephone calling area in the country, in having a world class air transportation hub, and, in my opinion, having the best tasting chicken sandwich.

Atlanta deserve to have the best transportation hub that encourages efficiency among its citizens. Those who oppose it are self-centered, thinking of the “me” rather than the “we”. Should it lose, I hope they enjoy the extra gas they spend while stewing in their next traffic jam.