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

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middleground

July 29th, 2012
7:06 pm

We have unverifable electronic voting……………..they ain’t going to walk away from billions for the taking.

Chris Sanchez

July 29th, 2012
5:41 pm

We’re almost there…July 31st and the defeat of the abysmal T-SPLOST. Millions of dollars have been spent trying to convince people to pass this huge tax increase to fund a black hole. People in metro Atlanta are not as gullible as politicians in the state seem to think we are. Still, the desperate cries and name-calling from those who support this wreck of a tax persist.

Perhaps on August 1st our politicians can get back to work crafting a project list that is actually intended to address traffic congestion and leave economic development (per your own expert, the transit projects will not address congestion…they are for economic development). If you want to do economic development then propose it as a stand-alone measure and lets have the debate. Just be prepared to defend MARTA in the process.