T-SPLOST fail: Two Views

Moving on from the transportation tax

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

The proposed transportation sales tax got steamrolled by voters Tuesday, with 63 percent voting against the plan to raise billions for a controversial list of projects aimed at unsnarling traffic and improving transit in a 10-county region. So what’s next? We asked two leaders on each side of the T-SPLOST issue to suggest what needs to be done to find regional consensus.

Commenting is open below Steve Brown’s column.

By Bucky Johnson

Over the past 15 months, I have had the opportunity to travel around the region to speak about the Transportation Investment Act of 2010. There was overwhelming agreement that metro Atlanta has a transportation problem. This was the first time in the history of metro Atlanta that a regional vote for transportation improvements has been attempted. It was a valiant effort.

On Tuesday, however, voters in our 10-county region did not agree to fund the 157 specific projects proposed in the 1-cent sales tax referendum. Whenever there’s a setback, it takes some time to review, renew and refocus based on the lessons learned.

There is going to be a cost for this missed opportunity — one that can’t be assessed in days or months.

While voters have spoken and elected leaders have heard you, there are still transportation challenges to deal with. Like most major metropolitan areas nationwide, neither our region nor our state has adequate financial resources to fully address these challenges. In fact, we are facing a shortfall of tens of billions of dollars in the next few decades for transportation projects needed to expand and maintain roads and bridges and to provide transit options to accommodate the future demands of 3 million more residents expected here by 2040. It is unrealistic to expect more money from the federal government. In fact, there likely will be significant reductions in federal funds to states by 2014.

The governor and General Assembly gave us this opportunity through the passage of the Transportation Investment Act. I would encourage them to continue to work with local leaders and residents to explore new options.

Organizations such as the Atlanta Regional Commission and its planning staff, in partnership with local transportation professionals, did yeomen’s work to assist the roundtable in project selection and analysis. Over the past two years, the ARC, Georgia Department of Transportation, Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, MARTA, local elected officials, the business community, universities and countless civic organizations have worked together with unprecedented cooperation. That bodes well for our region.

This experience has united us to fight another day for options and solutions to our transportation challenges. I implore all those who participated in the process to harness the positive energy and regional thinking gained from this massive endeavor.

I salute my colleagues on the roundtable who took a bold step in selecting the project list unanimously. Metro Atlanta must keep moving forward to address our transportation issues. The needs are obvious — on that we can all agree.

Bucky Johnson is Norcross mayor and was chairman of the T-SPLOST regional transportation roundtable.

By Steve Brown

Easing metro Atlanta traffic congestion will require a systemic transformation of the bureaucratic process we now endure.

Mayor Kasim Reed was not elected to the governing roundtable’s executive committee, but he was forced onto it by the Metro Atlanta Chamber and House Speaker David Ralston. In my opinion, Reed’s inclusion paved the way for most of the controversial project selections, which produced the rise of vast opposition.

Inconsistency abounded as the Atlanta Regional Roundtable Survey on May 25 revealed the preordained viewpoint that “traffic congestion” was the top response to the survey question: “Which of the following is the most important reason for investing in transportation improvements?” (Note: Neither “economic stimulus” nor “jobs” appeared in the top responses.)

The Atlanta Regional Commission’s continual use of disingenuous surveying meant that behind-the-scenes political influencers could obtain answers they desired on the costly expansion of transit.

Once people began to analyze the final project list, which was possible only after it had been approved, it was immediately apparent that traffic congestion relief had not been achieved relative to the scale of funding. Similarly, the list reflected a purposeful agenda to fund modes of transportation least likely to provide congestion relief and more likely to promote high-density development in the suburbs under the context of new urbanism principles, prompting people in the apartment building and real estate development industries to salivate.

The state’s transportation planning director and GDOT followed orders and turned a blind eye toward the mostly special interest list of projects. However, the inability to achieve the main goal — congestion relief — triggered a new marketing campaign around economic development.

Obviously, the mixed messages were confusing and showed a real lack of sincerity.

So what have we learned? First, the ARC needs to abandon predetermined, agenda-driven public outreach. It’s misleading and it impairs the region.

Second, the enormous bureaucracy known as the Georgia Department of Transportation needs to be overhauled, including measures taken to limit political influence from the entities getting rich from government decision-making.

The chairman of the Council for Quality Growth, a development industry advocacy group, said this about the T-SPLOST: “If we’re going to bring real estate out of this depression, we’ve got to give it some help.” The behind-the-scenes influencers hijacked T-SPLOST as an economic stimulus for their purposes, and the ARC and GDOT participated in the exercise. On a similar note, there was a glaring lack of disclosure on who was behind the funding for the public messaging.

Third, don’t practice substandard planning. You don’t plan in this order: 1. approve the list of projects; 2. conduct a study on the list and; 3. approve a regional governance structure over the list.

The methodology employed by the ARC for modeling, planning and outreach is biased and remarkably unreliable.

Fourth, allow flexibility and celebrate home rule instead of crushing it. Don’t create a regional transit system through force.

Fifth, we need a cost-benefit analysis on every new project. Likewise, ignorance on how to pay huge future operations and maintenance costs is absolutely unacceptable.

Steve Brown is a Fayette County commissioner.

66 comments Add your comment

MrLiberty

August 2nd, 2012
9:16 am

Boy, I wish we had a commissioner in DeKalb like Steve Brown. All we have are a-holes. Great analysis.

Unfortunately the premise of both of these analyses are wrong. Government is the least capable of solving our transportation problems as they are the folks who created the problems in the first place. They do not function on any sort of cost-benefit basis as they steal all the money they get for their operations. Clearly there are numerous private entities that have a vested interest in addressing transit issues in the area. They should come together, put together a plan based on sound financial assessments (rather than political pressures, bribery, favoritism, etc.) and put forth their own bond initiative that will attract venture capital and other investors. If a plan is not self-sustaining, it should not be done. That is why there is so much objection to the transit/train plans in this proposal. We all know that rail is unsustainable in this town and that roads, road improments and the like are the right way to go.

Ken

August 2nd, 2012
9:10 am

Reasonable people understand the need for something to be done about traffic in the Atlanta region. While some have made this about the same old liberal vs conservative, it’s not. Some have made it all about race, and while there are elements of that for some, there’s more at work here.

I opposed T-SPLOST, because something of this magnitude should be decided based on expertise, not political gamesmanship. Clearly, we don’t have this expertise at GDOT (traffic lights on ramps and a big yellow bridge with only access on but not off being late examples). Outside consultants would have been fine, but some kind of strategic approach with projected outcomes would have helped convince people.

Final note. For those in the suburbs who seem to have obsessive hostility toward the city, get over it and the underlying bias. Don’t tell people you’re “from Atlanta,” especially when you know nothing about the city. Don’t travel to other cities and say “we don’t have that at home,” when you neither know nor contribute much to the city.

Rock Gaines

August 2nd, 2012
9:02 am

OK, the voters have spoken. Now what? It’s like a marital problem. Husband and wife can argue, yell and scream, and point fingers at each other. After all that is over, the question is: How do we solve this problem?

157 projects was a huge number for people to wrap their brains around. Perhaps a better idea would be to pare the project list down to the ones that will have the biggest effect on traffic congestion.
Also, I would certainly look into the areas with large populations (Gwinnett, South DeKalb County, for example) and provide transit for them to get into the city.

I really hope that just because the vote failed, the sense of urgency does not subside. Maybe a good idea would be for City of Atlanta, DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett and Cobb counties to get together and come up with a project list that works to move their people.

Just throwing it out there.

Don Abernethy

August 2nd, 2012
8:48 am

I may not be a typical voter but besides my distrust for politicians I have grown over the years to dissociate myself from down town Atlanta. The make up of the people in down town Atlanta do not share the same views I have and crime and traffic and other things have made me content to stay away. This tax seemed to me to be directed mostly to downtown Atlanta.I would like to move completely out of metro Atlanta . The diversity is too much for me. But can’t sell my house so I will have to make the best I can of where I live.

too little time

August 2nd, 2012
8:35 am

So everyone living in out lying areas who voted against, stay out there and don’t come inside 285 and clog up out streets and road. You might catch cooties from all of us Libruls anyway.

Wrong. Everyone… just about everywhere… voted against, except for a few precincts in Atlanta.

realist

August 2nd, 2012
8:32 am

Why is it that all the suburban “no” voters can’t offer a solution? Here is one: Erect a giant toll booth system just outside of 285. Every suburbanite who wants to come into town to work, use our airport, restaurants, see a game, or attend a concert pays $25 to get into town. Or stay at home and enjoy Outback, the Olive Garden, and Whitewater.

KJ

August 2nd, 2012
8:32 am

It failed because face lifting interchanges will NOT address the true nature of the problem: that is, totally inadequate mass transit. MARTA needs to be extended along the east and west corridors of I-20, north and south corridors of I-75 and I-85 and with a perimeter route around the city. We need something that will take drivers off the road. But drivers will need to believe the system is safe, efficient and effective for their commutes, not to mention, gets them to their actual destinations, without a thousand rail or bus transfers. Widening roads and re configuring interchanges is busy work that will fail in solving, or even improving, the vehicular nightmare Atlanta is well known for.

too little time

August 2nd, 2012
8:30 am

If the City of Atlanta believes that the best way to spend $600M of the money it generates (much greater than that amount, BTW) to meet the growth, mobility and quality of life desires which have been very clearly articulated by its citizens, what gives you the right to proclaim it a boondoggle?

The fact that they are going to tax ME for the boondoggle gives me the right, and the ballot box is where I proclaim it.

Julia

August 2nd, 2012
8:23 am

So everyone living in out lying areas who voted against, stay out there and don’t come inside 285 and clog up out streets and road. You might catch cooties from all of us Libruls anyway.

Jack

August 2nd, 2012
6:01 am

T-SPLOST failed because if was too big and too complicated. No one believed that 157 different projects could be managed by a group of politicians whose talents lie in getting elected. No one believed the extra 1% sales tax would be placed in a repository and used only for the named projects.