Take two dogs and toss them each a fresh bone. What happens next?
If the dogs get along well, they’ll sit there contentedly, gnawing away. But in other cases the dogs will eye each other warily, each one suspicious that the other one got the better, meatier bone. That often ends in trouble.
And it’s not just true of dogs. That example of canine dynamics also helps to illustrate why the transportation sales-tax referendum scheduled for July 31 may be in trouble. Too many constituencies have their own unique if contradictory reasons for opposing it. Black, white, Republican, Democratic, suburban, urban, liberal, conservative — arguments are available for each group to justify saying no.
Some complain that the project list is too heavy on transit, others that transit is given short shrift. People in the suburbs complain that Fulton and DeKalb counties get too much of the investment, while Fulton and DeKalb residents complain that they aren’t given full credit for the one-penny sales tax they already pay for MARTA.
MARTA is itself a focus of divisiveness. Either it’s getting too much money or getting too little. The only thing that both sides seem to agree upon is that it’s cause enough to vote no. All in all, voters of various descriptions seem bothered by a nagging suspicion that somebody somewhere out there may be getting a better deal than they are. And among people as among dogs, that’s a pretty powerful driver of behavior.
In response, however, I’d offer three points:
1.) What’s the alternative?
On the left, the Sierra Club argues that this proposal should be voted down because subsequent transportation proposals will contain more financial support for transit projects. Unfortunately, that assertion contradicts everything I see on the Georgia political scene. In communities such as Cobb County, for example, repudiation of this proposal will be interpreted as a blanket voter repudiation of mass transit in general, and if that happens no Cobb politician will be willing to challenge that “consensus” again for a decade or longer.
Conversely, the Tea Party and its supporters argue that our transportation woes can be fixed without additional government funds. The fact that the Georgia economy is more reliant on efficient transportation than that of most other states, and that we rank 49th in per capita transportation spending, doesn’t seem to bother them.
Instead of taxpayer subsidies, they argue, private enterprise can be enlisted to build our transportation system through projects such as optional toll lanes. That approach ignores a specific reality — even privately financed toll lanes require hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars — and a more general rule: Transportation infrastructure does not support itself and except in rare cases cannot come close to generating a profit. It is a worthwhile investment because of all the other things that it makes possible, from economic development to family road trips to the quick and easy passage of a fire truck to your doorstep when needed.
2.) Transportation is a regionwide challenge that requires a regionwide solution. Refusing to fund it out of fear that your neighbor may benefit more than you will is a short-sighted and ultimately destructive attitude, because as the region goes, so goes your job, so goes your property value and so goes your quality of life. We’re all in this together.
3.) In most cases, the argument that somebody else will benefit more than you will simply isn’t true. Elected public officials from throughout the region voted unanimously for the project list because they studied it closely and negotiated hard, and all of them came away believing the final product was fair.
But if you’re still skeptical — and skepticism is a good thing — take advantage of a “Wireside Chat” conducted by the Atlanta Regional Commission over the next two weeks. (See http://www.metroatlantatransportationreferendum.com/wireside/ for more detail.) Each of the 12 briefing sessions will focus on a narrow geographic area, offering an in-depth review of the projects slated for construction in your area. You’ll also be able to ask questions.
In the end, you may still be nagged by the thought that the “other side” is getting a bigger bone. But the alternative will be no bones for anybody, at least for several more years.
– Jay Bookman