Last week’s overwhelming rejection of a proposed 1-penny sales tax leaves metro Atlanta with no conceivable funding mechanism to address its serious transportation deficiencies.
The financing certainly won’t come from local sources, not after metro taxpayers rejected the new tax by an almost 2-1 margin. It won’t come from the feds either, not after we’ve so emphatically demonstrated an unwillingness to pay our local share.
And as Gov. Nathan Deal has made clear, state leaders also have no intention of trying to fill the gap, and will content themselves with trying to patch the system together using existing resources.
The problem is, no one with any knowledge of the situation believes that our existing meager resources — we are 49th in the nation in per capita spending on transportation — will be sufficient. Unless unspecified bold approaches are forthcoming from previously unsuspected sources of leadership, the region now seems destined to stall for years in its own traffic congestion.
Moody’s, the New York-based bond-rating firm, this week noted the damage that could do to the region’s economy, and thus to the bond ratings of local governments. The region “needs major upgrades to its dated and limited transit system and congested roadways to maintain its long-term position as an influential economic center,” Moody warned, concluding that the region now has no means to fund those needed upgrades.
Unfortunately, last week’s vote must also be seen as merely a symptom of a much deeper crisis in leadership, political culture and vision now confronting the Atlanta region and the state. In short, through their own rhetoric and their own actions, Georgia political leaders have succeeded in delegitimizing government as a tool for fixing not just transportation but a whole range of problems, including education. They have led the crusade to destroy public faith in the institutions that they themselves lead, and as a result those institutions have become increasingly useless.
The cynicism that fuels that delegitimizing process could be seen clearly in a statement released by the governor’s office after the T-SPLOST defeat. “On public transportation, yesterday’s vote slams the door on further expansion of our rail network any time soon,” Deal said in a press release. “Neither I nor the Legislature has much of an appetite for new investments until there are significant reforms in how MARTA operates.”
A few points:
— Deal’s statement “slam[ming] the door” on rail expansion demonstrates the folly of the anti-T-SPLOST position taken by the Sierra Club and Georgia NAACP. Both groups had hoped that the plan’s rejection would lead to a second proposal more heavily weighted toward transit investment. That will not happen.
— The Deal statement also reflects a conviction among conservative Georgians that Atlanta, alone among the world’s major metropolitan areas, can somehow grow and prosper without a significant and ongoing investment in transit. There is no example of a major metro region succeeding in that effort, but it is an article of faith nonetheless.
— Finally, last week’s rejection by voters was the culmination of a series of leadership failures by state officials. First, they lacked the courage to raise transportation revenue themselves; they then Macgyvered a flawed T-SPLOST process and forced it upon local officials and voters. Finally, in the months before last week’s vote, they ignored pleas to create a basic regional transit governance structure that would supercede MARTA and reassure voters that regional transit could become reality.
Given that record of failure, it takes a lot of gall to trot out a favorite whipping boy, MARTA, and somehow imply that the transit agency is somehow to blame. That is particularly true given the financial, political and geographic constraints that MARTA is forced to operate under by state leaders. Rather than challenge the attitudes that led to the T-SPLOST defeat, Deal pandered to them.
However, the most frustrating aspect of the anti-tax, anti-government mythology threatening prosperity in this state is that it is indeed a mythology. State government in the last 20 years has simply not been the bloated monster devouring ever larger chunks of our wealth that some would like to claim.
In 1992, tax revenue collected by the state amounted to 4.5 percent of Georgia’s gross domestic product. By 2011, state government was collecting just 3.8 percent of state GDP, a significant reduction in tax burden. So look around you: Is this the economic powerhouse that such a reduction in state tax burden was supposed to have created?
– Jay Bookman