The claim by proponents of the T-SPLOST that there is “no Plan B” — no alternative to the proposed 1 percent increase in the sales tax and the $6.1 billion in regional transportation projects it would build — has always struck me as silly.
Is there another plan already prepared and waiting in the wings should voters reject the tax in July? Probably not. In that sense, the “no Plan B” talk rings true. But surely no one believes local and state officials would just quit trying to speed up the construction of new roads and mass transit. A second option would emerge, probably sooner than later.
That said, there is one real nightmare scenario for those who would have to create a Plan B: The tax fails in metro Atlanta, but passes elsewhere.
We in metro Atlanta tend not to think about the tax referendum outside our 10-county region. But the rest of the state is divided into 11 other T-SPLOST regions, and the tax might very well pass in some of them.
Legislators discussed the reverse case — that the tax would pass in metro Atlanta and nowhere else — before passing the Transportation Investment Act two years ago. But I never heard anyone consider that traffic-choked Atlanta might turn it down while other regions embraced it.
For argument’s sake, let’s say voters in the three regions comprising Augusta, Columbus and Savannah approve the tax. Those regions represent a quarter of Georgia’s 159 counties and one-sixth of the state’s population.
What alternative could then be taken at the state level? For example, it would be seemingly impossible for the state to raise the motor fuel tax only in counties that rejected the T-SPLOST. It’d also be exceedingly unpopular in those counties, and probably counterproductive: Counties slapped with a higher gas tax would likely bleed some fuel sales, and thus revenues, to unaffected counties.
Counties that approved the tax would not watch idly if the state tried to raise another tax on everyone, just to take care of Atlanta. And they almost certainly would raise heck to make sure regions that rejected the tax were assessed the penalties in the law. Among the poison pills for a “no” vote: requiring locals to match 30 percent of state transportation spending rather than 10 percent.
Those penalties also would seem to prevent the state from simply devoting more funds to transportation in metro Atlanta. Complain all you want that the Legislature tries to control MARTA without contributing to its budget, but there are even longer odds of that changing if the T-SPLOST fails.
So, the likeliest Plan B is a do-over for Plan A. That would be a re-vote on a regional tax, probably with a revamped project list, in 2014; that’s when the tax, by law, would next be allowed on the ballot.
And I must say I’m torn about that prospect — although I’m certain it frightens those state officials who support the tax now and would be in the unenviable position of supporting it a second time while running for re-election (cough, cough, Gov. Nathan Deal).
My main hesitation toward the T-SPLOST is that the project list isn’t focused enough on our region’s worst traffic congestion, and that voting “yes” this summer will use up one of our precious few options for improving transportation. A two-year delay is worthwhile if it means we get it right.
But then, I’m not sure why we’d trust the same people to create a better list next time.
In fact, trust is shaping up to be a big factor in this referendum. But that will have to wait for another column.
– By Kyle Wingfield