The T-SPLOST faces a challenging road to passage as it is. Imagine if supporters had to drum up votes for it either without the two segments of the Beltline; or without a bus/light rail line into Cobb County; or without any of the interchange improvements at I-285 and Ga. 400, I-285 and I-20 west, and I-285 and I-85 north. All while no other projects were added to the list.
Or, instead, imagine if they were asking voters to approve the same project list, with the same 1 percent sales tax for the same 10 years — while, at the same time, they were asking for another tax increase of $600 million to $850 million during the same decade.
Say hello to the T-SPLOST renewal campaign, circa 2022.
One of the hottest — and most disingenuous — aspects of the T-SPLOST debate has been the back and forth about whether the tax being put to a regional referendum in July would last only 10 years.
On the anti-tax side, some people suggest politicians will double-cross the voters and keep the tax past its promised end date, a la the extension of the toll on Ga. 400. They’re wrong. The promise to end the 400 toll once the bonds were paid off was just that: a promise by politicians, the kind of pledge that is — or should be assumed to be — made to be broken. The expiration of the T-SPLOST, on the other hand, is written into the law.
The pro-tax side assures us that voters will have the chance to reject any extension of the tax. And, as I’ve just described, they technically are correct.
But this assurance isn’t worth much when we consider the implications of passing the T-SPLOST for the first 10 years. Pass the tax in July, and we will be paying it, or another tax, for decades.
That much is clear from new, rough estimates about how much of the $6.14 billion project list would go for preliminary work, how much for construction, and how much for operation and maintenance of new transit.
The Atlanta Regional Commission has been compiling these estimates during the past few months. (Amazingly, local elected officials didn’t go into this kind of detail when approving the list of projects and their price tags.)
About a quarter of the $3.2 billion allocated to transit, $767.9 million, is estimated for these projects’ operations and maintenance for 10 years, as required by law. Because the projects would be built in timeframes that vary, they do not cover the same 10 years. But, at some point, the O&M funding would run out.
Some of the $767.9 million is for bus services that come with minimal new construction. Depending on whether all those services were renewed, and applying a modest inflation rate, we’re talking about second-decade costs of $600 million to $850 million just to keep these new projects running.
It’s extremely unlikely that we would spend $2.4 billion on new infrastructure and then shut it down after 10 years. In that respect, the T-SPLOST is very different from a special sales tax for education, after which voters could decide they’ve built enough new schools.
So we are probably left with the two unpalatable options I described at the beginning of this column: getting fewer projects with a renewed T-SPLOST, or raising other taxes to fill the gap.
The latter option is far-fetched. We’ve never raised other taxes to cover what’s become a perennial budget shortfall at MARTA. And how would the burden for projects built regionally be allocated, if not on a regional basis? (That question is another reason it would have been good to have a new regional model for transit governance before voting on the T-SPLOST.)
That leaves us with having less money from a renewed T-SPLOST to spend on new construction.
What would $600 million to $850 million buy? On this project list, we’re talking about some of the headliners:
Each of those possibilities is closer to $600 million than to $850 million. And, obviously, we would be talking about forgoing different projects, such as expanding transit up I-85 north or across the top end of I-285, or building the super-arterial roads needed to pull traffic away from the interstates.
It may be that this is a choice voters in metro Atlanta are willing to make. But, so far, it’s not how the choice has been framed.
– By Kyle Wingfield