“The tyranny of the urgent” is how Charles Hummel described the way other people’s demands can get in the way of one’s own priorities. He was talking about personal time management, but the concept also applies to those frequent calls for government to “do something … now!” Kind of like the T-SPLOST.
The latest argument from advocates of the tax, which would raise $7.2 billion over 10 years to fund 157 transportation projects, is about urgency:
“The metro Atlanta region adds one person every seven minutes to its population,” pro-tax Untie Atlanta claims in a recent email. “By 2040, we are expected to add 3 million people — three times the population of Fulton County. Now is the time to invest in our transportation infrastructure.”
The fear factor may be the campaign’s most persuasive argument. Forecasts of how much congestion will ease if the projects are built are fine, but it’s hard to know how reliable they are. Or how much congestion will improve where any given voter/taxpayer/commuter lives and drives.
Or if it’s even a big deal to reduce “congestion” by 24 percent, as forecasters claim. Depending on how one defines the region, the data show “congestion” (vs. mere distance) accounts for six to 10 minutes of the average, hour-a-day commute. So, the data suggest T-SPLOST projects would shrink the average daily commute by less than 150 seconds.
More persuasive are 1) the prospect more people will move here and use our roads and 2) the fact the state will cut transportation funding for metro Atlanta if the tax fails. “It will get worse” trumps “maybe it will get better.”
That said, how urgent is the situation? To put a finer point on it: Are we more short of time to act, or money to act with?
First let’s look at time. The Transportation Investment Act of 2010 (TIA), which created this whole process, forbids regions that vote down the T-SPLOST from holding another referendum for two years.
There are warnings it could be several years before a “Plan B” is advanced. But why? If underfunded transportation infrastructure is really one of the biggest impediments to job growth in the region — and it belongs on a list with education quality, access to venture capital and water supply — surely it would be re-addressed sooner.
I think it’s most likely “Plan B” would be another vote, on a new project list, in 2014. Maybe 2016. How many new jobs might we lose in that time? Who knows? But a few years of building new infrastructure is one minimum cost of a “no” vote.
Now let’s think about money, by which I mean the ability to fund transportation projects.
Many of the same local governments backing the T-SPLOST already charge other special-purpose sales taxes, a number of them renewed after the TIA passed but before next month’s referendum. Sales taxes in the region are generally 7 percent, with Atlanta at 8 percent. By comparison, Chattanooga, in zero-income-tax Tennessee, levies 9.25 percent.
So there’s little room for maneuver if we don’t get much bang for our penny. Not to mention that, as I’ve previously reported, this T-SPLOST list would commit us to $60 million to $85 million a year in perpetual transit-operations costs.
And in sheer, raw numbers, we don’t exactly have a spare $7.2 billion lying around.
The question for voters is whether to risk wasting a few years or a few billion dollars — whether the tyranny of the possibly urgent trumps the tyranny of the maybe spendthrift.
– By Kyle Wingfield