One word I could go the rest of my life without hearing again, in relation to transportation spending, is “match.”
“Federal match” — as in the money we won’t get if we don’t increase state and local spending. “Local match” — as in the additional local funds required in regions that didn’t approve the T-SPLOST.
I’d like to strike a match and make this entire concept go up in smoke. It’s nothing but a symptom of our broken division of labor among levels of government.
After all, it’s all our money. Most of it is raised by the same levy on the same purchase. But it’s been divided among different agencies, leading us to believe some of it’s “free money” we can have — if we agree to someone else’s priorities.
Take the federal gas tax. That tax is commonly thought to have begun during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency to pay for the interstate highway system. That’s not true, according to a history of the tax on the federal Department of Transportation’s website:
In fact, on the second day of his presidency, Eisenhower received a visit from Govs. Walter J. Kohler, Jr., R-Wis., and Dan Thornton, R-Colo., who asked him to support a commission to study federal-state relations, citing the gas tax as an example of a federal activity that should be abandoned in favor of the states.
That was almost 60 years ago. In the meantime, the federal gas tax did pay for the interstates we now use. But that system of highways is pretty much complete, and yet there are still no plans to do as Kohler and Thornton requested.
Instead, states compete with one another to reclaim the tax revenues their motorists send to Washington. This is how a metro Atlanta region seeking new infrastructure to relieve traffic congestion ends up with a $94 million boondoggle of a streetcar — one scheduled to run along a tourist route that couldn’t sustain its last two tries at public transit.
It’s a boondoggle, by the way, that is costing an increasing amount of “local match” funds. Which brings me to the next use of this term.
A “local match” for road projects is the source of the first post-T-SPLOST debate. The law authorizing the tax created a penalty for those regions that failed to approve it: Local projects would require a 30 percent local match rather than just 10 percent.
Some of those who opposed the tax now want the governor and the Legislature to repeal this penalty as a misguided attempt to coerce voters into going along with a misguided plan.
I am skeptical that this is really a way to solve the distrust of government that sank the T-SPLOST. Voters turned more sharply against the tax after Gov. Nathan Deal’s late-hour promise to end the toll on Ga. 400 next year; many saw this as a sign elected officials will only do what the people want when backed into a corner. How, exactly, would reneging on the local-match penalty increase trust, especially in the regions that approved it?
Anyway, let’s do the math. Say a project costs $100. If the “local match” is $30, the state pays $70. If it’s just $10, the state must find $20 more — $20 that can’t be used for the next project. And where should the “extra” $20 in local funds go, if not the next project? It is, or should be, a wash.
The only way this robbery of Peter to pay Paul makes sense is if one believes the state money — or, in the earlier examples, federal money — is gotten at someone else’s expense.
But what most taxpayers want, I think, and what we certainly deserve, is merely what we paid into the system in the first place. The “free money” talk ensures that won’t happen, at least not for everyone. (To say nothing of the administrative cost of maintaining multiple levels of bureaucracy.)
There will be no rational transportation funding as long as we play this game. The money will always seem pea-sized as long as we’re forced to figure out if it’s under the shell marked “federal” vs. the “state” shell vs. the “local” shell.
Let’s decide which level of government is best-suited for the task, keep the bulk of the money there, and then decide how much more or less is needed. Here’s a hint: Govs. Kohler and Thornton were right about Step 1.
– By Kyle Wingfield