On Tuesday morning, as metro Atlanta voters hurled an $8 million sales tax campaign into the trash, Gov. Nathan Deal held what aides called his first session with top transportation officials to discuss Plan B.
What voters dismissed was a bottom-up list of $8 billion in road and rail projects created by local elected leaders. (Read the main AJC piece on the TSPLOST vote here.)
The Plan B that staggered out of the governor’s office will be its polar opposite: Dramatically smaller, paid for with shrinking funds, and highly centralized. Projects will be hand-picked by a governor who intends to squeeze every penny available.
And no matter what others might say today, don’t look for a sequel to the TSPLOST referendum. A second vote has no place in the governor’s Plan B.
Instead, Chris Riley, the governor’s chief of staff, said traffic planners in regions across the state will be quickly asked to resubmit lists of road and rail proposals that require state and federal funding – figuring in an 8 percent decrease in federal funding. The governor has veto power over each list.
Riley said that Deal intends to use that authority to direct cash to absolutely essential projects in metro Atlanta and elsewhere. “The state’s top transportation priority is the Ga. 400 and I-285 interchange,” Riley said. But metro Atlanta residents could also find themselves enduring pot holes and worse for the sake of better roads around the Port of Savannah, he added.
That’s another priority.
The governor’s top aide said Deal had been hesitant to speak of alternatives before TSPLOST balloting ended. ”We didn’t want anyone to think that it would fail. But you can’t be a governor and not look at both options,” Riley said.
The governor is likely to express his disappointment today over the outcome of Tuesday’s vote. Certainly he will focus on the price of austerity, as chosen by voters. “Will we be able to compete in the global market with Plan B? Yes. Will every company look at us? No,” said Brian Robinson, Deal’s director of communications.
But in a way, defeat clears the way for Deal to assume full responsibility for the mess that is Georgia’s system of planning and paying for moving goods and people. The TSPLOST referendum, with its awkward system of roundtables to settle on project lists and a vote conducted in the heat of a GOP primary, was the handiwork of Gov. Sonny Perdue.
But, however liberated he may feel, Deal has few options. The most direct route – asking a Republican-led Legislature for a tax increase, whether on gasoline or anything else, is off the table. Some opponents of the TSPLOST, including Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers of Woodstock, have said they’ll push for a second TSPLOST referendum with a more road-friendly list.
But that would require a Legislature willing to debate it, a business community willing to pony up millions for another campaign, and Republican leadership in suburban Atlanta that will speak up for when the time for voting comes. Let’s ask Tim Lee, the chairman of the Cobb County Commission, how that worked out for him.
Any attempt at a second vote will move without the governor’s backing. “We haven’t given any thought of presenting it to the General Assembly,” Riley said.
That leaves the big decisions on what will be built, and with what funds, largely in the hands of the governor, the state Department of Transportation, and planning agencies like the Atlanta Regional Commission. But mostly in the hands of the governor.
“The governor will not move forward without the consent GDOT,” Riley said – very carefully. Deal will court approval from the DOT board, but he intends to keep the initiative. The governor recently appointed a trusted aide, Toby Carr, as the DOT’s planning director, giving him another layer of control over what transportation projects are funded.
So the Atlanta Regional Commission will soon have to clear its wish lists with the governor. ARC Chairman Tad Leithead said he’ll be happy to do so. “I think the entire state would welcome anything the governor does to keep transportation moving,” he said.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider