Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Much of the attention of the T-SPLOST to be voted on in the Atlanta region is focused on opposition from TEA Party filled suburbs. A significant amount of opposition remains within the urban core of Atlanta, with residents of Fulton and DeKalb counties seeking “transit equity”. Many are not amused that they have already paid an extra 1% sales tax for four decades and are now being asked to pay yet another 1% so that the transit system which they have paid for can be extended into the suburbs.
MARTA remains the only major city transit organization in the country that does not receive any state funding. Fulton and DeKalb taxpayers pick up the bill, along with some federal monies. The opposition from these two counties is likely the easiest to fix, but will require tangible recognition that they built a transit backbone that will serve as the core of any regional solution. They, after all, still have the very tangible debt for doing so. MARTA currently has roughly $1.6 Billion in bonds outstanding.
The political reality, however, is that Republican leaders who dominate those same suburban areas as well as leadership positions within the General Assembly are not likely to divert substantial money from the General Fund to contribute to MARTA. Even those who recognize the need will point to a thin budget and other statewide needs and priorities. There is an amount of state controlled money that originates and is spent within Atlanta that can be redirected to support MARTA: Atlanta’s hotel/motel tax.
The hotel/motel tax has already been extended in preparation of building yet another football stadium downtown, possibly even next door to the existing Georgia Dome. The Falcons want a newer facility to increase team revenues. To accomplish this, they now claim they need an outdoor stadium. They “needed” a Dome when their current venue was constructed less than 20 years ago. While Arthur Blank is a fine man and good corporate citizen, using approximately $400 Million of taxpayer funds to duplicate football facilities for his sole benefit is a waste of scarce resources and represents a horrible perversion of priorities.
Supporters of a new stadium point to Atlanta’s ability to attract a Super Bowl, noting Atlanta will not see another one without the Falcons getting new digs. NFL owners have determined Atlanta is not a “warm weather city” courtesy of an ice storm which coincided with our last Super Bowl. As such, semi-official rules require a new stadium for us to receive another weekend in the spotlight.
For those using one weekend of publicity and full hotel rooms as a reason to spend $400 Million of taxpayer funds, they may want to consider former Governor Perdue’s “Go Fish” initiative. The Governor decided during a time of budget cuts which required teacher furloughs and closing a state run Veterans’ home that Georgia needed to spend $20 Million on boat ramps and a fishing museum.
“Go Fish” became the comparison of which all other spending was measured. Georgia could spend $20 Million on fishing, but it couldn’t spend money on teachers. On veterans. On trauma care. Go fish represents the last Governor’s monument to misplaced priorities. The Falcons proposed stadium involves 20 times the dollars over the next 20 years.
This same amount of money could retire 25% of MARTA’s outstanding debt, or fund most of the transit portion of the Beltline. With likely federal matching funds, it could fund the Peachtree Streetcar. Yet Georgia’s leaders are quietly preparing to let identified needs go unfunded so that the value of the Falcon’s franchise can be increased.
As politicians and business leaders campaign for T-SPLOST, the rhetoric has indicated the critical nature of the vote, noting “there is no Plan B” and failure would send a signal that “would be disastrous”. Those same leaders need to be asked why the Falcons are being given a gift of $400 Million when infrastructure that will be used more than 8 Sunday’s a year cannot be built with available funds.
Atlanta and the State would be better off if the Falcons were either given the Georgia Dome when the bonds are paid off in a few years, or at least given operating rights for a lease of $1 per year. The Falcons can then decide how best to maximize revenues out of an existing, paid for facility, while the State can use the money from hotel/motel taxes to finally make a contribution to the transit system so integral to downtown.
For the T-SPLOST to have a chance at passing, voters must have confidence that funds are being used to maximum benefit. Taxpayers are not likely to vote to tax themselves at the same time the State prepares to needlessly squander $400 Million. These funds must be kept for transit purposes inside the Perimeter, not to be used for yet another football stadium.