Atlanta T-SPLOST As Seen By Rural Georgia

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

I’m sure the non-Atlanta area readers of this column probably wonder why so much coverage is given to a regional squabble over transit in Atlanta when there are so many other problems that affect the state as a whole that could be addressed.  Those who live below the gnat line are rightfully much more concerned with whether there will be sufficient labor willing and available to pick crops this year than how MARTA is funded.  Growth problems in the Atlanta area most likely do not resonate in some parts of the state which have seen stagnant population growth and in some cases, population declines.

There are a few reasons why these battles matter to Georgia as a whole.  Transportation policy has long been guided by rural legislators, with the DOT being a de facto “roads only” agency.  Their mission was as much about using four lane highways for rural economic development as it was ensuring the mobility of Georgians.  Asphalt has long been political currency under the Gold Dome.

Over the last decade, shifts in party and population have concentrated political power in the Atlanta suburbs and exurbs.  Many of the voters in these areas who have watched their region become gridlocked faster than the state can build new roads have often looked at the DOT’s rural development efforts as “four lanes to nowhere.”

For towns in rural Georgia who have pegged their future on creating access via road building, that may sound harsh.  It is important for rural areas to understand that this mindset exists, however.  They should also know there is somewhat of a resentment from suburban areas that were Republican during the 80’s and 90’s that continually saw State tax dollars go to not only road widening projects which they found somewhat dubious, but to band uniforms and other pet projects routinely doled out from supplemental budgets to districts represented by key Democrats, mostly in rural areas.

The mindset behind the construct of the regional T-SPLOST votes was to diffuse an outright confrontation over existing transportation dollars and policy.  The idea was to keep the tax revenue that is produced in the metro Atlanta area within the region to fund long neglected infrastructure upgrades.  Thus, rural transportation interests which still maintain significant clout would not have to be confronted of matching the funds spent in and around Atlanta with additional less critical rural projects.

Yet while many in central and south Georgia may look at Atlanta as a single entity, it remains a region at war with itself.  The central city is urban and transit dependent.  The state, quite notably, does not contribute to MARTA funding at all, however.  MARTA is the largest such transit system in the country that does not receive support from the state in which it operates.

The suburbs are also divided among themselves.  The inner and more populous counties have urbanized quite a bit over the past few decades.  Gwinnett and Clayton counties are much more receptive to transit solutions than they were a decade or so ago, but also face immediate needs for road improvement.  Cobb County is having a fierce internal issue over rail, but that battle in and of itself is progress.  Ten years ago, the debate would have been considered settled before it even began.

Atlanta’s exurbs, however, do not want transit, and will oppose the T-SPLOST.  Their residents are generally anti-tax, and it would be doubtful that many would vote for a regional tax if it were just for roads.  Many residents feel the T-SPLOST is just a vehicle to expand transit into their communities and will oppose it on that ground alone.

Problems within the design of the program became clear this week when the model for governance of a regional transit program was revealed.  Fulton and DeKalb residents were surprised to learn that despite their $6 Billion investment in transit and their continued payment of a one cent tax above the T-SPLOST to pay for MARTA, they will lose control of the board that governs regional transit to suburban interests which still oppose transit.  They are asked to trust the state will still fund MARTA adequately.  This is the same state that currently provides no transit funding, and has a political power structure that is adamantly anti-transit.

Maria Saporta, longtime Atlanta business reporter and now publisher of The Saporta Report, points to the first sign of fracture between the team of Atlanta Mayor of Kasim Reed and Governor Deal over the proposal of transit governance.  The two have been a bi-partisan tag team on Savannah’s port expansion, T-SPLOST, Atlanta Public schools, and other thorny issues needing a coalition to implement a solution.

While the Mayor’s words were guarded, he clearly does not approve of the plan, with Saporta quoting him as saying “This is not the path to success” and “I think it will be harmful.”

Thus, in order to make transit acceptable to the suburbs, a governance model has been proposed that is frankly, insulting to those who have invested in and constructed the system’s core over the past 40 years.  It is becoming increasingly clear that to appease one bloc of voters within the Atlanta region, another bloc is offended.  Finding the calculus to get to 51% of the vote remains a long shot.

And thus, if Atlanta’s T-SPLOST fails, the plan B everyone claims does not exist will be perhaps even more painful, and possibly require funds that would otherwise be headed to more rural parts of the state.  While Atlanta’s passage of T-SPLOST may not affect rural areas of the state directly, its failure may have a direct financial impact.

24 comments

  1. CobbGOPer says:

    And my advice to rural Georgians: Move outta the sticks.

    /I kid, I actually really like rural Georgia. No traffic.

  2. bgsmallz says:

    1) I’m pro-transit. I think that a smart mix of transit can lead to development, higher land values in the suburbs, and attract new businesses.
    2) As a resident of Dekalb, I almost threw up when I saw the proposal for governance. It’s sad, really, because it will absolutely kill the T-Splost. If I’m having second doubts, and I promise that I am huge on transit…I even like the streetcar, then my guess is that I’m not alone and it will have a lot of difficulty carrying the middle.

    As a side note, I gave the thought of moving to North Fulton this weekend. Drove up there. Realized there was no way to get to my job ITP other than 400 and gave up. It’s a shame that with all of this RR infrastructure already in place, that we can’t take advantage of it like suburban Chicago does.

  3. CobbGOPer says:

    “It’s a shame that with all of this RR infrastructure already in place, that we can’t take advantage of it like suburban Chicago does.”

    That would be a great idea if we could get it past CSX and Norfolk Southern. They’ll never go for it though.

  4. Engineer says:

    Long story short: The political clout is in the metro Atlanta area. Sucks to be you if you live in rural Georgia. Yep, nothing new here.

  5. seenbetrdayz says:

    I recall when we wanted new band uniforms in our schools, we held fundraisers. Money was tight, but spent wisely, and spent on what WE wanted (well, what the school administrators wanted, mostly).

    The point is, you keep it local (to the best extent possible), you keep the right to decide how transportation money is spent. Or we could just keep sending all of our dollars to the politicians at the Dome and then getting upset when ATL dollars are spent to build an exit ramp at a one-gas-station town near I-16, and the people at that gas station get upset when their tax dollars are spent on 9-lane widenings of 285.

    The alternative is that rural and metro areas keep arguing and blocking each other in the Gen. Assembly.

  6. gcp says:

    Perhaps Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed can run his 90 million dollar trolley folly (40 million of which is federal money) to rural Georgia.

  7. billdawers says:

    Good piece. Rural Georgia — everywhere outside Atlanta — has an even bigger stake than you portray here. It’s very hard to see how Georgia can have a thriving economy without a thriving Atlanta. And it’s even harder to see how Atlanta can thrive without improvements in both transit and transportation infrastructure.

    • saltycracker says:

      Not saying you are wrong, but ….If the legislature believed that they would raise the state fuel tax and get on with projects wouldn’t they ?

  8. Dave Bearse says:

    Georgia receives at or near the minimum 90.5% return of the 18.4 cent federal motor fuel taxes collected in Georgia. Georgia’s requirment for Congressional balancing of highway expenditures, from which rural economic development highways are excluded, diverts an order of magnitude 10% of the sum of state motor fuel taxes (and the 3% of the 4% sales tax on motor fuel) and returned federal motor fuel taxes..

    It’s not rocket science why transportation funding is an issue in metro Atlanta and not in rural Georgia. Rural Georgia highway transportation for the most part is fully funded. Congressional balancing generally makes up for only 90.5% of federal motor fuel taxes being returned to Georgia. Metro Atlanta highway transportaton meanwhile effectively shoulders the statewide loss of Georgia federal motor fuel taxes that go to other states.

    • seenbetrdayz says:

      There’s a lot to be said about the games played with federal funding. Highway funds are often used as carrots to dangle over the heads of the state and local governments as those in D.C. attempt to train us to jump through hoops, nevermind the fact that the feds don’t actually have any money that they didn’t take from the people in the first place. So, it’s like being robbed and then trying to get a rebate.

      If the issue were focused on how to keep Atlanta’s tax dollars from being sent to D.C., carved up, and given back less than they sent out, then I think that’s something rural Georgia could come together with metro Georgia and correct.

  9. Ludwig Von Beachbum says:

    Interesting how republicans have become infiltrated with people in favor of special taxes. Especially the verity that says if you don’t like it, move from the sticks.

    If Atlanta needs more, tax Atlanta more. Slap up a user fee which is a toll both.

    The special transportation tax was designed for Atlanta’s benefit. We all know that. Sounds like it came right out of the socialist Obama White House. You would think Atlanta had a deep port making it a hub for world commerce.

    What some of you are saying is that Atlanta eats at the dinner table first and then the rest of the state. It is like you see yourselves as plantation owners in pre-civil war Georgia and the rest of Georgia are field hands to be manipulated for the greater good of Atlanta.

    And if you dont like what is on the table because you are a big fat tax eating pig…well lets turn a farmer upside down in Manor Georgia and shake some more money out of his pockets. Nice conservative values there.

  10. zedsmith says:

    actually, if you read closely, you’ll see that the opinion is that rural GA eats to satiation on a steady diet of roads it could never pay for if limited to local money, while the metro area has to prioritize and consensus-build.

  11. Ludwig Von Beachbum says:

    Sure zedsmith. Bills have always followed their intent after bureaucrats and politicians got their hands on the money. We have one such bureaucrat in McIntosh that has put an airport on their wish list . You would need to know the demographics to understand how useless that airport would be. And there never was a steady diet of anything DOT below I-16 before or will be after a transportation tax. Most politicians under the gold dome need GPS when they leave Atlanta.

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