Today’s Courier Herald Column:
The political myth that there are two Georgias is the old paradigm. As voters prepare to vote on Regional T-SPLOST referendums between now and July 31st, there are twelve Georgias. Georgians will decide in twelve separate groups if upgrading local transportation infrastructures are worth an extra 1% tariff on everything they purchase – including groceries. That’s a 16% increase in sales taxes paid for those who live in counties with a 6% sale tax rate currently.
The construct of the twelve Georgias does have its roots in the two Georgias history, however. The design was essentially a way to generate and keep transportation dollars in the Atlanta region. Atlanta generates significantly more sales taxes than any other region. It also has the greatest amount of congestion, and is cursed with the highest costs of any region to complete a major transportation upgrade.
Yet the Atlanta region isn’t fighting with a united front on T-SPLOST. Polls indicate that inner city residents – citizens of Fulton and DeKalb who already pay a 1% tax to fund MARTA – are those most likely to support the tax. The farther from the urban core of the region, the more likely a voter is to be against T-SPLOST.
The battle lines are essentially drawn between the region’s political and business leaders against mostly suburban grass roots organizations. And the battle itself has made many voters tune out, as each side trades dubious statistics, hysterical claims, and other “facts” cherry picked to make their argument whole. In this debate, it’s quite easy to be disgusted with everyone involved.
As quite a few of these columns have been dedicated to the problems with T-SPLOST and the misplaced priorities of State and regional leaders, this one will instead focus on one key issue that will have to be resolved within the attitude of the opposition. Whether T-SPLOST passes or there has to be a “Plan B”, the concept of regionalism in transportation is one that will have to be incorporated into Georgia’s planning model, specifically within the Atlanta region.
Opposition leaders are using the argument of “local control” as a reason to oppose T-SPLOST. This is a charge that is easy to refute.
The principle of local control is one that states decisions should be made at the lowest level of government possible to make an effective decision. It does not state that county or municipal governments should make every decision. If it did, I can only imagine what most suburban Atlantans would think about residents of Berkeley California vetoing most of our country’s national defense policies.
We make defense policy at a national level not because we as individuals shouldn’t have a say about it in smaller groups, but for it to be cohesive and effective (or at least have a chance of being so), it must be one as one national government, acting on behalf of all citizens. Conversely, most law enforcement, fire protection, and education decisions are easily handled at a local level. There is no need for national standards and the related bureaucracy for fire protection. It can be handled by cities and counties.
Transportation planning and policy allows the movement of people between communities. It is not exclusively a “local” decision. Cobb and Fulton counties had decades of fighting over a bridge on Johnsons Ferry Road crossing the Chattahoochee. Cobb County built 6 lanes leading up to the river, but Fulton refused to expand the road on their side of the river for years. Let’s just say it was an inefficient route for a commute, but there were few alternatives for those in the area.
The current debate has become even more shrill over this issue from T-SPLOST opponents. Residents of Gwinnett and Cherokee are among the loudest wanting to know why they need to pay for a beltline project that they will never use in the inner city. Totally lost on these residents is that the recent addition of HOT lanes in Gwinnett created a firestorm from locals who could not get out of Gwinnett and down to Atlanta – who have paid an extra penny for infrastructure to handle incoming commuters for 40 years.
Atlanta residents can equally likely ask whey their motor fuel dollars went to fund the recent improvements to the I-85/GA-316 interchange that cost over $100 Million dollars. It remains the most expensive project every completed by the Georgia DOT. They could ask the same about the proposed $1 Billion toll road project planned for I-75 and I-575 to bring residents of Cobb and Cherokee into downtown and midtown even faster – again to a city that pays for MARTA, is paying $3 Billion for sewer infrastructure upgrades, and provides indigent care at Grady Hospital for an entire region on the backs of Fulton and DeKalb taxpayers.
Many of the arguments from Atlanta suburbanites are little more than that of the selfish and the spoiled. Their low tax lifestyle exists because of their proximity to an inner core that taxes its residents and visitors at a higher rate to build the infrastructure critical to the entire regions’ needs.
The suburban mindset is that residents in Atlanta and DeKalb county need to pay an additional one penny so that more roads can be built in the outlying counties. The inner core has been paying extra for infrastructure for four decades. If these residents have determined that a beltline is where they want their extra money to go, that’s a fair decision. Pretending that Gwinnet’s portion of the sales tax generated is what is paying for the Atlanta beltline is either fantasy or disingenuous.
Atlanta no longer has the ease of drawing employers and residents to the area based on cheap land and easy commutes. With nearly 5 million in the metro area, transportation planning cannot be done solely at the county level for major projects. We, throughout the entire state, will have to accept the fact that TSPLOST or no TSPLOST, there will have to be grand regional projects to keep people moving.
Atlanta has grown up. It’s time our debate on traffic, transit, and regional governance does too.