TSPLOST deserves a resounding “no” vote from Georgians

July 11, 2012 15:00 pm

by Jason · 18 comments

On July 31st, Georgians will not only head to the polls to vote in party primaries, but also to determine the fate of the the TSPLOST, a 1-cent local sales tax dedicated to transportation projects.

This effort isn’t the first attempt at a sales tax to fund transportation improvements and expand mass transit. Back in 2009, then-State Rep. Vance Smith, who would later go on to lead the Georgia Department of Transportation, proposed a 10-year statewide sales tax; which, if passed, would have raised taxes by $22 billion.

Disagreements between House and Senate leaders led to the effort stalling out, killing what easily would have been the largest tax hike in Georgia history. Senate leaders, led by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, preferred a regional approach to the issue. But with new leadership in the House in 2010, the Legislature ironed out a new tax hike proposal, the TSPLOST, a regional penny tax to be presented to voters this year.

Assuming all 12 regions pass the referendum later this month, the TSPLOST is projected to bring some $19 billion in new tax revenues to the state. In most regions, the split between regional and local projects will be 75-25. However, in the Metro Atlanta region, 85% of the $7.2 billion in expected revenues will go to regional projects. Fifteen percent will go for local projects. If passed in every region, this would be the largest tax hike in Georgia history.

Advocates of the TSPLOST have spent a substantial sum of money trying to convince Metro Atlanta residents that the tax hike is needed in order to “untie” the region. That may sound like music to the ears of many Metro Atlanta drivers, but this tax hike is still struggling to gain steam despite a bipartisan push from many of Georgia’s most prominent elected officials, including Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Interestingly, the opposition is equally diverse, with the Sierra Club, AFL-CIO, NAACP, and various Tea Party groups all pushing a “no” vote. (Please note that the AFL-CIO is not opposing the TSPLOST)

Supporters of the tax hike are trying to paint its opponents out to be ideologues who are opposed to any tax increase. There is some truth that in some cases, but there is also a practical case to be made against the TSPLOST.

There is no denying that Atlanta has one of the worst traffic commute times in the country. Anyone that has had to drive across town during morning or afternoon traffic knows this. TSPLOST supporters tell us that the 1-cent tax hike will ease congestion, get people to work quicker and reduce losses in productivity. They also say says that the measure will also create jobs, improve public safety, and promote economic development.

Of course, what Georgians don’t hear from groups promoting the TSPLOST is, as the Georgia Public Policy Foundation (GPPF) noted in its study on the referendum (p.16), a little more than half of money would be doled out for mass transit.

Expanding mass transit in Metro Atlanta has long been a goal of many of the groups pushing the tax hike. However, it’s difficult to explain why this particular mode of transportation will receive a majority of the funding — approximately $3.2 billion — when, according to Census statistics, only 3.36% of commuters in the region use mass transit. Some may say that Atlanta is simply “behind the times” in “investment” and more money will bring more ridership. But only a handful of metropolitan areas manage to break the 10% threshold, and those tend to have a higher population density than Metro Atlanta.

By placing such a heavy emphasis on mass transit, TSPLOST advocates are ignoring the primary method of transportation used in the region and largely dismissing other innovative ideas that could be used to move commuters around Metro Atlanta. That’s both a detriment to the region and, frankly, very poor public policy.

Another issue with the TSPLOST is that some of these projects, particularly mass transit, are more long-term ventures and would require an even longer funding mechanism. Writing at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kyle Wingfield explained:

About a quarter of the $3.2 billion allocated to transit, $767.9 million, is estimated for these projects’ operations and maintenance for 10 years, as required by law. Because the projects would be built in timeframes that vary, they do not cover the same 10 years. But, at some point, the O&M funding would run out.

A couple of things would happen when O&M funding evaporates — often cash-strapped local governments (i.e. their taxpaying residents) would have to come up with another funding mechanism or the state would ask taxpayers to extend the TSPLOST for another length of time.

If you’ll recall, this is one reason why the Atlanta-Macon commuter rail line was a non-starter in the City of Hampton. Elected officials knew that the O&M funding provided for their stop on the line would eventually run out. As Wingfield points out, the latter route — extending the TSPLOST — would likely be the route that elected officials decide to take.

Benita Dodd, vice president of GPPF, also noted that similar scheme in Denver, Colorado didn’t go as planned. As she explained, “[V]oters approved a 0.4 percent sales tax for their 12-year regional transit plan in 2004, [but] officials are back this year seeking a doubling of the tax and delaying the project completion date.” That proposal later proved to be unpopular with city leaders, but the difficult situation with transportation funding in which Denver finds itself still remains.

Another point, as mentioned above, is the time in which Metro Atlanta commuters sit in traffic. Again, there is no denying that drivers in and around Atlanta have one of the worst commutes in the country. But does this justify a substantial tax increase and, if so, would the tax increase really reduce commute times? Kyle Wingfield went over this particular point last month (emphasis mine):

The fear factor may be the campaign’s most persuasive argument. Forecasts of how much congestion will ease if the projects are built are fine, but it’s hard to know how reliable they are. Or how much congestion will improve where any given voter/taxpayer/commuter lives and drives.

Or if it’s even a big deal to reduce “congestion” by 24 percent, as forecasters claim. Depending on how one defines the region, the data show “congestion” (vs. mere distance) accounts for six to 10 minutes of the average, hour-a-day commute. So, the data suggest T-SPLOST projects would shrink the average daily commute by less than 150 seconds..

Of course, fear is the greatest tool at the disposal of politicians — or, in this case, advocacy organizations — to get voters to do what they want them to do. You only need look back at post-9/11 policies for examples

One last angle that TSPLOST proponents have taken, briefly touched on above, is that the tax hike is needed to promote “economic development” — a catch phrase used by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and others often used to push lawmakers into doing what they want. The implication is, obviously, that whatever policy being pushed would be “good for business.” Interestingly, CNBC just yesterday released its annual study, America’s Top States for Business. Georgia ranks in the top 10. What’s more, the state is once again given high marks in the “Infrastructure & Transportation” category; ranking third overall.

The most recent poll suggests that the TSPLOST may well fail, but whether it passes or not, Georgians will still be stuck in traffic. Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking otherwise.

Max Power July 11, 2012 at 3:20 pm

[i]Expanding mass transit in Metro Atlanta has long been a goal of many of the groups pushing the tax hike. However, it’s difficult to explain why this particular mode of transportation will receive a majority of the funding — approximately $3.2 billion — when, according to Census statistics, only 3.36% of commuters in the region use mass transit.[/i]

Once again, you cannot simply build roads to solve the problem we have to have a mass transit alternative. And the reason so much money is going to it is because we’ve ignored it for so long.

CobbGOPer July 11, 2012 at 5:02 pm

The reason we’ve ignored it for so long is because no one uses it. And until population density in Atlanta metro reaches a much, much higher point, mass transit will continue to be a little used alternative to the automobile. That’s just a fact. We’re not going to pay for an expanded transit system that only benefits and is used by a minute portion of the population.

This is regardless of the fact that these strawman arguments are just cover for greedy developers who want expensive transit projects that will drive up their in-town property values.

The Last Democrat in Georgia July 11, 2012 at 6:23 pm

Mass transit has been virtually ignored, but it has not necessarily been absolutely ignored as the GRTA Xpress, and GCT (Gwinnett County Transit) and CCT (Cobb Community Transit) express commuter buses that into and out of the city have been very popular with GRTA Xpress continuing to add lines (now with 34 routes up from two when the service started in 2004-05) and daily ridership now around the 10,000 mark.

And even in areas where there is extensive transit service but not necessarily a lot of population density, like in exurban areas outside of transit-heavy major cities, rail transit does well in the form of park-and-ride regional commuter rail and commuter bus.

Though it has a slightly-higher population density than Atlanta, Dallas does not necessarily have all that high of a population density in the larger scheme of things when compared to Northeastern metros and has a much, much, MUCH more extensive road network (surface road and freeway) than Atlanta, but it still has a very-successful regional commuter rail line in the Trinity Railway Express (nearly 10,000 riders-per-day on a line that is the 14th most-used commuter rail line in the nation) that runs on an existing rail line between Downtown Fort Worth and Downtown Dallas to relieve traffic stress from two often severely-congested major highways that run between the two cities, Interstate 30/Tom Landry Freeway and TX Highway 183/Airport Freeway.
http://www.trinityrailwayexpress.org/index.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity_Railway_Express

You are very correct that we should not pay for transit with taxes on everyone as transit should be paid for by the riders in the form of user fees in the form of distance-based and zone-based fares along with P3/public-private partnerships like the kind that was going to be used to finance the construction of the I-75/575 NW HOT Lanes (P3′s can work much better with transit lines than highways) and Tax Increment Financing (property tax revenues from future new development that pops up along each transit line).

bgsmallz July 11, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Saying ‘no one uses transit’ is akin to saying prior to 1910 that no one used automobiles. You can’t argue against an improved transit system by citing current ridership. It’s disingenuous.

http://www.bizjournals.com/atlanta/news/2012/07/11/brookings-atlanta-87th-in-mass.html

Only 14.7% of people in metro Atlanta can use transit to get to work in 90 minutes and according to your statistic, 3.36% actually use it. Assuming that 90 minutes is the cut off point for travel time on transit to a job, that means there is a 23% use rate among people in our region that have reasonable access to transit.

Anyway, all that is useless if you don’t see Atlanta growing inward rather than outward. That is the main point….at some point, you either believe one of three things (a) homes/jobs/infrastructure can continue to spread out and absorb growth; (b) there will be no growth or (c) Atlanta will continue to become more dense in order to accommodate growth.

I think (a) is Pollyanna and (b) is sad. So…I’ve yet to see a city in the world that has effectively done “c” without a robust transit system and therefore I’ll vote for T-Splost and continue to push for more transit options so that when my kids graduate college, they can work and live here rather than having to move to Dallas or Charlotte to get a job.

bgsmallz July 11, 2012 at 6:40 pm

Other notes…

1)express buses were the alternative in the original Marta bond issue, too. The idea has been around for 60 years and I’ve yet to see any growing city rely on that as the answer to its transportation problems.

2) Did you even look at the criteria in the CNBC rankings for Transportation and Infrastructure? (We measured the vitality of each state’s transportation system by the value of goods shipped by air, land and water. We looked at the availability of air travel in each state, and the quality of the roads. ) No wonder we were 3rd. No one would argue with the high quality of the roads in the state, the availability of air travel, or the actual value of goods shipped….

However, more relevant to…you know…this discussion would be the Quality of Life measure since we are talking about traffic/gridlock/commutes. Georgia ranks a healthy 34 out of 50. Hooray!

As long as we are throwing out useless rankings with pointless methodologies….
http://www.forbes.com/best-places-for-business/list/

Note that 21st is respectable…if it didn’t mean we lagged behind Dallas, Nashville, Charlotte, Austin, Houston, Raleigh, Fort Worth, Durham, San Antonio…Hey! We beat Huntsville! Hooray!

Dave Bearse July 11, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Your methodolgy can bump up the 23% usage to 30% because I’m pretty sure the 3.36% usage is based on the 28 county metro statisical area (MSA) Atlanta region, not the 10 county TIA region. (Those other 18 counties have no significant transit, and I’d guess they account for over a quarter of the MSAs population, hence a one-third bump.)

bgsmallz July 12, 2012 at 9:55 am

Good point…it could cut both ways (i.e. the 14.7% might apply to the other 18 counties too).

Regardless, it’s telling that we have usage at the rates we do despite the fact that we stop building new stations in 2000…just think for a second if we had continued to invest in transit for the past 12 years at the same rate as we did for the 12 years prior….between 1987 and 2000 we added 10 stations (Bankhead, Kensington, Indian Creek, Buckhead, Medical Center, Dunwoody, Sandy Springs, North Springs, Chamblee, and Doraville) and 13 miles of track in those 13 years. If we had continued to invest at the same rate, we could already have heavy rail to Alpharetta AND heavy rail to I-20 in South DeKalb AND a rail link between Lindbergh and Decatur. Maybe we would have gotten Cobb and Gwinnett on board and instead of the Emory rail, would have rail from Doraville into Gwinnett or from Dunwoody to the Galleria? Think about that…our leaders (at the state, local, and Marta level) completely punted the last 12 years of transit infrastructure….and now they are trying to convince us that continuing that policy is what will get us out of this mess? I’ve lived in Atlanta my entire life. Maybe I’m naive, but I felt like there was noticeable enthusiasm when Marta extended beyond 285….folks that didn’t use it before now stopped at North Springs or Doraville for commutes and events. There was a bit of excitement about that rail spur that juts out of North Springs and where it might head north in the future. Buses that used to have to roll all the way into Avondale now easily funneled into Kensington and Indian Springs.

I’m sorry, but if you feel like our leaders for the past 12 years have done a better job at setting Atlanta up for competitiveness for jobs and growth in the next decade than the ones that were in charge in the 12 years prior, you are not living in reality. I’m tired of the suburbs milking the region for infrastructure and jobs and paying lower taxes and fees just because they live 2 miles north of 285. If Cobb and Gwinnett and whoever don’t want to be a part of the region and want to maintain their separate status…that’s fine. But I’m going to expect our leaders at the Dome to recognize that fact and stop spending regional dollars on self-balkanized counties.

debbie0040 July 11, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Great article. A representative of the AFL-CIO (Communications Workers of America)was at the press conference and spoke. He said there were one or two smaller unions supporting T-SPLOST but the other unions were opposing T-SPLOST.

benevolus July 11, 2012 at 3:32 pm

There’s only 3 paths, I think:
- Do the TSPLOST, and even if it doesn’t do all what it’s supposed to, we’ll have at least done something. I think I will save enough in gas due to traffic light sensors to help pay a fair amount of my 1%.
- Do nothing and suffer economic shrinkage, like Detroit or St. Louis or Toledo. Very painful.
- Don’t do TSPLOST and hope that some other plan gathers momentum. Hope.

Three Jack July 11, 2012 at 4:06 pm

bene,

Your first path, ‘vote yes because at least we’re doing something’ is akin to an unemployed man buying a lottery ticket with his last dollar so he can tell his family, ‘hey, i tried’.

Vote no on TSPLOST, vote no to anybody who voted in favor of the legislation then start over with a new group of legislators.

you July 11, 2012 at 4:33 pm

One in five Georgians is on food stamps and the cost of everything has increased, including taxes. It does not sound like we can afford another tax at this time.

saltycracker July 11, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Do…..because something is better than nothing….that what our “me first” politicians and looters live for, you to blink first and settle….totally unacceptable.
Don’t & do nothing is irresponsible.
Don’t & hope for a decent plan is our only option.

griftdrift July 11, 2012 at 3:44 pm

I just want to know how many more lanes will be required at the 675/75 interchange before we achieve congestion relief.

The Last Democrat in Georgia July 11, 2012 at 3:58 pm

“I just want to know how many more lanes will be required at the 675/75 interchange before we achieve congestion relief.”

Probably about 16 or 17 more as the I-75/I-675 interchange serves a logistical function that is very similar to a certain famous, or shall I say, infamous, freeway interchange between the very busy Interstates 5 (Santa Ana Freeway) and 405 (San Diego Freeway) south of Los Angeles.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Toro_Y

The Last Democrat in Georgia July 11, 2012 at 4:28 pm

You might also need a couple of rail transit lines to help with the congestion relief cause as well as has been done to help matters at the busy El Toro Y Interchange in Orange County, CA.
http://www.metrolinktrains.com/routes/

jiminga July 12, 2012 at 8:22 am

I live in Fayette County as as far as I can tell TSPLOST will get us a more expensive redesign of the I-85/Hwy 74 interchange than the one already planned and funded. Oh, and I forgot a road widening south of Fayetteville. Woohoo!

I will vote no, because I will get nothing for my money and don’t feel the need to pander to northsiders poor choices about where to live.

debbie0040 July 13, 2012 at 7:50 am

Called to produce their Plan B, groups detail their alternatives to proposed 1 percent transportation sales tax

http://saportareport.com/blog/2012/07/called-to-produce-their-plan-b-groups-detail-their-alternatives-to-transportation-sales-tax/

benevolus July 13, 2012 at 9:17 am

A couple of things:
“county commissions should decide which counties they want to partner with”
- Georgia has more counties than any state but Texas. Three times as many as California, more twice as many as Pennsylvania. Those jurisdictions are too small to do any reasonable large scale agreement. Two counties could agree to do something but the county between them not, so nothing gets done. Using the county as the definitive entity is just random and arbitrary.

Variable work hours, van pools, etc are primarily private sector efforts that are currently available and implemented.

- “smart red lights and use other flow control options”- this is part of the TSPLOST package.

- “expand the arterial road system”- These are the roads that go through neighborhoods? I think that should be the LAST option.

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