Pay to Play and Other People’s Money

Walter C.  Jones of Morris News Service has this article in the Athens Banner-Herald, which is the Athens newspaper without the student uprisings. In the T-SPLOST aftermath it addresses what funding mechanisms voters would support to fix our state transportation problems.

Quoting heavily from a Georgia State University study, the article states:

“First, it appears that tolls are the most favored alternative for transportation finance. This pattern is even more pronounced when tolls are explicitly compared to taxes in survey questions.

“Another global finding is that approval is higher when the proposals are specific and respondents are provided explicit information rather than general questions concerning their support for a funding source.”

So tolls and one to one relationships in taxation? Sounds reasonable. But only 51% would support tolls.

Less than one in three motorists could stomach a higher gas tax, but even among those, the smaller the better.

Support rises, though, when drivers learned about the current funding system and how it’s not keeping up with maintenance needs, much less demands for improvement. At a time when construction materials cost more, better gas mileage is holding down fuel sales.

The situation escapes most people since gas stations don’t itemize their bills, according to what the researchers learned in a Texas focus-group discussion.

“Most focus-group participants believed that they are essentially driving for free since the fuel tax is effectively hidden,” the GSU authors wrote.

Okay, so itemize the gas tax and then people will vote for it? Sounds excellent! However, and let us down slowly Walter C. Jones:

In their own survey, the GSU researchers found support for various levels of a gas-tax increase ranged 21-31 percent. Support for adding a device to vehicles to tax them on their miles driven ranged 33-36 percent at various tax rates. And support for a monthly tax of $2 per workplace parking space was evenly split at 45 percent for and 45 percent opposed even though fewer than a tenth of those surveyed would be subject to it.

So even with more information, none of these would pass in a referendum.

But everybody wants something to pass, as shown by the BetterGeorgia poll results:

Whatever the strategy, most voters want to see something done, according to a separate survey done by 20/20 Insight LLC Aug. 15-18 of 1,500 registered voters for Better Georgia, a liberal advocacy group based in Athens. In that poll, 51 percent said the governor and state Legislature should do something, but it was split between 23 percent wanting another vote on a regional sales tax and 28 percent wanting elected officials to put a plan in place without a referendum. Another 22 percent didn’t know what to decide.

So the majority of people know there is a problem and want to fix it, but cannot agree on how. What if we had some sort of representative body, and I am just thinking out loud here, that could decide this for us?

For what it’s worth, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation recommends a multi-pronged approach:

“It’s a little more politically difficult, but it’s important to have several sources of revenue instead of just one,” said the foundation President Kelly McCutcheon.

In addition to the sources examined in the survey, he suggests raising the sales tax less than 1 percent and taxing property appreciation resulting from transportation improvements.

Commence breath holding.



  1. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    Abolish the gas tax and charge distance-based user fees on each major road so that each major road pays for its own construction, maintenance and expansion as needed while everyone pays for how much of the road network they use.

    Do the same with public transportation by abolishing the 1% sales tax that is paid on retail transactions to fund MARTA in Fulton and DeKalb counties and fund a much more expansive and comprehensive transit system with the use of distance-based user fees, public-private partnerships (extensive private funding and investment) and Tax Increment Financing (a portion of property tax revenue from new development that pops up along transit lines).

    Most of all, stop looking for and finding new and evermore exciting excuses to raise taxes when they don’t need to raised!

    • Stefan says:

      Tolls on the road system – fine by me.

      I am ok with the second one, too – provided the 1% tax stays – use it to cover expansion exclusively so people can be excited about it.

      Here’s another one: How about you get Cobb to fund a 1% sales tax for mass transit with the caveat that all money raised in Cobb gets spent in Cobb. Downtown Marietta rail station within 4 years might be enough to get passage.

      • Bob Loblaw says:

        Transportation, be it road, rail, air or jet pack will not turn a profit for the provider. Taxpayer subsidies are why transit exists in all areas of planet Earth where it is successful.

        Tax Cobb with a “caveat” that all the money in Cobb is spent in Cobb? That’s called a SPLOST. Good idea, just a couple decades old and an abject failure. See 1997 shotgun attack on traffic light at the Johnson Ferry Road/Riverside Dr. intersection, when Byrne built 6 lanes that dumped into a 2-lane, neighborhood road in Fulton.

        You can’t toll every road and charge people for how far they drive on it. There are bazillions of miles of road in Georgia. The math is way too difficult for the government. People gripe about two quarters to take 400? Wait ’til they pay $1.90 to drive to Kroger and back.

        We need a transportation expert around here. Debbie???

      • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

        I’d get rid of the 1% sales tax because Fulton and DeKalb are the only two counties that are willing to pay it which makes it politically contentious if there are only two counties paying a sales tax to fund the operation of a system that were to expand into other counties (expand in a form other than the system that is currently known as MARTA, of course).

        Other counties outside of Fulton and DeKalb, like Cobb, Gwinnett, Clayton and beyond would likely not be all that willing to increase their sales taxes to fund an expanded regional transit system.

        And while persuading Cobb to pay a 1% sales tax with the caveat that all money raised in Cobb stays in Cobb isn’t a bad idea, as the recently soundly-defeated T-SPLOST demonstrated, pushing a new sales tax or tax increase of any kind to fund transportation upgrades would likely be an extremely hard sell outside of Fulton and DeKalb counties, hence the reason why I would concentrate on making both the transportation modes of roads and transit self-funding as the concept of everyone pays directly for what they use of the transportation network would more than likely be a very easy sell around these parts in a state where conservative small government politics dominate, especially if voters know that the current taxes they pay will be either substantially decreased or totally eliminated.

        Although it doesn’t really matter that counties other than Fulton and DeKalb would not be willing to raise their sales taxes to fund an expanded transit system that was regional in scope because sales taxes are not necessarily needed to fund transit anyways if distance-based user fees in the form of an adequately-priced fare structure, public-private partnerships and Tax Increment Financing were to be fully and properly utilized.

    • ryanhawk says:

      @TLDIG: Which publicly funded goods and services do you believe should be paid for with user fees and which should be paid for with broad based taxes?

      • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:


        As it pertains to this discussion, roads and transit should be paid for with user fees in lieu of taxes because as we are witnessing firsthand, roads and transit are modes of transportation that are very necessary and critical to our existence which means that they need to be able to fund their own existence instead of being dependent upon increasingly wholly inadequate and incomplete forms of funding (gas taxes which fund less and less of the needs of the road network with each passing year, the 1% sales tax in Fulton and DeKalb counties which also funds less and less of the needs of MARTA with each passing year, etc).

        Roads and transit must be made to fund its own existence so that those critical modes can be maintained, upgraded and expanded as needed, something that is virtually impossible with our dependence on funding transportation with taxes, which are increasingly politically difficult to even entertain the mere suggestion of raising.

  2. saltycracker says:

    Got a laugh with the appreciated property tax – the assessor should be the most optimistic chamber/banker member in the subjective world of assessments.

    Toll roads are fine as long as all of them are below I-20 or an Alanta by-pass. 🙂

    Raise the fuel tax and leave 100% of the money in the collecting county for transportation.
    Behavior changes & the locals get directed money.

    Interesting driving back Sunday – filled up in Florida for $3.69 and arrived to see gas around $3.90. That is the worst spread I can recall, particularly when gas tax is much less here ( I usually get wondering when the spread is down to negative 0.10 but positive .20+……wow)

  3. Newtonian says:

    When you speak of taxes on motor fuel, maybe it would be a good idea if the readers knew how much tax is currently on a gallon of gas. For Georgia, currently total federal, state excise, state sales and local sale taxes total 47.0 cents per gallon. By way of comparison the national average is 48.9 cents per gallon. The total tax per gallon in our neighboring states is as follows:
    SC: 35.2 cpg
    AL: 39.3 cpg
    TN: 39.8 cpg
    FL: 53.4 cpg
    NC: 56.2 cpg

    For the Mercedes and pickup truck drivers who have to burn diesel the numbers are as follows:

    National Average: 53.8 cpg
    Georgia: 56.2 cpg
    SC: 41.2 cpg
    TN: 42.8 cpg
    AL: 46.3 cpg
    FL: 54.9 cpg
    NC: 62.2 cpg

    Info is from and is current as of July 2012. Since Georgia’s state and local tax on motor fuels is tied to the selling price, should the price continue to rise, the resultant tax will also. Gov Deal chose to forgo the scheduled increase in July 2012, however the local sales tax did increase at that time.

  4. Newtonian says:


    The spread from FL to GA should normally be about 6 cpg, if taxes were the only consideration. However, in the 46 counties around Atlanta we must burn a special boutique fuel “Atlanta gas” that is only sold here and nowhere else in the country. As a result, when there were supply disruptions, such as the recent Issac situation, these boutique fuels are hit with drastic cost increases because you cannot bring fuel into Atlanta from other areas where there are no price disruptions. 3.69 is below what it current costs to put fuel in the ground with Atlanta gas. We’d go fill up a tanker if the fuel was legal here.

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      Newtonian, ain’t life grand?

      …Seems that the Feds would temporary relax those boutique fuel requirements during a freakin’ crisis, but apparently not.

      • Stefan says:

        Why? They don’t have separate tanks, trucks, etc. That would be a monstrous waste of resources to save 10 cents a gallon. If you are actually concerned with eliminating the boutique gas, which is in response to our air quality caused by car exhaust (primarily), you’d be supporting alternative transportation projects, which you aren’t.

        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

          Wrong. I very much support alternative transportation projects (in the form of a regional rail-anchored mass transit system for Metro Atlanta and North Georgia) , I just don’t necessarily support unsuccessfully attempting to finance alternative transportation projects with increasingly inadequate traditional means of funding such as slightly raising taxes to only partially fund transportation upgrades that could be much more fully and adequately funded with ALTERNATIVE forms of financing (user fees, private investment, Tax Increment Financing, etc) other than politically-unviable sales taxes that seemingly very few people want to pay.

          • Stefan says:

            Oh, its not a great plan, it was a compromise. Kind of like the stimulus. But if you don’t support the only plan that would pay for rail then you don’t really support rail. See Sierra Club.

            • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

              Oh, so what are you saying? Are you saying that the Sierra Club does not really support rail and other alternative forms of transportation just because they did not obediently do as they were told by the business establishment and blindly (and brainlessly) support the horrific transportation policy and political disaster set forth by a clueless Georgia Legislature that was T-SPLOST?

              Just because someone does not take some poorly slapped together crap thrown their way and accept some half-a**ed convoluted transportation policy that fills the pockets of developers infinitely more than it even remotely attempts to solve our transportation problems does not mean that they don’t support alternative forms of transportation.

              • Stefan says:

                In theory, no. In reality though? Look at the numbers above. The only option is for the legislature to just do the damn thing, but you admit yourself that is not going to happen. So yeah, if you don’t support the one opportunity to get something done, you kind of don’t support doing things.

                This isn’t a perfect world where we can afford to only support ideal policies. Is T-SPLOST what I would have dreamed up? Of course not. And I know it isn’t your dream either. But when you constantly talk about “transit self-funding” what you are really talking about is continuing to subsidize car travel and the expense of other types of transportation, air quality, jobs, etc.

                • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

                  You act as if I only talk about transit funding itself while increasing tax subsidies to road funding seem to overlook me always advocating that roads pay for themselves as well.

                  When I talk about transit being self-funding I’m not talking about funding transit at the expense of funding transit, I’m talking about transit being able to pay to sustain, maintain, upgrade and expand itself as needed because if you haven’t noticed, there is a very severe transportation funding crisis going on not only here in Georgia, but also at the Federal level as well where transportation funding through traditional methods is going increasingly scarce.

                  Hardcore transit and alternative transportation advocates like the Sierra Club came out against the T-SPLOST because they understood that it was not much more than a desperate attempt to fund a dying automobile-dominated lifestyle in the form of more sprawl and overdevelopment subsidized with public tax money. The defeat of the T-SPLOST basically struck a near-fatal blow to the traditional post-World War II paradigm of government-subsidized automobile-oriented sprawl and overdevelopment which isn’t such a bad deal if you take the long view as a hardcore transit and alternative transportation advocate.

                  Also, just because transit may get more (long-overdue) attention (financial and otherwise) from policymakers going forward does not mean that the road network can be or should be totally neglected as even with a de-emphasis on a roads-only transportation philosophy there are still numerous overwhelming needs of the road network that must addressed, especially the rapidly growing massive amount of freight truck traffic that uses the Interstate system in and through Metro Atlanta.

                • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

                  Sorry, in the first line, I meant to type “You act as if I only talk about transit funding itself while increasing tax subsidies to road funding and YOU SEEM to overlook me always advocating that roads pay for themselves as well”.

                  In the second line I meant to type “When I talk about transit being self-funding, I’m not talking about funding roads at the expense of funding transit”…my apologies.

    • saltycracker says:

      I understand the tax and metro gas variances. What I care most about is my cost. It would appear that distributor and vendor margins were the big factor. Issac was more in the news in Florida. The spread last week from Florida prices was unusually bad all along I-75 and really bad in the metro.

      You saying there was some disruption in supply across Ga and not in Fla that sellers stuck it to us ?

  5. Dave Bearse says:

    People are all for toll roads so long as the tolls are not being levied on the routes they use most.

    People want something done, and somebody else to pay for it.

    If worst comes to worst, revert to the conservative mantra that public transportation infrastructure should be run like a business, with no one having to pay for anything for anything they don’t directly use. Anything else is socialism.

    If indeed it’s necessary to pay, the private expense should be less than the public cost. Public transportation infrastructure after all is an inefficient and bloated monopoly, and free market capitalists shouldn’t have to pay anything more than free market capitalist prices.

    • Scott65 says:

      I get amused by people who say they are not paying for transit, or suburban sprawl…because they will, and the only choice the have to change it is their vote…you have to pay taxes or you go to jail (eventually)…so talk about who you wont vote for…not what you aren’t going to pay for…just pointing that out

  6. Scott65 says:

    Here’s a novel idea…why dont the people we elect give the pandering a rest and actually work to solve the problem and leave the dog whistle politics alone for a month or two. You’d be amazed at what they could do (oh, and raise campain cash has to take a rest with the dog whistle…my God, they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves)

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      The problem is that many of them actually don’t know what to do unless they are taking orders from their corporate masters and even then they still don’t know what to do and proceed to even screw that up.

  7. Newtonian says:


    I wish it was margins, but seeing the numbers, just ain’t so. Everyone sees the street price, nobody sees the cost. And of course many people want to connect the dots between the high profits reported by the oil co’s and retailer margins. The reality is that the oil co’s don’t own a single station in GA, they simply have supply contracts. The price from the oil co’s changes every day. Gas is a low margin item, period. If you have to spend more $ on gas, you have less left to buy the things inside the store where the margins are better…fyi.

  8. Gary Cooper says:

    Why don’t we allow local governments more leeway in state road and highway projects? Allow them to embark on their own TSPLOST referendums and partner with surrounding counties to raise money for projects that benefit each of them? If Cobb and Fulton want to partner on improving the various connecting roads and highways that they share, then let them. If Fulton and Gwinnett want to make improvements to the roads or transit systems that connect them, then let them. Have 100% of the tax collected go toward the listed projects and allow the local governments to manage the project instead of the GADOT or SRTA. Voters are willing to approve referendums if they know for a fact that the projects are for their benefit and that their local representatives are in charge.

    As for toll roads, I think the GA 400 toll has taught us that while tolls go a long way to improving infrastructure, the fact is the government will still find some way to utilize that revenue for something other than the road it is collecting from. Toll express lanes are a good idea with the caveat that they are additional lanes so that commuters – all commuters – can take. Another caveat is that the highways the express lanes are built upon should have the adequate infrastructure in place to handle the current peak volume. Express lanes should be just that….express…..and not a lane that is needed to handle peak volume.

    As for the gas tax, leave it where it is and actually work to better utilize the money it generates. The projects should be prioritized based on need, but the tax needs to be distributed based on the percentage of who is paying for it. If Atlanta area commuters are paying say (and this is just off the top of my head) 65% of the gas tax, then the Atlanta metro region should be receiving 65% of the gas tax revenue for their transportation needs.

  9. Just tossing out a complete alternative: Why not decentralize Atlanta? Instead of trying to figure out how to get more drivers into and out of Atlanta, why not encourage businesses and people to move further away from the Atlanta metro area? Move the Falcons to Sanford stadium in Athens. They have proven they can handle large crowds (~90,000 fans). I just don’t understand why were are trying to push everything towards one point when we have such a large state that can handle multiple points of industry, business, and governmental functions.

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      “Instead of trying to figure out how to get more drivers into and out of Atlanta, why not encourage businesses and people to move further away from the Atlanta metro area?”

      You mean encourage people to move further away from the metro area like Detroit has very successfully done? That’s a very intriguing idea…I can see it 🙂

      Seriously, you’re a Jackets fan and you just suggested moving the Falcons to Athens?

      Bazillionaire Arthur Blank would never move his big city major league team from a city and metro area of nearly 6 million people to a college town of only 100,000 people as no metro area should chase all of its industry and tax revenue away because it very stubbornly does not want to invest in its transportation infrastructure like every other metro area with multiple millions of residents has to and does do.

      Being a very major city at the confluence of three of the busiest superhighways/ground trade routes on the entire planets and is home to the busiest airport on the entire planet means that we are going to have to find ways to invest substantially more in our overtaxed and undersized transportation infrastructure, there’s just absolutely no way around that.

      And it’s not us that have pushed and continues to push everything towards one point in Metro Atlanta, it’s our extremely prime location at the confluence of three very major superhighways/ground trade routes in a South Atlantic state in the Sunbelt on the Eastern Seaboard down the Atlantic Coast from the Boston-NYC-Philadelphia-DC Megalopolis with the world’s busiest airport that has and continues to push massive amounts of people into and through Metro Atlanta. Trust me, places like Kalispell, Montana, Death Valley (CA) or even the aforementioned state of Michigan (which has parts of the state that have lost population at almost the same rate that parts of Georgia have gained population over the past two decades) don’t necessarily have this problem of what to do with all of this overwhelming growth. Heck, places like Detroit wish that they were in our shoes, even during the current sustained economic downturn.

      Though you do make a very good point about being a large state that can handle multiple points of industry, business and governmental functions as one excellent way to help economically develop other parts of the state that are in severe need of it while continuing to develop Atlanta and environs would to develop a long-overdue multimodal transportation network by connecting Atlanta to other parts of the state with frequent and dependable commuter and interurban rail transit service (funded with ways other than tax increases, of course).

        • Harry says:

          Atlanta need road improvements, only not what was proposed in the T-SPLOST referendum. For one thing, tunneling has become very inexpensive. The proposed tunnel from 400 proceeding south to I-675 would be a good idea. The distance is 11 miles. Probably the last two miles on the south end could be surface road. Maybe one of the underemployed DOT engineers who were recently frequenting this blog could run the numbers and let us know how much it would actually cost.

          • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

            A road tunnel is not necessarily a bad idea as one of the world’s greatest cities, Paris (France, not Texas), depends on quite a few road tunnels to run their autoroutes (what they call their freeways) under densely-populated urban areas instead of directly through them as there is even one tunnel that is up to 10 kilometers (roughly 7 miles) in length.

            The only problem is that, while possibly somewhat practical, the idea of running a tunnel under East Atlanta is likely not at all politically feasible, especially if there are not massive improvements made to the region’s vastly underdeveloped and currently flailing transit network (heavy rail, commuter rail, commuter bus, etc) and even then, any new road project that expands road capacity in this road expansion-adverse region, particularly inside of I-285, will still be an extremely difficult sell in a city and region where any transportation plan that either actually is or even portends to be a massive road expansion proposal can become very politically bloody and ultimately politically futile (see the very unpopular Northern Arc proposal that got the long-entrenched Democrats booted from power a decade ago or last month’s seemingly even more unpopular T-SPLOST as examples of that political theorem).

            The Reason Foundation placed the cost of such a proposed tunnel connecting GA 400 and I-675 at least $4.8 billion in 2005 dollars according to a 2006 report.

            If all hell broke loose over $2 billion being spent on a (very unpopular) proposed bypass through the Northern outer suburbs instead of on improving mass transit closer to the urban core, the reaction to at least more than twice the cost of the Northern Arc possibly being spent on an expressway proposed to be tunneled under a much more urban and very intensely anti-freeway Inside-the-Perimeter East Atlanta instead on long-overdue transit upgrades might be something be akin to an Armageddon-type event from Intowners, especially after the bad will left behind after the expansion of GA 400 through high-end Buckhead.

            • Harry says:

              Atlanta sewer improvements have involved at least one large-bore water tunnel, and while expensive the cost has decreased considerably. Japan is building a number of extended length road tunnels (up to 20 km), and they have a law which allows such tunneling without acquiescence if done more than about 120 ft underground.

              • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

                But there’s a huge difference between boring tunnels for court-ordered sewer improvements and boring tunnels for road expansion around these parts.

                I’m not saying that expressway tunnels underground are not a practical idea because they’re not a bad idea, I’m just pointing how ultra-intensely political difficulty it would be to get them constructed anywhere in this town, particularly Inside-the-Perimeter where they literally have an “You’ll-construct-that-over (or in this case, under)-my-dead-body” additude towards new roadbuilding, even seemingly towards new lanes.

    • Stefan says:

      Because productivity depends on proximity. We are developing a bunch of small towns which means we cannot leverage our population and skills effectively.

      A company that has its headquarters in Mableton cannot benefit from the skills of a worker in Snellville. Nor is it likely to make the type of serendipitous connections startups need to succeed.

      • Harry says:

        That’s a good point, but I would contend that even a more consolidated Atlanta would have had a tough time over the last years competing with the likes of Silicon Valley, Seattle, New York and Boston. Maybe future trends favor the decentralized exurban model, which is better suited to the Atlanta area. For one thing, that model would seem to carry an advantage in the evolving global cloud culture…one doesn’t need be concerned about a long commute, having to get dressed up to make a fashion statement in the traditional workplace, etc.

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