Hard Choices Required For Real Solutions

This week’s Courier Herald column:

With the inauguration of Nathan Deal this week, Republicans can celebrate 12 years in Georgia’s Governor’s mansion. They will also mark a decade with control of both houses of the Georgia General Assembly. A decade is many eternities in political life, and stories of Democratic control in the state of Georgia are now but the most distant of memories.

While nostalgia is often a tool for political rhetoric (take our country back, anyone?), political leadership is about solving the challenges of today while preparing for the Georgia of tomorrow. Only in hindsight do we have the benefit of understanding if the decisions were big enough to address the totality of the real issues we faced, bold enough to embrace the needs of future Georgians, and demonstrated the resolve to face the critics who painted pictures of fear in order to maintain the status quo.

On transportation, the GOP record remains…charitably… incomplete. An incoming Governor Perdue killed the Northern Arc and made mostly incremental changes until the end of his term. He left for his predecessor a plan for T-SPLOST, a statewide set of regional referendums born of political expediency and killed by voters in the Atlanta region in surprising bi-partisan fashion.

The four-year delay in a comprehensive statewide transportation solution is readily evident with GDOT’s current finances. There is a $700 Million annual deficit in the amount needed to return to a normal maintenance schedule for roads and bridges alone. There remains $16 Billion dollars worth of “essential” projects, most of which represent reengineering existing roads for current capacity rather than creating new arteries. Billions more are needed for the road and transit infrastructure that will be required to accommodate the four million new Georgians expected over the next quarter century.

There are few who argue the need. There are many who have been sincerely studying the best option to solve today’s problems while positioning Georgia for the state will be decades from now.

There remains honest disagreement on how to raise the needed revenue, and frankly, how much is needed. There is a general consensus that the roughly 11.2 cents per gallon collected statewide in taxes on gasoline that is currently not directed to GDOT should be transitioned to them in order to best match sources and uses of tax. This would add an annual three quarters of a billion dollars into road and bridge maintenance and/or construction.

Beyond that, there remain other ideas. Most discussion is between a statewide sales tax and increased gas taxes. At the state level, to handle only maintenance and GDOT’s essential projects, almost $2 Billion per year is required.

The discussion, however, has also produced some positions where are policy sleight of hand designed to appear to be in favor of something while providing cover to doing nothing. One appeared in the AJC last Saturday from the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Their recommendation included this:

“Optional tolls and an optional, more flexible local sales tax adds up to another $800 million a year in possible new funding targeted where the need is greatest and paid for by those who will benefit most.”

The term “Optional tax” is quite unique, but without a practical meaning. Once enacted, taxes or only optional if you choose to conduct an activity that is taxed. All sales taxes are “optional” only if you choose not to purchase. The same can be said for gas taxes. No one is forced to pay a gas tax, only those who purchase gasoline pay this “optional” tax.

Sadly, this recommendation is to repeat the mistakes of 2010-2012, where members of the legislature were “for” the T-SPLOST referendum when they voted for it, and were against the same measures when they appeared on the ballot. Many of these leaders – who promised to have a better plan if voters voted down T-SPLOST – remained quiet on new solutions and quickly left the legislature.

Further, the concept of “optional tolls” has the same issue. You only have to pay these tolls if you drive on tolled roads. Voters must understand how many roads, and which roads, would be tolled in order to raise significant new revenue.

The belief that tolls are “optional” implies that someone else will pay the tolls while the rest of us can remain in a functional “free” road system. The hundreds of millions of dollars needed would require not only tolling new capacity, but existing roads that have “already been paid for”. The new managed lanes projects on Atlanta interstates have variable fares to manage congestion, not to maximize revenue. If the goal is revenue maximization to produce hundreds of millions of new dollars, those proposing this as a solution have a duty to tell Georgians on which roads, how much in tolls, and what the collection costs will be.

The reality is that there are no easy answers. It is disappointing, however, to see a halfhearted suggestion where the true difficult work is needed. Closing the gap between existing revenue and the total funds needed is where the real work begins.

It is that point, frankly, where concepts such as “optional” taxes and unspecified tolls become meaningless platitudes. The words are designed to evoke a painless solution where none exists. And, ultimately, are little more than an effort to appear to be constructive while laying the groundwork to continue the status quo of ignoring this critical issue.

Charlie Harper is the Editor of Peach Pundit and Executive Director of PolicyBEST, a non-profit organization that advocates for issues on Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.

9 comments

  1. blakeage80 says:

    I guess the hard thing about transportation improvement is that unless you are going to build a cool train that goes cool places or maybe a big new limited access road (Northern Arc on scale), there isn’t a real sexy selling point with which to awe voters. It would be smart for each advocate of increased transportation funding to come up with some benefits for each area of the state, much like Sen. McKoon did in the Ledger-Inquirer article found in the morning reads. He linked the Port of Savannah and several businesses in his district rather simply. I, for one, would like to hear some of that from Rep. Quick and Sen. Cowsert.

  2. Charlie, if the AJC gave you more than 500 words, perhaps I could have been more clear on what I mean by optional. The tolls on new lanes, like the ones being constructed on I-75, are truly optional for every individual who can choose whether or not to use them. This is even a better user fee than the gas tax. Voters do need to understand where the tolls will be applied. We have a map on page 42 of the study (http://reason.org/files/atlanta_transportation_plan.pdf) we published with the Reason Foundation showing an extensive map of the managed lane network we have proposed.

    Regarding the sales tax, optional refers to each county’s choice. Some counties have greater transportation needs than others. A statewide tax is applied equally to every county regardless of their needs. A more flexible sales tax available to local governments would give them the option of passing a full 1 percent, a half percent, no tax or anything in between. A better alternative than a statewide sales tax.

    The study mentioned above goes into great detail as to what projects are needed and how they can be funded. Even without counting sales taxes, these recommendations almost double state spending on transportation and include funding for transit, both in Metro Atlanta and throughout the state. Rather than half-hearted, I would characterize that as a very good start to addressing this issue.

    • John Konop says:

      ……..Regarding the sales tax, optional refers to each county’s choice. Some counties have greater transportation needs than others…..

      In all due respect this is short sided thinking…..You would be right if a person is only dependent on their county for work, food, products…..in reality it does not work that way…The airport deal done years ago in Atlanta effected growth way beyond just the city of Atlanta. If Birmingham had gotten the deal, we would look like them, and they would be us. The port deal in Savannah does have economic effect beyond just that area. The concept you can do effective transportation, and infrastructure planning county by county without coordination is a key factor to the downfall of the USSR. They could net effectively move goods and people around their country…This is a very basic economic concept promoted from our funding fathers ie Lewis and Clark, railroad system, airport system, internet, electronic grid, highway system…..I have tremendous respect for a lot of your work….but not getting your point here….

  3. John, the port and the airport are good examples I would agree with. Maintaining our existing transportation network is another – which is why we support shifting the “4th penny” back to transportation. But transit projects, for example, make more sense as a regional approach rather than statewide.

    • John Konop says:

      I agree, but it is regional approach not county by county….we have to many who scream about local control in large transportation projects, and it makes no sense….talking point politics is how we got into this mess…. Obviously you are a very smart guy, but your words can be twisted to spark a political agenda….over solving anything…..

  4. Dave Bearse says:

    Good column.

    It’s no surprise that I’ll mention that you should have mentioned Perdue increasing state borrowing to construct economic development highways (as opposed to maintenance or congestion relief construction). It’s relevant in that I understand there has been discussion of using general funds to reduce the GDOT debt load.

    There was more to take issue with in the GPPF than optional tolls and sales taxes.

  5. Dave Bearse says:

    And to be accurate, Perdue significantly diverted GDOT funds and increased borrowing to expedite GRIP. From the link below: Perdue – “We will accomplish in six years what would have otherwise taken 18.”

    Perdue called it “Fast Forward”. It should have been called “Crash Landing”

    http://sonnyperdue.georgia.gov/00/press/detail/0,2668,78006749_92321069_92359324,00.html

    It exemplifies the GOP’s most beloved trait: hypocrisy. In this instance as concerns fiscal conservatism.

    (Oops – this was supposed to be a rely to Rambler14.)

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