The partisan pundits will be out in force today, each with their own opinions on the 2:1 defeat of a proposed 1% regional sales tax to support Atlanta transportation.
Conservatives will thump their chest at some supposed rejection of big government.
Progressives will thumb their nose at the backwards suburbs who lack the sophistication to understand the need for strategic regional transit.
I, for one, am hopeful and optimistic that this sound rejection will lead to better policy and projects. The entire T-SPLOST process was established by the Georgia legislature. They chopped the state into 12 regions, each of which had the option to pass a 1% sales tax to fund transportation initiatives. The first evidence that this process is more about pork and cost-shifting is that EVERY SINGLE REGION in Georgia asked their citizens to pass this tax. It’s easy to understand how Atlanta has critical transportation needs. It’s less clear how EVERY other region in Georgia has such pressing needs, unfundable from federal highway dollars, gas taxes, and property taxes.
How did every region decide to propose this tax? The law creating this process makes the counties in each region responsible for proposing the list of projects, and here begins the problem. Counties are not going to turn down a chance for extra revenue, so they all got together and proposed lists of projects, some of which are strategic, but in many, many cases, are merely local projects.
T-SPLOST proponents pointed out that money from this tax could ONLY be used for allotted transit projects, which is true, but the remainder of their budget is fungible. This allowed counties to plan to take already scheduled projects, throw them on the project list to force neighboring counties to help fund them, and then plan to allocate the county money elsewhere. This also means that a number of T-SPLOST projects are going to happen even though the tax failed.
One of the worst offenders in this was Clayton County. Clayton de-funded their county bus service in 2010. They then added a $100 million ”project” to pay to re-instate this bus service and pay for ongoing operations. Asking citizens of Cherokee County to chip in to revive local bus service for a county 60 miles away that already decided it didn’t need that service and calling it “strategic” is insulting. It’s pork. It’s cost-shifting. It’s wasteful.
In case you would assume that Georgia is just a bunch of rednecks who hate taxes, consider that 3 of the regions in Georgia DID pass their T-SPLOST. One of these regions, “Heart of Georgia”, is overwhelmingly Republican. I don’t know the details of their proposals, but I imagine they were more strategic and focused on legitimate projects.
Proponents of the Atlanta T-SPLOST were never able to build a strong factual case for the tax. For every game-changing, strategic project like the Beltline, there was a ridiculous non-infrastructure project such as “enhanced bus service” to somewhere, and dozens of single-county bridge and road projects that should obviously just be funded by their county. At this point, proponents resorted to hyperbole and fear-mongering. The suspiciously well-funded “Untie Atlanta” campaign promised to fix all of our problems if we would just vote “Yes”, without substantiating anything – a remixed version of Obama’s 2008 “Hope” and “Change” sloganeering – too optimistic to ever deliver on the catchphrases. Much like the 2008 election, some were sucked in by the slogans, but many more simply believed that this action was better than deferred action.
The other non-logical tactic was one of fear. Ideas like “If we don’t pass this now, we never will.”, or “If we don’t pass this now, other cities like Nashville will steal our economic crown.” If that’s true, we’re really in trouble. Nashville has a 9% sales tax and NO income tax. They don’t have some big rail transit system. Why are they going to eat our lunch? The fact is, counties can increase their sales taxes, property taxes, and (I think) gas taxes if they want to buy local bridges and roads. There is no proof, only wild speculation, that rejecting T-SPLOST dooms Atlanta economically. Few sensible policies are enacted from the basis of fear. We can consider a new, hopefully less selfish and more strategic vote in 2014. While perfect may be the enemy of good, mediocre is the executioner of good. Poor proposals, once enacted, create even further distrust and solve few problems.
While critics like to simply call out suburban Atlantans as racist and paranoid, there is ample reason for skepticism. Our existing transit system doesn’t run to our baseball stadium because the city was afraid of losing parking revenue. In spite of spending millions of dollars on strategic transit authorities that are supposed to be thinking about how to make Atlanta transit work, it was a Georgia Tech grad student that noticed miles of disused rail line encircling the core of Atlanta that will become the Beltline, arguably Atlanta’s most defining transit project. What were the MARTA and GRTA employees doing?
I am hopeful and optimistic that metro Atlanta voters have the sense to reject a corrupt and flawed transit proposal. Some suggest that our T-SPLOST rejection signals to the nation and potential corporate HQ relocations that we are clueless. I believe it signals that we are not sheep. We will not accept naive and selfish proposals backed by catchy slogans that are only barely strategic in nature. One T-SPLOST proponent I read bemoaned that “rejection of the T-SPLOST is rejection of the process” as some tragic outcome. We SHOULD reject this process. It rewards counties for masking local projects as regional ones. It is tactical and adversarial, not strategic. Companies should embrace a workforce able to resist fancy marketing to reject such a flawed proposal.
I am more hopeful that the most impactful or necessary projects will still be funded. The already scheduled local projects that counties tried to spew into the T-SPLOST will happen like clockwork. In my opinion, THE most important project in the mix is the Beltline. I am hopeful that Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed will not allow the T-SPLOST rejection to be an obstacle. The benefits of light rail encircling the city are indisputable – development will surround Beltline stations and build property tax revenue that should more than cover the cost to build. Fulton and Dekalb counties need to stop begging other counties for support on the Beltline – they should lead, make it happen, and reap the tax rewards from growth.
I used to agree with those who believe that Atlanta needs to build transit to reach the outermost suburbs. I now disagree. Atlanta needs to build more internal communities with friendly commutes on transit. If that’s what people want, they will move to these areas, and I think they will. If people want to live 20 miles outside of town and rot in traffic, that’t their choice. If in-town transit doesn’t drive growth and increase population density, it certainly isn’t going to work along 20-mile long rail lines to the suburbs.
Atlanta was smart to reject the deeply flawed T-SPLOST. We should now be defined by how our leaders move forward. I hope the Beltline is funded. I hope Dekalb builds a rail line out to the hopelessly inaccessible Emory area. I hope other counties cooperate to fund necessary inter-county initiatives, and I hope counties figure out how to fund their own road, bridge, and bus projects they wanted to foist upon neighboring counties.