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Hopeful For Atlanta, Even After We tspLOST

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.

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8 thoughts on “Hopeful For Atlanta, Even After We tspLOST

  1. Great piece Rob! The thing that gets me is that the TSPLOT proponents would point to NYC, Paris, Chicago, & LA as a model for our future transit and then point to Charlotte, Nashville, Dallas & Houston as cities to which we lose jobs. Let’s see, those “model” cities have much greater population density and the cities that we are supposedly losing out to don’t have the huge investments in rail & mass transit. I am missing the connection and I think they are too.

  2. I agree with your assertion that Cherokee county residents have nothing at stake to fix the issues of in-town Atlanta congestion. However, the State of Georgia has a lot at stake in making the capital city and a metropolis of 5mm people more attractive as a job and economic hub. That is where the solutions should have come from in the first place. It should not be solely on the backs of DeKalb county residents to make a global employment, education and research center more accessible. This has benefits far beyond the county and whatever comes next I want to see the State of Georgia finally embrace a leadership role in addressing this critical issue for our growth.

    1. I think you’re making a different argument, Mark. the specific Cherokee County example isn’t that they shouldn’t be asked to act regionally. It’s that they shouldn’t be asked to re-fund the bus system that Clayton County decided to un-fund 2 years ago. T-SPLOST shouldn’t be a mechanism to dump local expenses on the region.

      While I don’t reject the notion that regional action is possible, I don’t embrace the notion that it is necessary. The T-SPLOST was mostly structured so that each county received nearly the same amount of project funding as they were expected to contribute. This also means that in most cases, each county could accomplish ALL of their projects by simply passing a county tax. It would be nice for everyone to chip in, but Dekalb is culpable for the situation and capable of solving it unilaterally. Their own [lack of] urban planning caused one of their best economic hubs to be in one of the most inaccessible sections of the city. I also believe that project could justify itself financially just from the county perspective, in increased jobs and property taxes. Any local leaders who abdicate responsibility for projects like this simply because the tax didn’t pass aren’t leading.

  3. Hi, Rob. As we discussed a few weeks ago, I helped execute social media strategies for the Untie Atlanta campaign. Last night was a crushing defeat of many people’s hard work, including some of our region’s most passionate leaders. I agree with many of the points you made, but have a different perspective. Regardless of the project list, it was apparent the voters of our region never saw themselves as a cohesive unit and never valued the opportunity to work together. I don’t believe it’s race as some have suggested but there is a distinct urban vs. suburban mentality. Whether we admit it or not, we are a region and our transportation system is dependent on us acting like it. 64% of commuters live and work in different counties with many leaving the ‘burbs to travel to Fulton. One of our biggest traffic headaches are at I-20 and 285. This interchange, located in Fulton County, is actually used more by Douglas County commuters. Similarly, GRTA is now facing a decision to discontinue its Xpress Bus Service, which will put hundreds of additional cars back on the road.

    Sure, not all of the projects were regional, but they were all needed. It’s not accurate to say Cherokee voters were paying for Clayton County buses. The 1% sales tax collections from Clayton would have funded the system. However, this was the framework the legislature gave us for funding, not local referendums. Similarly, Cherokee County commuters would have benefited from the widening of SR140, a project that stretched into Fulton County making it regional.

    In addition to the failure to think regionally, voters refused to compromise. I know not every compromise is a good one, but voters refused to listen to logic and our region’s leaders that assured these plans were not only needed but that voters wouldn’t have this same opportunity again. In fact, Governor Deal already announced his plan B. As he promised Monday, Georgia doesn’t have the funds needed to adequately maintain and improve our infrastructure. Now, facing loud opposition, he’s unwilling to raise taxes. Instead, he’s forced to direct the little funds we have to the projects with highest priorities. The 285 and 400 interchange will be improved, but don’t expect new transit projects or improvements to Atlanta streets.

    Voters say they want our leaders to work together. Georgians should be proud of Governor Deal, Mayor Reed and countless other local officials for working together on a plan that would correct our largest shortcoming. However, the way the opposition attacked and demonized them will make it difficult to do it again.

    1. Sigh. and Gov. Deal flatly refused to consider extension of some form of rail into Suburban Counties.
      Which is the only thing that would affect traffic. HOT lanes, tolls, road widening, interchange reconstruction (Yay 4 Ashford-Dunwoody Rd.) will certainly help CW Mathews, Archer Western, and their sub-contractors. However, there’s nothing about those things that make working and playing in the region MORE attractive. Rob’s proposal leads to a re-creation of Manhattan within the Old City, which as a Native I love, other than my career will basically prevent me from earning enough to be a part of it.

      And I wouldn’t call the horse trading that went on for two years, solid cooperation.

  4. RE: efforts to build communities inside the perimeter as a “green”solution: they’re the exact opposite. There are a lot of empty residences and commercial space in the suburbs now, buildings just rotting away. And now the real estate developers want to build even more units on infill lots intown, using even more energy and materials, and releasing even more carbon from all the construction. Does anybody really think that’s more environmentally friendly than rebuilding the burbs and getting people back out here to use what’s already been built?

    it seems to me that’s just endlessly repeating the same mistake over and over again.

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