By Baruch Feigenbaum
On July 31, 2012, voters in 12 regions in Georgia, including a 10-county Atlanta region, will decide in a referendum whether to enact a 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (T-SPLOST) for transportation. To help Georgians understand the ramifications of the referendum, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation has released an Issue Analysis: “Getting Georgia Going: An Analysis of the Referendum On Georgia’s Transportation Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax.”
With Georgia ranked 49th in transportation spending, the question should focus not on whether the state needs to increase investment in its transportation network, but what is the best, most efficient and politically realistic way to do so. Given this framework, there are reasons for voting for and against the legislation.
Along with $1.6 billion list of Coastal Georgia region projects that include the Savannah-area freight- and port-related projects, probably the most crucial list in the state is linked to the metro Atlanta region. This is because the metro Atlanta 10-county region not only has the greatest congestion and mobility challenges but the greatest population concentration in the state. For this reason, the Issue Analysis focuses on the metro Atlanta region.
The metro Atlanta region needs to solve its congestion issues: Residents waste a significant portion of their time – and money – stuck in traffic. Transit service is inadequate; frequency and coverage are below cities of similar size. Competitors including Charlotte, Dallas and Houston have comprehensive transportation strategies, while other Southern states such as North Carolina and Texas have approved local sales taxes for transportation.
Funding transportation infrastructure with a sales tax is not optimal, primarily because such a tax has no relationship to the usage of the transportation system. It is politically easier to increase a single tax, especially a tax where tourists contribute a significant amount, but it is arguable that a mix of taxes and user fees would be a better solution. Gas taxes, “value capture” of land near transit and tolls are options. Greater use of these sources in the short term, however, is politically challenging and may take longer.
The project list for regions outside metro Atlanta, especially Savannah, appear largely focused on mobility and the efficient movement of freight through the state. Unfortunately, the metro Atlanta project list is a very mixed bag, addressing critical issues through some projects then squandering precious funds on other projects not focused on mobility.
Transit is important for metro Atlanta’s future and deserves some regional and state funding. But its list allocates proportionally excessive funding to transit. Increasing transit service, a laudable goal, should not come at the expense of developing and maintaining a quality highway network – the overwhelmingly preferred travel mode in the region.
Regional projects such as improving the I-285 and Georgia 400 intersection and bringing MARTA to a state of good repair are excellent, deserving projects. But then the list also funds questionable projects. Several projects have purely economic development benefits; others have purely environmental benefits. Certainly, transportation projects with economic or environmental benefits can effectively solve multiple problems. But purely environmental or economic development projects have no role in a transportation project list that was to be based on the best use of taxpayer dollars.
The biggest problem is the significant dollars allocated to rail projects. Fixed-rail transit is most effective in an extremely dense region, which Atlanta is not. If the region wants to fund fixed-rail projects, better options would be routes along the Perimeter, in Gwinnett County, commuter rail to Athens and commuter rail to Lovejoy. The proposed I-75 rail line from Midtown to Cumberland serves a corridor with existing, quality express bus service while ignoring the far busier and more congested I-75 corridor from I-285 to Acworth. While this rail project was theoretically removed, $700 million is an extraordinarily high cost to improve bus-rapid-transit service in the corridor. Compared to rail, bus capital costs are substantially lower and buses can be easily moved if development patterns change.
So what should voters do?
The Atlanta project list has problems but there are also problems with rejecting it outright. If the tax is voted down, the state must reduce the matching funding to local governments from 90 percent to 70 percent. A “no” vote could exacerbate funding problems in the metro area. As a result of congressional balancing that mandates equal funds to each congressional district, and higher land and construction costs, metro Atlanta’s transportation dollars don’t go as far as funds do in other regions. Yes, the region can vote on a different project list in 2014, but that list may not be any better.
Then there is the reality that Georgia ranks 49th in transportation spending. This is, in part, thanks to prudent spending and projects. But it means the state also may not have enough funds to maintain roads, let alone widen or build new ones. Another vote can take place in 2014 and a tax take effect in 2015, but these are two more years of underinvestment for Georgia. Meanwhile, the advantage goes to competing regions such as Charlotte, Houston and Dallas.
Around the state and in Atlanta, voters have justification for approving or rejecting the penny transportation sales tax. Is it good that it will rebuild the I-285/Georgia 400 interchange and bring the MARTA system into good repair? Is it troubling to see the focus on expensive new rail, the location of the transit lines and the large number of unconnected highway projects? Should the funding come from a sales tax, despite that not being the ideal funding mechanism for transportation? Should regions reject the sales tax and risk losing local transportation funding? These are the questions voters must weigh as they consider the benefits and the costs.
Baruch Feigenbaum is an Adjunct Scholar with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and a Transportation Policy Analyst with the Reason Foundation (www.reason.org), a national, nonprofit public policy organization that promotes choice, competition and a dynamic market economy as the foundation for human dignity and progress. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation (www.georgiapolicy.org) is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.
Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Reason Foundation or the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (May 23, 2012). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.