Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Elections 2012: Georgia T-SPLOST referendum

On July 31, Georgia voters will go to the polls to decide on T-SPLOST, a transportation special purpose local option sales tax. The election will decide whether voters will approve a one cent sales tax to fund statewide transportation projects. Although Election Day is July 31, early voting has already started.

Details about T-SPLOST can be found on the Investing in Tomorrow’s Transportation Today (IT3) page of the Georgia Department of Transportation website. The T-SPLOST referendum was authorized by the Transportation Investment Act of 2010. The Statewide Strategic Transportation Plan (SSTP) was approved by Gov. Sonny Perdue and the State Transportation Board in 2010.

According to the SSTP, Georgia is currently below average on state transportation funding. This threatens Georgia’s ability to receive federal matching funds. The planners predict that Atlanta’s congestion costs will double over the next 20 years and that the number of workers available within 45 minutes of metro Atlanta will actually shrink by a third due to increased congestion. Congestion in Georgia’s medium-sized cities is forecast to rise to level comparable with Atlanta and Charlotte.

The solution, according to the plan, is three-pronged. First, the plan calls for $15 billion in improvements to Georgia’s freight transportation system including new bypasses, rail capability, and relieving bottlenecks and gaps.

Second, the Atlanta area would receive $29-36 billion, including $8-11 billion from tolls or user fees, for a variety of work. There would be more “managed” (toll) lanes on major routes. The plan would focus on these and other “dual-purpose investments” that can be used by private vehicles as well as mass transit. Atlanta would also have funding for rail transit. The initial plan would maintain the current system and expand short-haul rail lines that connect to the core system. Later, long-haul rail to the suburbs and other cities would be considered.

Finally, new capacity and safety needs for the remainder of the state are estimated at $14 billion over the next 20 years. Much of the spending outside Atlanta involves managing traffic patterns and coordinating transportation growth with developing areas.

Total cost for the program is estimated at $65 billion over the next 20-30 years. The SSTP estimates that the plan will generate 425,000 new jobs and $480 billion in economic benefit for the state. The expansion and upgrade of Georgia’s transportation system is intended to make Georgia more attractive to new business and make its existing businesses more competitive.

T-SPLOST supporters may have an uphill battle. Tax increases are often unpopular and the current economic and political climate is unlikely to help matters. The Georgia Tea Party Patriots is hosting an online petition against the measure, calling it “the largest single tax increase in Georgia history.” The group charges that T-SPLOST funds will be used to bail out MARTA, which is in financial trouble. The GTPP also says that the T-SPLOST will tax food and medicine and points out that the tax is likely to be renewed in 10 years to cover maintenance for the new projects. The group is also concerned about “regional appointed quasi-governments” that are not elected and therefore unaccountable to taxpayers.

Many Georgia businesses favor the T-SPLOST. In an AJC blog, Sadie Fields, former chairwoman of the Christian Coalition of Georgia, alleges that many employees of Atlanta-area businesses feel that their employers are pressuring them to vote for the measure. A rebuttal by John Brock, CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises, points out that Atlanta traffic is limiting growth and that T-SPLOST is needed to turn things around.

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation issued a report on the vote that lists several pros and cons. Among the reasons to vote for the bill is the fact that Georgia is 49th in transportation funding and there are improvements that are genuinely needed. In regions where the tax is rejected, local governments will be responsible for an increased percentage of the cost of maintaining local roads. This may lead to higher local taxes. The next chance to vote on transportation improvements will be in 2014.

On the con side, the GPPF notes that a sales tax is not linked to transportation usage. A one cent increase in the gas tax might be better suited to transportation. Much of the money is slated to be spent in Atlanta and too much of Atlanta’s money will be spent on rail transit. Only three percent of commuters use MARTA, but public and rail transit gets almost half of Atlanta’s funds. Finally, the foundation notes that spending is political rather than based on need and there is no long term plan.

The GPPF recommends that voters examine the list of proposed projects for their region when deciding how to vote on the issue. T-SPLOST.com lists the projects by region. The website is a pro-T-SPLOST site paid for Yancey Brothers, a Caterpillar heavy equipment dealer.

The AJC Political Insider blog reports that the T-SPLOST is indeed in trouble. The column quotes a Rosetta Stone poll that shows public opinion is against the new tax by a margin of 37-48 percent. Support is strongest in the Democratic strongholds of DeKalb and Fulton counties where the measure is supported 49-32 percent. Democrats favor the plan 57-24 percent while Republicans oppose it 19-68 percent. The Political Insider also reported that Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers is likely to oppose the plan.

In an election year that is centered around the struggle against government spending and higher taxes, it is ironic that Georgia’s Republicans find themselves advancing a huge tax and spend bill. It is even more ironic that Georgia’s Democrats are the biggest supporters of a measure advanced by Gov. Deal. The down side for Gov. Deal is that Georgia has far fewer Democrats than it did just a few years ago.

Read this article on Examiner.com:


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