Transportation tax: About mobility, or about money?

Published 8:19 am Friday, April 13, 2012

The “Untie Atlanta” commercials on radio and TV are nothing if not clever. Frustrated commuters can relate to the visual onslaught on TV of roads tangled in a giant knot and the radio announcement, accompanied by blaring horns, that says “Traffic in metro Atlanta is tied up in knots … Let’s untie the knot. Vote yes for the July 31 Regional Transportation Referendum.”

Without a doubt, inadequate transportation spending has led to congestion and reduced mobility in this state. If voters in each of the 12 regions support the referendum, a penny transportation special local option sales tax (T-SPLOST) will fund its tailored list of projects. Some of them — most notably, Savannah’s port-area improvements — are good transportation policy and long-overdue, cost-effective measures. Unfortunately, others won’t move the needle toward mobility while still others are massive boondoggles that will put this state at a disadvantage for decades to come.

The prime folly, of course, is metro Atlanta’s list. The TV commercial is at least honest in admitting the list will be “unclogging a few roads:” 52 percent of the $6.14 billion funding goes to transit in a region with 5 percent transit use. It includes a push for fixed-guideway transit instead of more flexible bus rapid transit options that could move with population demographics, plus it would commit the region to wasteful spending on questionable projects for long past the 10-year sales tax. In Denver, Colo., where voters approved a 0.4 percent sales tax for their 12-year regional transit plan in 2004, officials are back this year seeking a doubling of the tax and delaying the project completion date.

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The project lists, especially Atlanta’s, have been discussed and debated ad infinitum. But the problems run deeper, first being the voter “education” effort. The Foundation has long held that “Georgia’s transportation policy must be geared toward increasing mobility and limiting congestion, not ‘livability,’ ‘sustainability’ or other liabilities to congestion relief.”  Proponents, however, are focusing their “education” effort on “economic development,” “jobs” and “public safety,” not on promising that Georgians and freight will be able to travel from Point A to Point B as quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.

Second is the decision to use a sales tax funding mechanism. With a sales tax, unlike the motor fuel tax paid by road users and dedicated to roads and bridges, the burden is borne by all Georgians instead of allocating more of the costs to users of the various modes of transportation. It’s essentially a subsidy to users and a bad model that dilutes efforts to price roads and transportation appropriately.

Sales tax revenue also fluctuates with the economy, a painful lesson learned in Denver during the recession and one of two major reasons for its proposed new tax. And adding the special sales tax for transportation diminishes the chances of persuading jaded Georgians to vote for a consumption-based tax in order to implement personal income tax rate cuts (eventually eliminating it) that enhance Georgia’s competitiveness and hold far greater promise of “economic development” and “jobs.”

Third is T-SPLOST advocates’ insistence that there is no “Plan B.” Planners and policy-makers who maintain that the T-SPLOST is the end-all are exhibiting a serious lack of leadership. What happens if, despite the millions of dollars spent on advocacy, voters reject the tax increase? True leaders would be examining the alternatives, including:

• Is a penny tax necessary, or would a portion of a penny be more realistic and give regions more flexibility with other tax changes?

• What projects would truly improve mobility, relieve congestion and save taxpayers from a headache?

• Who should make project decisions and how should they be prioritized to avoid the horse-trading that taints the current list?

• Would a user fee, such as more tolls on roads and an inflation-tied increase in the motor fuel tax be a more consistent, reliable and responsible funding mechanism?

Focusing more on the needs of transportation users — commuters, freight or casual users — would have produced a far different mix of projects than the current list of wants. Georgians need less congestion and improved mobility. Do you want it now or do you want it right? Is this a prudent use of tax dollars over the next 10 years or relegating Georgia to gridlock again? This is what voters must answer on July 31.

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation (, 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 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.