Transportation sales tax: ARC fills void in campaigns; highlights political appointees

By David Pendered

Two recent media advisories from the Atlanta Regional Commission are of note, arriving as they do at a critical moment in the campaign for a 1 percent sales tax for transportation.

Taken cumulatively, the advisories sent last week fill the void of two purported campaigns being waged by advocates: One campaign is for public awareness of the July 31 sales tax referendum and the projects it would fund; and one is to encourage voters to support the sales tax. To date, both campaigns have been mostly silent in public.

The first ARC advisory, which pertains to air quality in metro Atlanta, also underscores the import of two recent political appointees – one by President Barrack Obama, one by Gov. Nathan Deal.

Obama appointed Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming in 2010 as regional director of eight southeastern states of the Environmental Protection Agency. Fleming, then DeKalb County’s district attorney, was a pledged Obama delegate in 2008, and now she oversees matters ranging from oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico to metro Atlanta’s air quality.

Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Jud Turner as head of the state Environmental Protection Division, effective Jan. 1. Turner served then-Gov. Sonny Perdue as executive counsel, and his (former) law partner – Heath Garrett – was hired by the state chamber to lobby for the transportation sales tax across Georgia, and was appointed by Deal to the board that oversees the state’s ethics rules for candidates, contributors, and lobbyists.

This first ARC advisory says the EPA “has determined that, for the first time, the 20-county metro Atlanta region now meets the federal standards for air quality established in 1997.”

The advisory picks up on an EPA determination announced Dec. 8 in the Federal Registry. The EPA ruling, which was previewed for public comment earlier in the fall, was based on data from 2008-2010. That data showed the region had met the air quality index set in 1997.

The Federal Registry notes that the new EPA ruling has limited impact: It does not mean that metro Atlanta has “attained” compliance with the Clean Air Act regulations of 1997. It does mean that the region no longer has to submit its plans for complying with the 1997 regulations as long as the region continues to meet those requirements.

As all this was happening, Fleming was considering a letter dated Oct. 25 from F. Allen Barnes. At the time, Barnes directed the Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

The letter states that Georgia expects all but four counties to comply with 2008 standards for air quality. The counties the state says will be “non-attainment” counties are Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Henry, according to the letter dated Oct. 25.

Barnes has been succeeded by Turner.

The second ARC advisory relates to the economic impact of the transportation sales tax. Here are several statements from the advisory:

  • 4 to 1 return on investment – The $8.5 billion investment in 157 projects will result in a $34.8 billion* increase in gross regional product in the Atlanta region by 2040.
  • 200,000 additional jobs supported – The analysis indicates that the transportation investment will create or support an additional 200,000 job years**, including jobs that are maintained year-over-year. Almost two-thirds of those jobs will be in mid-to-high paying job sectors. The construction sector was hardest hit by the recession. The referendum would lead to the creation and support of 34,000 jobs in this critical sector by 2040.
  • $9.2 billion in travel time savings – The average metro Atlanta commuter spends $924 each year sitting in traffic. Collectively, these projects would allow residents to save $9.2 billion* by 2040.
  • $18 billion increase in personal income – Due to the travel time savings and reduced fuel costs, incomes around the region will increase a collective $18 billion by 2040.

“After several months of in-depth computer modeling and analysis and with input from regional policy experts and economists, we believe that these numbers represent a conservative estimate of the positive impacts these projects would have on the region’s economy,” said Tad Leithead, ARC’s chairman. “The referendum project list is regional in nature, but has something for everyone in metro Atlanta. By making these improvements in the next 10 years, rather than 20 or 30 years from now, these projects can be built cheaper, can improve transportation more quickly and have a positive economic impact sooner.”

The advisory continues:

“As the federally-designated transportation planning agency for the Atlanta region, our job is to accurately calculate the economic benefits of targeted transportation improvements,” said Leithead. “The voters will ultimately make the decision regarding the referendum that they believe is best for the region.”

  • * These dollar amounts are stated in 2011 dollars.
  • ** The term “job years” is a comprehensive measurement of the real supported employment created by the Transportation Referendum.  Modeling results include reoccurring jobs – those jobs that last more than one year. Using job years prevents double counting and accurately reflects the true economic value of the employment represented by the job. 

About David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with nearly 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.
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