Regionalism in Georgia still the best path for new transportation investment

By Maria Saporta

After the regional transportation sales tax lost in nine of the state’s 12 regions on July 31, it was convenient to say that regionalism can’t work in a divided Georgia.

But actually the opposite is true. Regionalism is the only logical way for Georgia to address its future development and transportation plans.

Consider this. Because of its 159 counties and hundreds of cities, Georgia has found it nearly impossible to develop coherent plans for all those communities.

But if all the authority is turned over to the state, the one-size-fits-all leaves much to be desired. And it invites envy and distrust. All too often, people in metro Atlanta believe they are subsidizing projects in other parts of the state. And people outside of metro Atlanta believe most of their money is being spent in the state’s capital.

That’s why the Transportation Investment Act was a wonderfully wise approach. The money that was collected in a region would stay in that region.

The bill also had a couple of sweeteners. City and county governments would be able to keep a portion of those dollars for their own projects. And regions that passed the tax would receive a greater share in state transportation funds.

Three regions did pass the regional transportation sales tax — the Central Savannah River Area, the Heart of Georgia Altamaha and the River Valley regions.

Because of those three regions were willing to tax themselves to invest in their future, it makes it almost impossible for state leaders to abandon the regional approach to solve our transportation issues.

Also, the bill was written so that regions that did not approve the tax could revisit the issue after two years. Not only is that the law, but it also gives the eight regions that defeated the tax an opportunity to see progress underway in those three regions that stretch from the Columbus area to the Augusta area.

Understandably, Gov. Nathan Deal was upset the day after the defeat because he had stuck his neck out to support the regional transportation sales tax. On Aug. 1, Deal said he wouldn’t try that again.

“I have heard the voice of the public and respect that opinion,” the governor said. Then he made an assumption (that hasn’t been substantiated with facts) that voters had sent a message that they don’t want any more money going to Atlanta’s MARTA system.

The tax lost in the Atlanta region for a multitude of reasons — a badly messaged and executed campaign, the fact that it occurred during the primary election rather than the general election and the anti-tax sentiments among those going to the polls.

Had the vote occurred during the Nov. 6 election, there’s a really good chance that the results in metro Atlanta would have been different.

In the 10-county Atlanta region, President Barack Obama won by a 56.4 percent (954,829) vote to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s 43.6 percent (737,081).

So, at least during the general election, the Atlanta region actually was blue — a good indicator of a voting population that would have been open to passing a regional transportation sales tax and supporting MARTA and transit.

The Georgia Association of Regional Commissions — which includes leaders in cities and counties in the 12 regions throughout the state — met for its annual convention on St. Simons last week. The energy in the room last week made it clear that regionalism in Georgia is not dead.

In fact, the Transportation Investment Act proved just the opposite. Each of the 12 regions were able to build consensus around a list of transportation projects for their individual regions — an amazing feat when considering that all the regions had to balance the desires of county commission chairs and mayors in putting together their list.

But a majority of the people voting on July 31 did not understand or appreciate the value of building a regional consensus in this era of fractured governments.

In many competing cities across the country — from Denver to Seattle — voters defeated their attempts to pass a regional transportation sales tax. But when voters were given a second chance to vote on a transportation plan (geared primarily towards transit), they supported the new tax with a solid majority.

So it comes down to this. We must embrace regionalism. We have to make new transportation infrastructure investments. We must be smart on when we hold the vote, how best to include the general public in the process and how we can do a better job explaining why it is vital to be willing to tax ourselves for the greater good.

The best place to start is with our 12 planning regions — especially the three that had the foresight to invest in their future.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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