Feds may cut transit funds, several other perils face transportation sales tax vote

By David Pendered

Challenges continue to mount for the proposed 1 percent sales tax for transportation, which is up for a vote in exactly 24 weeks.

In Congress, a new debate is starting over a transportation funding bill described by its Republican sponsors as the most sweeping reform plan since 1956. It could reduce the amount of federal money available to help pay for projects on metro Atlanta’s $6.14 billion list.

At the state Capitol, pending legislation could delay a sales tax referendum for at least two years. Even then, a sales tax vote could be called only if Georgia voters first agree to amend the state Constitution.

At the grassroots level, the campaign that’s to urge voters in metro Atlanta to approve the sales tax is still taking shape. The original campaign budget of $6 million to $8 million evidently has been revised. A spokeswoman said Monday the team is not ready to reveal its fundraising goal or how much money has been raised.

Here are highlights of a few challenges that have emerged since the Atlanta Regional Roundtable approved a project list on Oct. 13:

Federal Funding

The House Republican proposal to fund surface transportation programs for five years was approved Feb. 3 by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The full House is expected to consider the American and Energy Infrastructure Jobs Act later this month.

Sponsors describe the measure as “the largest transportation reform bill since the Interstate Highway System was created in 1956.” The bill aims to eliminate earmarks and to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund, sponsors say.

Click here to read more on the bill.

However, this proposal threatens funding for the nation’s transit systems, according to the American Public Transportation Association. A headline from an APTA press release reads: “House plan puts public transit projects in jeopardy – Nearly 50 percent of revenue currently dedicated to public transit to be diverted.”

Click here to read more from APTA.

Statewide Legislation

The funding mechanism for the transportation sales tax could not withstand a legal challenge that claimed it violates the state Constitution, Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) told WABE’s Denis O’Hayer last week:

“The Constitution does not give the General Assembly power to bind counties together, that a single multi-county vote could bind all the counties,” Setzler said on the broadcast. “The local taxing authority rests at the county level.”

Click here to listen to the report.

The regional districts the General Assembly authorized to handle the transportation projects are based on the administrative boundaries the Legislature created to provide for the state’s 12 regional commissions. These entities are intended to supplement the services provided by local governments.

Click here to read more about the commissions.

Seltzer has filed House Resolution 1350, which calls for a statewide referendum to amend the Constitution. The amendment would authorize counties to do the same thing they’ve already done, Setzler contends – only they would do so in accordance with the Constitution.

Click here to read the legislation.

Grassroots Campaign

The campaign is now staffed and preparing to raise its profile in mid March, a spokeswoman said.

The campaign structure calls for Che Watkins, formerly with the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, to oversee two separate campaigns – one for public awareness of the referendum, and one to advocate for voter approval.

A website has been created. The page is populated, but the material is somewhat dated and lean.

Click here to visit the page.

Its section on press releases contains two items, one dated Sept. 19 and the other July 7. The Twitter page has nine updates this year. The web site does not appear to provide a way to contribute to the campaign, either cash or in-kind contributions. The interactive portion of the page allows web users to submit a question by filling out a form. The list of upcoming events is blank. There is no mention of a speakers bureau that could provide someone to address a local group.

Cobb County Transit

Cobb Chairman Tim Lee led a delegation asking to reallocate money now to be spent on a transit line into the Cumberland/Galleria area. The group wants to redirect it toward building a network of reversible lanes along interstates 75 and 575.

Lee said local priorities changed after the state dropped plans to install the reversible lanes. The state announced its decision after Cobb officials agreed to a $689 million transit project to link north Cobb with MARTA’s Arts Center Station.

“The I-75/575 corridor is the single greatest priority for getting traffic moving on the Northside,” Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews said in a statement. “Had it been known at the time that the [highway project] was doomed, we would have made this corridor the top priority for Cobb County.”

Click here to read the statement from Cobb officials.

The Legislature evidently would have to agree to the change.

Transit Governance

Little concensus appears to be evolving around a proposal on transit governance. A proposal was made public on Jan. 25, but it has not gained much public momentum among lawmakers.

Several local leaders from across the region said last autumn that a governance model had to be created before folks in their hometowns would consider supporting the 1 percent sales tax.

The current proposal would have the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority oversee all transit systems. MARTA could opt in, in exchange for more control over the spending of sales tax collections. The plan was produced by Gov. Nathan Deal’s Transit Governance Task Force. Backers have said they are giving lawmakers time to mull it over before they bring it up for a big push for passage.

Click here to read the proposed legislation and committee’s full report.

The Legislature has adjourned until Wednesday, when it returns for Day 19 of its 40-day session. The Legislature’s calendar ends at March 12, which is to be Day 31. There is no indication of when lawmakers expect to close out the session and turn to their own reelection campaigns.

Atlanta Sales Tax Vote

Atlanta voters will decide March 6 whether to extend a 1 percent sales tax that pays for improvements to the city’s water and wastewater systems. The Municipal Option Sales Tax applies to most goods purchased in the city.

If the sales tax is not extended, city ratepayers could expect their water and wastewater bills to increase by 25 to 30 percent, according to the city’s educational materials.

Atlanta voters in November agreed to extend the 1 percent sales tax to pay for school construction projects. Sales taxes now collected in Atlanta include the 4 percent state tax; 2 percent to the county and school system; 1 percent MOST; and 1 percent MARTA.

The sales tax rate will be 9 percent in Atlanta, if voters approve the regional transportation sales tax, according to the state Revenue Department.

Click here to read the Revenue Department’s page on the city’s tax rate if the MOST is approved. Add 1 percent if the transportation tax is approved.

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 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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