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Roundtable remember: there are few options to fund transit

By Maria Saporta

The next six weeks are the make or break time for the regional transportation sales tax.

On Aug. 15, the executive committee of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable will release its draft list of transportation projects to be included as part of the 2012 referendum.

For transit advocates, the critical issue will be whether a large portion of those projects will be for non-road and bridges transportation options. In short, they will be looking to see if the project list will include significant funding for transit, bicycle paths and sidewalks.

Much of the focus of the Roundtable has been on how much the sales tax is expected to generate in 10 years, and how much they have to divvy among projects. In 2011 dollars, the tax is estimated to collect $7.2 billion. Fifteen percent of the revenue collected will go to local governments for their projects.

That means the Roundtable will be deciding how to spend $6.14 billion, and it is now trying to figure out which projects it should include.

On Thursday, the Roundtable will meet for a “Transit Decision Making Workshop.” The workshop will review all the transit projects on the “unconstrained list” that was released on June 1. That unconstrained list had a total of $22.9 billion in projects.

The unconstrained list had 66 transit projects that would cost a total of $14 billion. It also included $8.6 billion for roads, $27 million for aviation and $204 million for bicycle and pedestrian projects.

The Thursday meeting also will include a panel discussion among several national leaders that have had experience in passing transit referendums.

Mike Allegra, generation manager of the Utah Transit Authority; Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce; Mark Sharpe, county commissioner of Hillsborough County in Florida; Phillip Washington, general manager of the Denver Regional Transportation District; and Jim Shroeder, vice president of the HDR Engineering Co. of Houston.

Much conversation of Roundtable observers has focused on whether transit should comprise 50 percent or more of the available dollars of the sales tax revenues.

But Ray Christman, executive director of the Livable Communities Coalition, said that there is another way to look at how to spend those dollars.

Say $4 billion of the $6.1 billion were to go to transit projects — roughly 60 percent. But Christman said the Roundtable should take into account all the other transportation investments that are expected to be made in the next decade.

There would be the $1.1 billion of the sales tax that would go to local governments, and that would likely be spent on road projects.

Then there’s the Transportation Improvement Program (the TIP), which is funded primarily by the motor fuel tax — estimated to be up to $9 billion. The gas tax is restricted to the just roads and bridges.

All those transportation investments would total $16 billion.

“If transit projects on the project list total $4 billion, that would only be 25 percent of transportation that we would be investing in transit in the region,” Christman said.

By looking at the complete transportation funding picture, it certainly does change the equation when we think about developing a balanced transportation vision for our region.

In fact, even if all $6 billion of the tax were to go toward transit projects, that still would represent well under half of all our projected transportation investments.

As the Roundtable does its deliberations, it should take into account what projects would have alternative sources of funding.

“There are alternative sources available to fund roads and bridges,” Christman said. ”There is no alternative source for transit investments.”

Maria Saporta

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.



  1. Maria, As much as we would like to see more tax dollars invested in transit, you have to keep in mind that we are talking about a region where, despite the deniable traffic issues, the thought of increased transit investment isn’t necessarily appealing to the populace on a very wide scale.

    If executed fairly, Fulton and DeKalb are the only two counties in the region where there is a consensus about the need and the want for increased transit investment.

    In Cobb and Gwinnett, the idea of increasing transit investment looks to get the support of about an average of around 50 percent of the voting population in those counties, in some cases more, in some cases less, depending on the question that is being asked and how it is being asked of the voters with increasingly very strong and vocal opposition from the ultraconservative Tea Party-aligned contingent of the population who opposes any new tax or funding of transit initiatives on the grounds that government should not be involved in funding anything more than just the bare minimum of basic services, if that, and, of course, a very pervasive fear of how the introduction of increased transit options may change their communties, which is a very common concern in the five outlying counties, especially Cherokee and Fayette Counties.

    Even if voters in some of the outlying seven counties were to theoretically be presented with a list that was either overwhelmingly predominantly roads or all roads, the anti-tax and anti-government sentiments are so strong in places like Cobb (which is on the verge of a tax revolt in some quarters of the voting populace because of a proposal by the county commission to raise property taxes and past abuses of SPLOST funds), Gwinnett (which is reeling from the recent fallout of many years of corruption and misallocation of taxpayer dollars to fund shady land deals), Fayette and Cherokee (two counties where there is an increasingly strong vocal opposition to the proposal of local taxpayers funding transit projects in other counties and to local taxpayers funding something that many voters in those areas think may harm the semi-rural exurban nature of their communities) that those voters would very well vote down being taxed extra to fund a much more politically-palatable list that was all local road projects.

    The opposition that the 2012 transportation tax faces is very strong and very real, not to mention the proposal for residents of Fulton and DeKalb Counties to have to pay an additional one-cent tax that may go to funding suburban road projects on top of the one-cent tax that they pay to fund MARTA and the fact that the 10-year horizon of the tax isn’t long enough to fund the full construction and operation of possible new rail transit infrastructure.

    Not to mention the fact that the vote is being held in July 2012 during a Republican primary where the anti-tax, anti-government Tea Party contingent of the voting populace is certain to turnout in overwhelmingly strong numbers to giddily vote down anything or anyone that is even remotely for the expansion of taxation to increase the size or influence of government in anyway.

    Given all of the proposal’s obvious fatal flaws, the real or imagined intense concerns and the political and economic environment that the lead-up to the vote on this tax is being conducted in, you know, I know and we all know that, at this point, the 2012 transportation tax referendum doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of passing, nor should it pass with the way that the proposal totally disregards the legitimate concerns of the voters who are being asked to approve it and the current overall increasingly toxic political climate.Report

  2. Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?…. says:
    July 4, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    “Maria, As much as we would like to see more tax dollars invested in transit, you have to keep in mind that we are talking about a region where, despite the deniable traffic issues, the thought of increased transit investment isn’t necessarily appealing to the populace on a very wide scale.”

    Sorry, I meant to type “despite the UNDENIABLE traffic issues”.Report

  3. A regional sales of tax of at least one penny theoretically would be a great way to fund transit improvement and expansion in the Atlanta Region, but given the fragmented nature of govenance, a toxic political environment, and a somewhat angry population of voters that is somewhat justifiably increasingly hostile to any proposed increase in taxes or expansion of government, the time has come for us to seriously consider other creative alternative ways of funding transit improvement and expansion in the Atlanta Region besides just proposed new sales taxes.

    The time has definitely come to think outside of the box when it comes to funding transit options and in this current toxic political climate, we have the opportunity to lead the way in coming up with those new and creative alternative ways.

    Alternative ways of funding transit include mandatory fees on traffic tickets and citations, mandatory fees on DUI citations and fines (make the people who cause the accidents who cause the massive traffic delays pay for transit alternatives to single-occupant vehicle-dominated commutes), mandatory fees on parking tickets and citations, using bonds to fund the expansion of transit lines that would be paid back with user fees on daily, monthly and yearly passes sold with an increase in ridership on a more comprehensive and dependable system and increased fares and user fees (it costs $3.00 to board a train or bus in Toronto and as much as $5.00 one-way to board a local train or bus in D.C, not to mention that it costs as much as $7.50 one-way to ride commuter trains in places like Chicago and it costs as much as $25.00! That’s right, it costs as much as $25.00 to ride the commuter trains in and out of New York City depending on how far you are riding in and out of the city).

    One of my favorite ways in funding mass transit is through the use of “optional taxes” in the form of solicited donations on state tax returns and at the cash register where a sales tax would normally be levied. Given the strong opposition to new and increased taxes in this Tea Party-dominated environment where there is a somewhat justified fear about the unfettered expansion of government and its powers, instead of asking voters in a ten-county region to approve a new sales tax at the polls, we could ask taxpayers when they file their Georgia state tax taxes, if they would like to make a minimal donation of AT LEAST a dollar, or more if they so choose, to help fund the expansion of transit infrastructure and operations in the Atlanta Region and the rest of the state so that the 50% or so those voters who are strongly and philosophically opposed to paying for transit would not have to if they did not want to.

    We could also ask merchants who would have to option if they so choose in a program that would be optional for retailers, to ask consumers if they would like to donate AT LEAST a penny to help fund the expansion of transportation operations in the Atlanta Region and throughout the state of Georgia everytime that they make a purchase at the cash register since this issue, like education and water, have such a critical impact on the quality-of-life of our region.

    The optional tax/donation program might actually best be operated at both the state and county levels in license branches and county tag offices where drivers could be asked if they would like to donate varying amounts by their own choice, unlike the state’s ill-fated and misguided attempts to fund a needed statewide network of trauma care centers by charging drivers an extra $10 on top of their tag fees, which was shot down by voters at the polls last November, and by levying an extra $200 fine on top of the fine to local municipalities on all speeding tickets for violations over 85 m.p.h., an intiative which was seen as a blatant overreach by state government.

    Making taxes optional can, but not necessarily, help taxpayers and voters to rebuild some form of confidence in what they justifiably perceive to be somewhat shady and corrupt local and state governments who often allocate or misallocate the funds from these SPLOST referendums for misuse in their own personally-favored pet projects rather than uses that they were originally stated to be for.

    Making taxes optional in the form of varying donations for critical needs like tranportation, etc, is also a way to get around increasingly fierce and continuing staunch opposition by libertarian anti-tax and anti-government groups by empowering voters and taxpayers with the feeling that they’re not being forced to pay taxes that they don’t want to pay to fund something that they don’t want. Giving voters and taxpayers the option and free will to fund something through optional taxes, donations and user fees might even help to get more money than anticipated because people who strongly support an this issue might be inclined to give more than might be collected through a one-cent sales tax as it’s better to get varying amounts from the 50% of those who support it as opposed to getting nothing because of the 50% or so of those who vehemently oppose its collection as a mandatory tax.

    I haven’t even mentioned the importance and potential use of fundraising drives, PBS-style, to fund increasing mass transit and transportation options. By no means are any of these suggestions perfect, but if we can get obtain so much more by thinking outside-of-the-box with all of these different revenue streams, why are we shackling ourselves to attempting fund transit with a way that is likely at this point to draw the most fierce and possibly overwhelming opposition?

    At this point, attempting to fund mass transit with new and increased taxes while expecting massive subsidies from a state govenment that is never, ever, ever going to give them is a total and complete dead-end and is an absolute waste of time as there is no way on God’s green earth that conservative state lawmakers are going to stand in front of an increasingly angry anti-government, tax-averse citizenry and ask, much less mention, the idea of increasing their taxes to fund something that is still widely believed by a very significant swath of a constituency of voters dominated by conservatives to only to be of benefit to Intown Atlanta liberals.

    We have got to get over this widely-held pervasive and wrong-headed assumption that sales taxes and extensive government subsidies are the ONLY way to fund the expansion and operation of transit systems because that is just not true and extensive government subsidies for mass transit are not forthcoming anytime soon, if ever, from the State of Georgia. It is a futile and pointless waste-of-time to sit around and expect the State of Georgia to fund mass transit and complain about how they should when everything in their actions, past and present says that they have no interest or intent in ever doing so.Report


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