Dear state leaders: Half a penny for metro transportation just not worth the trouble

Just when you think it can’t get any worse…

For years, metro Atlanta has been seeking new funding for transportation. The last couple of years, the Atlanta region has been begging the state legislature for the right to pass a one-cent sales tax on itself to tackle its transportation problems.

But for the last two years, a proposed transportation funding bill has died in the last few hours of the session. This past session, it failed because the Senate favored a regional approach while the House favored a statewide sales tax, and the two houses couldn’t resolve their differences.

Such inaction infuriated metro Atlanta’s leaders. The business community even went so far as telling legislators that if they didn’t pass a transportation funding bill in the next session, they could not expect support for their re-election campaigns in 2010.

Now the word is out that a couple of legislators — Rep. Jerry Keen (R-St. Simons) and Sen. Tommie Williams, president pro-tem — have been drafting a “compromise” proposal.

The compromise calls for voters to approve a statewide half-penny for transportation. If that were to pass, then counties across the state could vote to approve a half-cent local option sales tax.

As currently proposed, that local option half-cent sales tax would not have to be dedicated to transportation. And since each county would be voting on that half penny individually, it means it would be nearly impossible to create regional solutions to metro Atlanta’s transportation problems.

“In my humble opinion, this hybrid proposal is the worst of all possible scenarios,” said Harry West, retired executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission. “It’s even worse than getting nothing. I know compromise is the way things happen sometimes, but this one stinks.”

Let’s explain why this “split-the-baby-in-half” approach is such a bad idea.

Chick Krautler, the current executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, said that the region has identified $106 billion worth of projects that have gone through the planning process — including transit investments and road improvements.

A full penny regional sales tax currently is estimated to generate a total of $7.9 billion in 10 years. So a sales tax for 10 years would not even generate 10 percent of the region’s needs.

“There’s no question that we need the whole penny in the region,” Krautler said. “A half penny will hardly do anything at all.”

The county-by-county sales tax approach also is flawed. Krautler has spoken to the 10 county commission chairs on this board, and they “feel strongly” that the money should be dedicated to transportation and be invested regionwide rather than in each county.

“They believe we must function as a region,” Krautler said. “We need to concentrate on projects of regional significance.”

The ARC is showing more metro unity than ever before. When MARTA was facing severe budget cuts, the commission approved spending $25 million of its federal stimulus dollars to help the transit agency cover its operations for the coming year.

Because the half-a-loaf solution being floated by state legislators is so flawed, regional leaders can be expected to show similar unity against this proposal for split transportation funding.

Krautler also said the region is working on a priority list of projects that should go forward if new transportation funding is successful.

Also, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority is working with the Georgia Department of Transportation on a statewide plan that would seek to get the most out of any new investment.

What is most needed metro Atlanta, however, is funding for alternative modes of transportation — such as transit, sidewalks and other environmentally-friendly modes. Those modes can’t be funded out of the state’s motor fuel tax because that is limited to roads and bridges.

The region also understands it’s critical to link transportation dollars with smart growth development patterns. Every study shows that will have more impact on reducing congestion than any other policy.

Unfortunately, state leaders have shown little regard for what the Atlanta region wants or needs when it comes to transportation.

There’s even a story going around that one of the state’s representatives let it be known that this was a take-it or leave-it proposal; and that if metro Atlanta didn’t accept it, then “we are going to run over you with a Mac truck, and then we are going to back up and run over you again.”

Such a story is too outrageous to believe. The great divide between metro Atlanta and the rest of the state can’t be so wide or so deep to harbor such ill feelings.

But for whatever reason, the Atlanta region can’t seem to get any respect or support from the state legislature for the right to tax itself to solve its own problems.

Isn’t that a core belief of conservatives and Republicans? Doesn’t it make sense for communities to decide how to address their own problems and then tax themselves to pay for those solutions?

Former State Sen. Kasim Reed, who is now a candidate in Atlanta’s mayoral race, said the regional SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) that failed in the past two years is still the ideal solution.

“It is the best, most efficient way to address traffic congestion in the metro region,” said Reed, explaining that half-a-penny sales tax won’t get the job done.

“This hybrid approach is continued incrementalism at a time when bold action is needed. Splitting the baby in half is wrong-minded,”Reed said. “This is a crisis and an emergency. The way to go is the Senate’s bill for a regional SPLOST. It is the bill that every thoughtful expert says is the best way to address traffic congestion in the fastest manner.”

We are several months away from the start of the next legislative session. We can only hope that our state leaders will actually listen to the desires of the Atlanta region, which includes nearly half of the state’s population and accounts for more than half of the state’s economy.

Short of that, we’re better off to wait another year until new state leaders can get elected. That will give metro Atlanta an opportunity to flex its political muscle once and for all.

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.

4 replies
  1. Doug Alexander says:

    I am torn. As a long-term advocate for more transportation funding, I am inclined to say that something is better than nothing, but this something IS too little. However before you thow out the baby with the bathwater, remember that this proposal is a starting point — the session is not for another four months. And at least they are tyring to think of SOMETHING. Let’s not draw too many lines in the sand just yet, or sand is all we will get — again.Report

    Reply
  2. Phil Jones says:

    Politics is about compromise. This would at least get us moving in the right direction. Far from where we need to be, but in the right direction . . .Report

    Reply
  3. Chris Gilmore says:

    No, compromise is this form will do nothing for the region. I agree that we are headed in the right direction, but a state-wide tax that is implimented on a county level will not solve the regional problems regardless of the tax being half-penny. We need a regional approach, period. ITs fairly obvious at this point and it is very frustrating and disheartening that the state legislature is not on board to work towards a solution that acknowledges this fact.Report

    Reply

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