With reduced traffic congestion, will voters impose a tax to add capacity to metro Atlanta’s roads, transit?

By David Pendered

Politics can be as much perception as reality, and the two appear to coincide in at least one aspect of the campaign for the transportation sales tax – traffic congestion.

The perception of traffic congestion is that has lessened on metro Atlanta roadways in the years since the Legislature first began cobbling together the referendum that is on the July 31 ballot. A report from GRTA supports the perception.

I-20 East, east of I-285

Vehicles heading into Atlanta on I-20 from Conyers approach the intersection with I-285. Credit: David Pendered

At this point in time, there’s no way to gauge the impact at the polls for voters who spend less time in traffic congestion than they did before the recession. The scant poll results that have been released do not address that question.

The latest trip time report from GRTA reinforces the perception that travel time is less than it was at the start of the decade.

The report shows the linkage between trip times and unemployment. Consequently, the report remains relevant even though the document itself is dated. GRTA released the report in April 2011, and the latest information was gathered for the year 2009 in the report by Valentin Vulov, GRTA’s principal project manager.

As a layman could guess, the length of the average trip has fallen as the unemployment rate has increased.

Morning Travel Time Index

Morning Travel Time Index. Credit: GRTA

The longest travel time index in the 2000s that’s cited in GRTA’s report was in 2006. In those relative halcyon days, the index rate was 1.36 in the afternoon rush hour and 1.34 in the morning rush hour.

GRTA defines rush hours as from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., and 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.

In November 2006, the unemployment rate in metro Atlanta was 4.2 percent, according to a report from the state Labor Department. That rate showed an improvement from the previous month, as retailers hired seasonal workers for the holiday shopping period and industries including health care and information technology added jobs to the market.

Fast forward three years.

GRTA’s report showed the travel time indices at 1.2 during the afternoon rush hour and 1.18 in the morning rush hour.

Afternoon Travel Time Index

Afternoon Travel Time Index. Credit: GRTA

Metro Atlanta’s unemployment rate was 10.4 percent in October 2009, according to the state Labor Department. At that time, the bottom seemed to be falling out of the labor market. The Labor Department’s statement about the unemployment rate in October 2009 includes this statement:

  • “In October 2008, there were 189,792 jobless workers in Atlanta, when the unemployment rate was 6.9 percent. The number of payroll jobs in metro Atlanta in October 2009 was 2,273,400, a loss of 138,300, or 5.7 percent, from 2,411,700 in October 2008.”

Metro Atlanta’s unemployment rate was 8.5 percent in April, according to preliminary numbers from the state Labor Department.

GRTA’s report shows that rate of unemployment would produce travel time indices at, or slightly below, those of 2008.

Freeway Travel Time Index

Freeway Travel Time Index. Credit: GRTA

Given the national discussion over the relative accuracy of the unemployment rate, there are questions about the accuracy of a comparison of information gathered before and after the recession.

The discussion includes the true unemployment rate, given the unknown proportion of workers who don’t fit the categories of the unemployed – which does not include people who have given up the search for work and those working part-time jobs when they wish to find full-time work.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics defines unemployment as:

  • “Persons [who] do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the prior 4 weeks, and are currently available for work.”

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.

11 replies
  1. Ready2Drive says:

    Traffic in Atlanta is horrible.  Because many residents have lived here for so long many people are used to it and just take it as something that you have to deal with every morning and evening.  However, a city as major as Atlanta should have a variety of transportation options to chose from.  The passage of the Regional Transportation Referendum will ensure that we have more mobility options that include light rail transit, the continuing service of mass transit and structural improvements to our highway system.  It is definitely time that Atlanta begins to get on par with the constant growth that we have.Report

    Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

       @Ready2Drive
       The passage of the TIA, T-SPLOST, Regional Transportation Referendum or whatever its boosters are calling it on whatever given particular day, is a poorly thought-out political disaster of a transportation plan that lazily and half-heartedly only very minimally attempts to fix Metro Atlanta’s transportation mess that is the literal equivalent of trying to fix a terminal illness with a band-aid.
       
      Metro Atlanta has well over $100 billion in transportation needs and this T-SPLOST only just maybe addresses $6 billion of those transportation needs, tops.
       
      The T-SPLOST is nothing more than a political band-aid being administered by a lazy and spectacularly incompetent State Legislature who is only parroting this band-aid as a supposed fix so that they say that they at least did the bare minimum in an effort to get everyone to shut-up and quit bothering them while they shamelessly chase lobbyist-funded high-priced money and gifts.
       
      This state would get much farther by completely exempting all Georgia drivers and vehicles from the gas tax while substantially increasing the gas tax on all out-of-state vehicles and instituting a system of distance-based user fees on each major road and transit line so that each individual piece of transportation infrastructure (road and rail line) and mode of public transportation (bus) is self-sufficient and pays for its own initial construction and continued operation and maintenance over its lifespan.
       
      The T-SPLOST is nothing more than a smoke-and-mirrors attempt to make it appear as if the powers-that-be are doing something substantial to address Metro Atlanta’s notorious transportation mobility issues, when in reality, they are doing nothing but the barest of bare minimums.Report

      Reply
  2. Terry Lawler says:

    Last democrat,
    So if the one cent sales tax raises the equivalent of 25 cents per gallon and you want to only tax out of state folks then I assume you would expect a dollar per gallon increase in the motor fuel tax for out of state visitors?  And you want to turn every major metro Atlanta road into toll roads with distance pricing?  And you feel confident you can get 91 votes in the House and 27 in the Senate and the governor to do all that? RIGHT!!  Report

    Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

       @Terry Lawler
       Well what else can we do in this political environment where it is not politically feasible and/or politically-impossible to do something as simple as raising the gas tax because all of our legislators take a pledge to virtually never raise taxes under any circumstances?
       
      This highly-flawed T-SPLOST is politically doomed as its passage is highly-unlikely without the support of tax-adverse anti-government OTP suburbanites and exurbanites.
       
      The fact is that the T-SPLOST was doomed from the start because you’re asking political, fiscal and social conservatives in a region with an exceptionally-strong anti-government and anti-tax libertarian streak to do the one thing that they absolutely abhor, which is to raise their very own taxes to fund a mode of transportation in which they completely despise in rail transit.
       
      Secondly, you are asking fervently anti-government and anti-tax OTP suburbanites and exurbanites to fund their most-hated form of transportation in rail transit which will be used by Urban Liberal Intowners that they hate and are diametrically opposed to, both politically and culturally. 
       
      I can’t believe that no one could have possibly seen the pitfalls in the approach of asking extremely tax-adverse anti-government ultraconservative OTP auto-obsessed suburbanites and exurbanites to raise their own taxes to fund Intown rail transit lines that will be ridden by hated urban liberals.
       
       Report

      Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

       @Terry Lawler
       Say what you like about my suggestion, but increasing the gas tax on out-of-towners shields the in-state motorists who vote heavily in elections from tax increases that they consider politically intolerable, especially in Republican Primaries where statewide elections are decided these days and where just the mere suggestion of a tax increase is considered blasphemy by voters who demand an emphasis on shrinking government and cutting taxes, .
       
      Increasing the gas tax only on out-of-state motorists also puts most of the burden of funding our road network on the out-of-state motorists, especially heavy truck and vacation traffic, who inflict much of the physical wear-and-tear and damage on our principal roads, especially our often peak-hour gridlocked Interstates which handle an extremely heavy amount of cross-country/through traffic.
       
      Utilizing distance pricing will also put onus of funding directly on everyone who uses a particular piece of infrastructure.  If you use it, you pay for it.  If you don’t use it, you don’t pay.  The more you use it, the more you pay.  The less you use, the less you pay.  
       
      The concept of distance-based user fees is the type of funding concept that could both gain a tremendous amount of support in a state dominated by anti-tax rhetoric and definitely conservative politics.
       
      Utilizing distance-based user fees will also give each piece of transportation infrastructure (major road and major transit line) its very own pool of transportation funding as each major road and each major transit line will be capable of funding itself and its very own unique set of needs as expressways, heavy commercial surface nodes, transit lines, etc, each have their very own set of needs in the geographical and functional niches that they each serve. Report

      Reply
  3. The Hammer says:

    Exempting Georgians and charging non-Georgians a tax on gasoline has to be one of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever heard.
     
    First, how do you determine if someone is a Georgia resident?
     
    Second, why would you expect anyone from out-of-state to buy as much gasoline as they normally would? What’s the price elasticity for gasoline bought by people from out-of-state?
     
    Stop with the nonsense.Report

    Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

       @The Hammer
       {{“Exempting Georgians and charging non-Georgians a tax on gasoline has to be one of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever heard.}}
       
      It may sound like a dumb idea, but it is one heckuva political winner in a state that these days is virtually completely dominated by tax-adverse conservative politics where expressing fervent anti-tax and anti-government rhetoric is a necessity to even be considered for office.
       
       Report

      Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

       @The Hammer
       
      {{“First, how do you determine if someone is a Georgia resident?}}
       
      Simple…When a motorist goes to fill-up their vehicle at a gas station, the fuel seller will know whether or not to levy the state fuel tax on each motorist by requiring them to enter their billing zip code if using their credit or debit card at the pump before each transaction.  If the billing zip code is in Georgia, then the state fuel tax would NOT be figured into the final retail price, if the billing zip code on the card is not in Georgia, then the state fuel tax would be figured into the final retail price.
       
      If the motorist is paying cash during a fill-up, then all that they would have to do is show their Georgia Driver’s License to be exempted from paying the state’s fuel tax on the fuel transaction.
       Report

      Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

       @The Hammer
       {{“Second, why would you expect anyone from out-of-state to buy as much gasoline as they normally would?”}}
       
      Out-of-state motorists wouldn’t be deterred from buying gas in Georgia with a substantial, though NOT prohibitive, increase in the fuel tax because, if you haven’t noticed, as the largest state in land area east of the Mississippi River, Georgia is a pretty large state that, unless one is maybe traveling the 112 miles through Georgia between South Carolina and Florida on Interstate 95 along the coast, it would be pretty hard to travel completely through the state without having to stop for gas.
       
      Also, increasing our currently second-lowest-in-the-nation 7.5 cents-per-gallon state fuel tax to a level that is on-par with surrounding states ($0.16/gallon state fuel tax in Alabama and South Carolina, $0.20/gallon state fuel tax in Tennessee), and our main economic competitors ($0.20/gallon state fuel tax in Texas, $0.29/gallon state fuel tax in Florida, $0.39/gallon state fuel tax in North Carolina) would greatly help to much more adequately fund the critically-needed transportation improvements that we are currently trailing competing states like Texas and North Carolina in making to our exceptionally-heavily used Interstate Highway network.
       
      Seeing as though Georgia’s Interstate Highway network is used even more substantially heavily than Alabama’s Interstate System and slightly more heavily than Tennessee’s Interstate System, two states with substantially higher fuel taxes than Georgia, and because Atlanta is at the nexus of two-and-a-half (three) very major and very important Interstate routes, it would behoove Georgia to, after exempting all in-state motorists from the fuel tax, to raise the fuel tax to a level that is consistent with that of another perennially fast-growing and increasingly urban Sunbelt state in neighboring North Carolina who is using their now highest-in-the-nation 39 cents-per-gallon fuel tax ($0.41/gallon diesel tax) to embark upon an ambitious program of road expansion with the active and proposed construction of multiple new Interstate through alignments (I-85 in Central North Carolina between Lexington and Greensboro, I-40 on the southside of Winston-Salem and I-40 around the westside of Durham) and new Interstate bypasses around Charlotte (I-485 Charlotte Outer Loop), Raleigh (I-540/NC 540), Greensboro (I-840/I-40/I-85/I-73 Painter Boulevard), Winston-Salem (I-274/I-74), Fayetteville (I-295) and Durham (Northern Durham Parkway) for traffic relief and, even moreso, for economic development purposes to help dramatically boost the economic prospects of multiple smaller and medium-sized cities. Report

      Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

       @The Hammer
       The highest fuel taxes in the nation don’t deter motorists from filling up their tanks while passing through North Carolina on I-77, I-40 (421 miles in NC) and especially I-95 (major link between the urban DC-Phila-NYC-Boston Northeast Corridor and the resort areas of South Carolina and Florida) and the cultural, economic and logistical backbone of the state, I-85 (233 miles in NC) is a very major link between the heavy industrial and resort areas of the Gulf Coast and the highly-populated Northeast Corridor.
       
      The demands on Georgia’s transportation system, most specifically, the demands on Metro Atlanta’s Interstate system vastly exceed the demands placed on the Interstate System almost anywhere in the entire state of North Carolina with I-75, I-85 and I-20 passing through the heart of Atlanta, which to give you the idea of just how much traffic the Interstate System in Atlanta handles, is the logistical equivalent of mega Interstate I-95 in the Northeast and mega Interstates I-5 and I-10 in Los Angeles meeting up in Downtown Atlanta.
       
      Georgia’s Interstates handle much more traffic than any surrounding state except Florida, yet our gas taxes are not even one-fifth the amount of neighboring North Carolina who does not hesitate to express that they want to take our spot as the top state for logistics and economic development in the Southeast and has already taken the spot that we once held as the top financial center in the Southeast and has carved out a niche as the top state for higher education in the Southeast.
       
      If motorists will stop to fill up in North Carolina, which has the highest fuel taxes in the entire nation, they’ll stop to fill up in Georgia, and likely will not complain about it if it means a much smoother ride through a town where the ride is not necessarily known to be all that smooth at present during rush hours.Report

      Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

       @The Hammer
       {{“Stop with the nonsense.”}}
       
      Nope, “the nonsense” will not stop as Georgia is currently in the midst of a deepening transportation-funding crisis and the what should be the most-obvious option to address that problem, increasing the fuel tax and indexing it to inflation, is not politically-viable or politically-doable in a political environment that is openly-hostile to even the mere mention of government, taxes and, especially, tax increases.
       
      If simply increasing the gas tax was politically-viable, then the state could do that and be done with it, but just the mere proposal of increasing the gas tax, or any tax, comes with a very high political cost these days in the increasingly right-leaning conservative circles that dominate the politics of this state.
       
      User fees and tolls, while not necessarily all that popular with the public, seem to be much more politically-acceptable to voters than a direct gas tax increase action by the legislature, which is severely-discouraged within the Republican Party that dominates Georgia Politics.
       
      Besides, it’s not like we will have a choice as our transportation needs don’t look to be abating anytime soon as even if the T-SPLOST fails, which seems like a very likely scenario at this point, our critically-pressing transportation needs will not go away and will still need to be funded.Report

      Reply

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