Sales Tax Funding and Useless Rail Projects are Major T-SPLOST Negatives

Recently I was invited to an Atlanta Forward forum hosted by the Atlanta-Journal Constitution on a proposed 1% transportation sales tax appearing on Georgia residents’ ballots next Tuesday, July 31. Other participants included Chris Leinberger from Brookings and two metro Atlanta politicians, Bucky Johnson and Steve Brown. The complete video is available here. Among the highlights:

I would offer a nuanced view on (the merits of T-SPLOST). I think it depends on where you live and it depends on the specific project. So, if you’re close to the Ga. 400, I-285 project, maybe you live in Sandy Springs and you work in downtown Atlanta, you’re going to get a lot of benefit because that project is going to be good for you.

But if you’re in some other parts of the region, if you’re in Gwinnett County and you have only a [transit] planning study and you really don’t have much in the way of highway improvements [or] if you’re in Henry County and you really don’t have much in the way of regional improvements … there’s really not a lot to benefit you.

And I’m also not a fan of some of the transit projects because I don’t think they go from home to work. So I think the answer is, it depends.

Atlanta is the least dense [metro area] in the world with more than 3 million people. We also know that what really drives development is land use and land use patterns. One of the reasons why Atlanta is not dense is because we have chosen a land use pattern that is basically somewhat friendly to suburbs … .

Now from my perspective, we should be producing the transportation system that people in this region want. But … by and large, people in Atlanta have not voted for denser development.

More specifically, the T-SPLOST has several problems. Its funding mechanism of a sales tax has no relationship to transportation. A sales tax is not a true user fees such as a gas tax dedicated to highway use, vehicle miles traveled fees, or tolls.

Transit options comprise 52% of the sales tax. Atlanta is a post-World War II city. Its low density and car-oriented development pattern make providing good transit challenging. However, transit is vital in all major cities. And Atlanta’s current transit system has many holes. An extensive BRT transit system could be built using only 25-33% of the total. The project list squanders most of the transit money on three light-rail lines. Worse, two of these lines are terrible projects from every angle. William Millar, president of the American Public Transit Association (APTA) at the time noted that due to the difference between current development and build-out potential, transit may not be realistic until at least 2025. When the President of the American Public Transit Association says a transit project should not be built, that is one powerful message. The proposed light-rail line from the Arts Center station to the Cumberland area in Cobb County also has issues. There is no right-of-way to build this system and the powerful neighborhood is likely to resist eminent domain and building of the rail line through a residential area.

There are certainly many good projects on the list. The critical intersections of I-285 and SR 400, I-285 and I-85N, and I-285 and I-20W receive needed funding. The I-285/SR 400 intersection is the best project on the list. The intersection is adjacent to the Perimeter business district, the largest concentration of jobs in the southeast. During the day traffic backs up in every possible direction. Reconstructing this functionally obsolete intersection is important. Anybody who doubts the need to improve this intersection is simply divorced from reality. But these intersections will get rebuilt even if the tax fails. Seventy-five percent of the I-285/SR 400 rebuild and 50% of the I-85N/I-285 rebuild and the I-20W/I285 rebuild comes from other sources. While the T-SPLOST will speed up construction of these interchanges, they will be constructed anyway.

There are other important quality projects on the list. Enhancing GRTA’s bus service, enhancing local bus service in Clayton and Gwinnett counties, and returning MARTA to a state of good-repair are all important. And while local bus service would ideally be funded by the local counties and MARTA should be far more efficient, these projects have regional benefits.

While many of the highway projects are good, some are wasteful. There are a large number of surface road improvements in Fayette County, most of which are not needed now and may never be needed.

Voters on July 31st will choose. The choice is between voting “YES” on a problematic list that contains some good projects or voting “NO” and waiting for a better alternative. Tomorrow I will look at options if the sales tax fails.