Should Georgia Taxpayers Vote In Favor of the Transportation Investment Act?

Why a mix of taxes and user fees would be a more efficient way to fund transportation needs

With the transportation sales tax vote around the corner, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution posed whether the Transportation Investment Act is the best way to fund local transportation needs.

With Georgia ranked 49th in transportation spending, the question should focus not on whether the state needs to increase investment in its transportation network, but what is the best, most efficient and politically realistic way to do so.

Given this framework, there are reasons for voting for and against the Transportation Investment Act.

Metro Atlanta needs to solve its congestion issues: Residents waste a significant portion of time – and money – stuck in traffic. Transit service is inadequate; frequency and coverage are below cities of similar size.

Competitors, including Charlotte, Dallas and Houston, have comprehensive transportation strategies, while other Southern states such as North Carolina and Texas have approved local sales taxes for transportation.

Funding transportation infrastructure with a sales tax is not optimal, primarily because such a tax has no relationship to the usage of the transportation system.

It is politically easier to increase a single tax, especially a tax where tourists contribute a significant amount, but it is arguable that a mix of taxes and user fees would be a better solution.

Transit is important for metro Atlanta’s future and deserves some regional and state funding.

In the wake of the upcoming transportation sales tax vote, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s T-SPLOST blog posed whether this sales tax is the best funding option.

But increasing transit service, a laudable goal, should not come at the expense of developing and maintaining a quality highway network – the overwhelmingly preferred travel mode in the region.

Regional projects such as improving the I-285 and Ga. 400 intersection and bringing MARTA to a state of good repair are excellent, deserving projects. But several projects have purely economic development benefits; others have purely environmental benefits.

The biggest problem is the significant dollars allocated to rail projects. Fixed-rail transit is most effective in an extremely dense region, which Atlanta is not.

Compared to rail, bus capital costs are substantially lower, and buses can be easily moved if development patterns change.

Without new revenue sources, the state also may not have enough funds to maintain roads, let alone widen or build new ones. Another vote can take place in 2014 and a tax take effect in 2015, but these are two more years of underinvestment for Georgia. Meanwhile, the advantage goes to competing regions such as Charlotte, Houston and Dallas.

Around the state and in Atlanta, voters have justification for approving or rejecting the penny transportation sales tax.

These are the important questions voters must weigh as they consider the benefits and the costs.

Baruch Feigenbaum is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation.