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Searching for an Answer

How should we Georgians pay for tens of billions of dollars in needed transportation projects?

This past week there was a big clash between Georgia's Tea Party-leaning Republicans and the Chamber of Commerce-leaning Republicans. I know we don't all fit into neat little boxes, as I really fall into both groups, but these two sides carry a lot of weight down at the state capitol. In fact, the tug of war between them really has much more impact and affects you more than the battles between Georgia's Democrats and Republicans.

We saw some skirmishes during the regular session of the state legislature at the first of this year, but the battle this past week between the two groups over the date for the upcoming transportation sales tax (T-SPLOST) referendums is very indicative of the major difference between the political philosophies fueling each side.

In a nutshell, the Tea Party crowd is opposed to any proposal to increase taxes, whether they be income, sales or property taxes. Though most would consider themselves conservative Republicans, the Chamber crowd realizes Georgia has certain infrastructure needs that if not quickly addressed could seriously hamper the state's economy and quality of life for decades to come.

Like me, many of the Tea Party persuasion believe in "user pays." That means we should set fees for government-provided services at a level that covers the cost of the service, instead of making other taxpayers subsidize it. If we need more money to build and repair highways and bridges, I say let the drivers cover the bills. With the gasoline tax the more you drive the more you pay. However, most Tea Partiers would staunchly oppose any increase in the fuel tax, even though Georgia's gasoline tax is among the lowest in the nation and hasn't been raised in more than four decades. Plus, improved fuel economy in today's automobiles means we're driving more miles for the fuel taxes we do pay, putting even more pressure on our roadways.

The Chamber folks and their legislative allies knew it would be political suicide for any legislator to vote for an gasoline tax increase, so they devised a plan for a one-cent sales tax to pay for desperately needed transportation projects. The beauty of the T-SPLOST plan is it requires the public to vote for it, thus taking the heat off the state legislature.

As originally written, the law established the July 2012 primary election as the date each of the state's regions would hold their T-SPLOST votes. However, throughout the past few months, after looking at which races would be on the ballot and how that would affect voter turnout, the Chamber crowd decided the T-SPLOST referendums would have a better chance of passage during the November 2012 general election when turnout, especially among Democrats and moderate Republicans, is expected to be higher due to the presidential race.

Thus when Gov. Nathan Deal issued the call for a special session of the General Assembly to address reapportionment, he also added in a directive to move the T-SPLOST election date from July to November. What normally would have been a mundane under-the-radar vote in past years, suddenly turned into high stakes political poker.

Democrats wouldn't vote for the change as a way of protesting how the new legislative and congressional maps were being redrawn. The Tea Party gang wouldn't go for the change unless state law was also changed to require that all future local SPLOST and E-SPLOST elections also be held only during November general elections from now on. They felt cities, counties and school systems have tried to play games by holding SPLOST and E-SPLOST votes during special elections where turnout would be low and could be dominated by the yes votes cast by city, county and school system employees.

While the crowd was generally sympathetic to the local governments, as they see SPLOST measures as a vital way to pay for local infrastructure needs, they appeared ready to compromise and hand the Tea Party a victory. However, the lobbyists representing the state's city and county associations, school systems and related organizations went to work and twisted enough arms in the final hours to cause a stalemate. Unless miraculously resurrected this week as the legislature wraps up the special session, the move to change the date is dead until the legislature reconvenes in January, when there may be another push.

We all know that Georgia has serious unmet transportation needs and our failure to address them is already costing us economically as businesses bypass the state for places with better transportation infrastructure and/or a commitment to fund improvements. From our early railroad days, to the establishment of Atlanta as an airport hub, to the building of our interstate system, to the expansion of our harbors at Brunswick and Savannah, transportation has been the key to Georgia's success.

Analysts say it will take tens of billions of dollars over the next 20 years to repair, modernize, and expand our highways and transportation systems to meet demand. While there still may be a little room to shuffle around priorities in state spending, there is no way those dollars can be siphoned off for transportation needs. So my question to my Tea Party brethren is, "How do you propose we pay for it?"

If you are opposed to user pays in this case, meaning opposition to an increase in the gasoline tax, and you are opposed to T-SPLOST, then how do we fund these tens of billions of dollars of needs? I deliberately said needs instead of wants because here in northwest Georgia our regional T-SPLOST list is filled with needed .

Yes, there are some public/private partnership deals that might lead to toll road solutions for a few major strategic highway expansions like that planned for the Interstate 75/I-575 corridor, but that still leaves the overwhelming majority of our transportation needs unfunded. Personally, I can't even imagine continuing to live in the metro Atlanta area in coming years if we don't take action now.

I'm searching for solutions. Who among you has an answer?

Follow me on Twitter @chuckshiflett and also check out my statewide columns at: The Backroom Report.

String Bean August 31, 2011 at 12:20 AM
After reading this I think increasing the gas tax may be the fairest way, but lord help you'd never get anyone at the state capital to vote for that. The T-SPLOST might pass if they really sell it. Some very good projects on the list.
SOGTP August 31, 2011 at 12:54 PM
TSPLOST is nothing more than a slush fund for big government socialism. Whenever politicians and bureaucrats get their hands on this much money, they grow government and graft and corruption occur.
Chuck Shiflett August 31, 2011 at 05:10 PM
Bill it's easy to attack it from that angle, government does a lot of things it should not be involved in. Other than military and highways a lot of it should be shut down. But again... how do we pay for the local road projects we need? The T-SPLOST project list will be set in stone and put out for public bid (and heaviliy scrutinized). Private contractors will be doing the work and there really won't be any additional government overhead created.
Kay August 31, 2011 at 05:32 PM
Bill, do you realize that this is not a blank check? The funds raised will pay for a list of transportation projects that has been painstakingly compiled in each region by local government representatives. You will know exactly which projects you're funding when you vote. Those funds cannot legally be used for anything else. And the discretionary money going back to each county can only legally be used for transportation. Please explain how this promotes big government socialism.
SOGTP August 31, 2011 at 11:41 PM
@Kay and Chuck. T-SPLOST is going to create a new centralized bureaucracy called the transit authority. This authority will have eminent domain authority and power of taxation. Taxation should be left to elected officials, not bureaucrats. There is no way the corruption and graft - waste - will be controlled. Look a the moronic centralized Federal government. If you want money for projects hold back the Federal fuel tax levied on the citizens of Georgia. Don't send it to Washington DC. Georgia collects nearly $1.0B in fuel taxes per year, yet when the money returns they are short changed. Georgia was shorted nearly $800M from 2002 to 2008. The rest was given to other states and wasted in the centralized federal bureaucracy. TSPLOST is socialism, centralized big government, waste and re distribution. The crime families under the Gold Dome and in Atlanta will use it to enrich themselves and reward friends. Do it at the local level. Let all fuel taxes, both state and federal, collected in each county stay in those counties. Let the people at this decentralized level make those decisions.
Just Nasty and Mean September 01, 2011 at 01:25 AM
Before I send the government more money, somebody is going to have to explain where all the money I sent to the DOT went. Did that money just disappear--and now we have to pay more taxes to save our butts from this cluster they have created? If that's true--then give me the money i sent to the DOT back!
Kay September 01, 2011 at 02:00 AM
OK, Bill. I'm going to bypass the rhetoric and deal in facts. The bill does not create a transit authority. What is does create is a Citizen Review Panel that meets three times a year to make sure the projects on the list are being delivered on schedule. The bill also calls for an independent audit of the program. You are correct that we need to devote all of our gas tax money to transportation. Part of it currently goes to the general fund. Now tell me how citizens voting for a sales tax for projects in their region is socialism. Tell me also how that is worse than a fuel tax that leaves your pocket and goes all over the state. If your concern is with your tax dollars staying closer to home, then T-SPLOST is your plan. Commerce doesn't end at the county line. We have real opportunities to be an attractive place for businesses fed up with hostile tax climates in states like California and New York. But if we don't have a transportation plan that thinks past our nose then we can't seriously expect to prosper. We have plenty of true socialism creeping into our federal government for you to rail against. Stop searching for Karl Marx behind every voting booth and pay attention to what this is really about.
Chuck Shiflett September 01, 2011 at 02:53 AM
Just Nasty & Mean, the last time Georgia's fuel tax was increased was 1971, when it was raised by a penny from 6.5 to 7.5 cents per gallon. Facts to consider... Georgia's population has doubled since 1971. Automobiles are much more fuel efficient today meaning we drive many more miles on the same gallon of gas. Road construction prices are much higher than in 1971. The bottom line is the DOT is having to maintain more highways than ever and is doing it with much lower funding per mile driven than in the past. It's actually amazing they are able to do as good of a job as they do.
Regsgridlock September 01, 2011 at 04:21 PM
One big problem with TSPLOST is rail. On national average, fares cover only 30% of annual operating costs. If fares were raised to break-even, no one would ride rail! Rail takes decades to build (usually at 50% cost overruns), requires increasing funding for all eternity, and is inflexible to changing population shifts. The problem with toll roads via public private partnerships is that these contracts usually require that no competing roads be built, creating further barriers to congestion relief. Another issue is that too many projects designated as "roads" are actually bicycle paths and sidewalks, which solve no congestion at all. The solution is 1) abandon the prohibitively expensive rail projects and wasteful pedestrian/bicycle projects, 2) focus on bus systems that are less expensive and quite flexible (dump the "guided" system - that's a waste of money), 3) expand road projects. My guess is that the TSPLOST could be reconfigured to last substantially fewer years and that there would be less opposition to approving the TSPLOST. Funding solved.
Chuck Shiflett September 01, 2011 at 05:28 PM
Regs, you are absolutely correct on rail... cannot exist without massive continuing government subsidies. Fortunately the T-SPLOST list for the NW Georgia region has no mass transit, just a small amount for the bus service that primarily serves seniors. Unlike the Metro Atlanta regional T-SPLST project list, almost all of the money for NW GA is for increasing highway capacity.

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