File Photo - Afternoon traffic flows on Interstate 85 near the Beaver Ruin Road exit.
Visit our special election section for complete coverage of the 2012 primaries, HERE.
The hottest item on the ballot this summer isn't a county commission race or even a congressional battle.
Instead, much of the political banter has centered on a transportation referendum with the potential to fund $8.5 billion in road and transit projects in the 10-county metropolitan Atlanta region.
The hotly contested referendum, which is on July 31 ballots, would add a 1 percent sales tax to goods, similar to the special purpose local option sales tax, which Gwinnett voters have embraced in the past. The tax would last 10 years. The vote is tied to a list of regional projects for all 10 counties and must be passed by a majority of the entire region.
With advanced voting beginning Monday, here is a look at the facts, as well as the pros and cons of the tax, as described by two local leaders.
The pro arguments were written by Michael Sullivan, an attorney from Lilburn, who serves on the board of directors and as treasurer of Citizens for Transportation Mobility. The con arguments were written by Debbie Dooley, a Dacula woman who is co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party, the largest tea party in Georgia and is on the board of directors as treasurer of Tea Party Patriots.
Why is this tax better than raising money another way?
FACTS: With Georgia ranked 49th in transportation spending, legislators have debated a new funding source for years.
In 2010, a compromise was struck with the Transportation Investment Act. Instead of a statewide tax, Georgia was divided into 12 districts, each of which will hold a transportation special purpose local option sales tax referendum.
According to the legislation, a regional roundtable was formed for Atlanta, with Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson serving as chairman and Gwinnett Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash as a member. The roundtable unanimously approved a list of regional projects.
PRO: Like the FairTax, this sales tax is a consumption tax, meaning that visitors, tourists and even those just passing through the region will contribute to fixing our congestion problems. Some estimates indicate that upwards of $600 million of the revenue generated in the Atlanta region will come from folks outside the region.
CON: We currently pay for a lot of our major transportation projects through the state and federal gas tax, essentially a sales tax on gas. However, the biggest problem with the Transportation Investment Act, or T-SPLOST, is the horrible selection of projects consisting of mass transit and economic development projects for city of Atlanta, neither of which relieve traffic congestion, the reason T-SPLOST was created. This bait-and-switch game of promising traffic congestion relief and then stacking the project list with nonsense projects like the Atlanta Beltline and big trains into Cobb County isn't going to receive positive support from the voters.
Will it actually improve traffic?
FACTS: According to an Atlanta Regional Commission analysis of the T-SPLOST project list, the work is expected to mean a 24 percent average decrease in future travel delays, and increase daily transit trips from 417,000 today to 580,000 in 2025.
The Ga. Highway 20 widening through Sugar Hill would decrease traffic by 27.1 percent, compared to 2010, the report said, and the widening of Five Forks Trickum Road would decrease traffic by 21.7 percent. The entire report is at atlantaregionalroundtable.com.
PRO: Absolutely. Traffic projections are that it will reduce congestion by about 24 percent in the heavy traffic corridors where projects will be built. Improving intersections like I-85/I-285 and I-85/Ga. 400 will certainly improve traffic. Making Ga. Highway 316 a limited access highway all the way from Athens to I-85 would make a dramatic improvement as well. Of course, we have more than $30 billion in identified transportation needs in the Metro Atlanta area, so this will not be a magic bullet to fix all congestion in the entire region. But if you look at the project list, our major bottlenecks are being addressed and some badly needed projects in Gwinnett will finally be funded.
CON: There are some road projects on the list that will have measurable effects on traffic like the Ga. 400 and I-85 interchange. Nevertheless, you have to ask is it worth wasting nearly $4 billion dollars of what we consider insignificant and pointless special interests projects to get $3 billion worth of effective projects. There is $95 million in the project list for a study in northern Gwinnett for a rail project that is not scheduled to begin work until 2040. Projects like this are rife with the potential for corruption by the ability to hand out money to political cronies. Imagine what we could do to improve our vital road network with the billions wasted on special interest projects. We need to force our elected officials to bring on a better, more useful list of projects in two years, according to HB 277, which will help the commute of the average man and woman in Gwinnett.
I heard it could improve the economy. How?
FACTS: The ARC's analysis of the economic impact of the tax, which said the region will receive more than $34 billion in gross regional product by 2040 for $8 billion in projects, has lead the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce to become a big player in the campaign to approve the tax.
The Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce has also endorsed the referendum, with Jann Moore, the local Chamber's vice president of public policy, saying "It's very unusual for a chamber of commerce to endorse a tax increase, but with a four-to-one return on our investment, we know how important this is."
In addition to adding jobs, the report said traffic relief would bring an estimated $9.2 billion in savings to consumers on travel costs, fuel and other congestion expenses.
PRO: We know that companies looking to expand or relocate here view our traffic problems as a negative. Traffic affects their employees' quality of life, frustrates their ability to ship goods into, out of and around the region and it makes their potential employment circle (the area from which they can reasonably expect employees to commute to work) very small. We also know that other cities are using our traffic against us to try to get those companies to locate there instead. They say that "not only is Atlanta traffic bad but they also don't have a plan to fix it." On July 31st we have an opportunity to change that and provide a critical selling point when we try to land the next NCR-type project that comes along. We also get the immediate boost of putting construction workers, engineers, surveyors, project managers and many other types of employees to work building these projects. The Atlanta Regional Commission estimates that a total of 200,000 jobs will be created or supported through construction of the 157 projects on the list.
CON: Again, the T-SPLOST was created to relieve our annoying traffic congestion, not for inventing economic development projects with no traffic benefits in the city of Atlanta and elsewhere. The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce is trying to paint a "crisis" picture, but I have to agree with Mercer University Economics Professor Roger Tutterow who said their "'crisis' is an exaggeration."
The truth is a March 2012 Arizona State University study claimed Atlanta is second only to Houston in job growth based on numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Furthermore, unemployment has improved to its lowest count since January of 2009 according to the Georgia Labor Department. On the other hand, having to pay billions and billions of dollars for future operations and maintenance costs of an expanded mass transit system that is used by less than five percent of all commuters will be an enormous drain on our regional economy.
Are there projects in Gwinnett that could help me?
FACTS: In addition to the regional projects approved for the county, each local government will receive a share of 15 percent of the tax proceeds. The expected amount given for local projects in Gwinnett includes:
Gwinnett (unincorporated) $133,550,440
Berkeley Lake $405,080
Peachtree Corners $9,086,090
Rest Haven $78,050
Sugar Hill $3,884,700
PRO: Have you ever been stuck at a red light on 316? How about sitting in traffic around the Mall of Georgia? Ever wish there were additional lanes on Ga. 20 between I-985 and Cumming? Or how about the intersection of Scenic Highway (Ga. 124) and U.S. 78? There are frankly too many Gwinnett projects to mention in this space, in addition to all the regional projects that will address bottlenecks such as the I-85/I-285 interchange, the I-285/GA 400 interchange, and others that frustrate Gwinnett commuters every day.
CON: Let's put it this way, Gwinnett County has already been building road project after road project over the years using local SPLOST funds, so why not keep our local taxes under our control and continue to build what we want to solve our problems. Use our funds for our projects, not MARTA or the Atlanta Beltline.
Why should I agree to send my tax money to Atlanta for projects there? Is my county getting its fair share?
FACTS: According to ARC stats, Gwinnett is expected to generate about $1.512 billion in the 10 years the tax would be collected. On the regional project list, $837.4 million was set aside for projects in Gwinnett. Another $178,274,520 would be given to local governments for the road projects of their choosing.
Some proponents say Gwinnett commuters will also benefit from the $450 million reconstruction of I-285/Ga. 400 and the $53 million project at I-285/I-85, just outside of the county, as well as regional transit projects.
PRO:Our traffic problems are regional and require regional solutions. However, one look at the project list and it's obvious that the projects in Gwinnett address many of the long-standing traffic issues that we have been complaining about for years. And when you add on top of that all of the regional projects that are outside of Gwinnett's borders but which affect Gwinnett commuters, such as I-85/I-285 (Spaghetti Junction which is actually in DeKalb), our commuters are definitely getting more than their fair share of the benefits from the referendum.
CON: Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank, conducted a study of the T-SPLOST called Getting Georgia Going and found that, "Gwinnett has 20 percent of the population [of metro Atlanta] but would receive only 14 percent of the funds." The study also found, "Only 425,000 residents live in the city of Atlanta [10 percent of the region's population]." But "Atlanta would receive 27 percent of all the region's funding."
The Atlanta Beltline, a project to restore in-town neighborhoods and re-develop blighted areas, will get $609 million by itself.
Why is Gwinnett paying the tab? I don't ride transit. Why should I pay a tax for it?
FACTS: The regional transportation project list includes $40 million in funding for the Gwinnett Transit system, which would be used to operate the county bus system. That means that county tax dollars currently going to the system could be freed up for other uses.
PRO:Transit is not for everyone, but every transit rider represents a car taken off our roads. More than 400,000 trips are taken on transit every day in our region, so imagine that many additional cars on our already congested highways. What if we could expand that to take even more cars off our roads? Metro Atlanta is projected to add 3 million more residents by 2030 and we need to create a balanced transportation system that provides people with options. Even if you hardly ever (a trip to the Airport or going to a game at the Georgia Dome) or maybe even never use one of those options yourself, you still benefit from the options being available for others.
CON: You shouldn't pay for MARTA. Federal grants for mass transit come from the gas tax from cars and trucks. How come transit users pay no tax for usage and receive incredibly high subsidies from the gas tax? MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott said, "We have a $6 billion investment operating at 30 percent of its design capacity. Please, it would be great if we could figure out how to make MARTA our regional MARTA." We voted MARTA down in Gwinnett, so why do we have to pay for it now?
The Wall Street Journal reported, "Since 1982 government mass-transit subsidies have totaled $750 billion (in today's dollars), yet the share of travelers using transit has fallen by nearly one-third ... Federal data indicate that in 2010 in most major cities more people walked to work or telecommuted than used public transit." We shouldn't pay for MARTA with its falling ridership.
Is it true that I could still have to pay the tax even if voters in Gwinnett say no?
FACTS: This is the yes or no special election referendum question as it will appear on the July 31 ballot:
Atlanta Regional District T-SPLOST
Provides for local transportation projects to create jobs and reduce traffic congestion with citizen oversight
Shall Gwinnett County's transportation system and the transportation network in this region and the state be improved by providing for a 1 percent special district transportation sales and use tax for the purpose of transportation projects and programs for a period of ten years.
PRO: This is a regional vote, so the votes from all 10 counties in the region will be added together. Either we pass it as a region, or it fails as a region.
CON: The sad reality is that if every registered voter in Gwinnett County voted "no" and a majority of the region voted in favor, we would be forced against our will to pay the tax anyway. The people of Gwinnett should control the destiny of our county and not the rest of the region. If you don't want to have to submit to the control of yet another layer of government bureaucracy, meaning regional government, then get to the polls and vote "no." The majority in our county should decide what happens with our tax dollars.
How can I be sure my tax money will be spent the way it was intended?
FACTS: As described in the legislation, a five-member oversight committee would be picked by the governor and lieutenant governor, tasked with an annual audit of the projects, which will be released to the public.
PRO: This is the most transparent and accountable expenditure of tax money that our region will ever see. The project list is there is for every voter to see and that list cannot be changed. The tax expires after 10 years by law and cannot be renewed without another vote by the people. Plus, there is a citizens advisory commission required by law to produce a yearly audit that reports on the progress of the projects and how the money is being spent. The legislature took great pains to develop a process that is more open and transparent than virtually any other program you will find.
CON: The same state government who appoints the authority members controlling the Ga. 400 Toll System says we should trust them now and believe that the special people they appoint will look out for us, will ensure fairness. It didn't work for the Ga. 400 tolls and I think State Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers was correct when he said on local radio, "Don't trust government."
What if we build all these projects and the tax runs out in 10 years? How will the roads and transit be maintained and who will bear the operating costs?
PRO: For the transit projects, there are 10 years of maintenance and operations funds from the date they are opened included in the referendum budget, providing an opportunity for operating costs beyond that window to begin to be factored into the revenue and budget plans for the respective agencies. This is functionally no different than the way local SPLOST transportation projects or Georgia DOT projects are built with capital funds and then the operating costs of operations and maintenance for those projects become part of the Gwinnett DOT or Georgia DOT budget. The important point is that this tax expires in 10 years and cannot be renewed without another vote by the people.
CON: Excellent questions and the state and regional leaders don't have an answer. Our Gwinnett County Chairman, Charlotte Nash, raised the issue of a second phase of the T-SPLOST sales tax at a meeting of the roundtable's executive committee. According to the Saporta Report, Nash asked, "What if the next phase is not passed?" She continued, "The bottom line question, or one of the bottom line questions, is: Where will those costs be covered if there's not a regional SPLOST for the next 10-year period?"
There is no good answer and that is the primary reason we should run to the polls to vote "no." Imagine the tax increases that will follow to cover the enormous costs to finish and operate the transit projects after the first 10-year tax period is over! This will certainly kill our local economy with more of our dollars pouring into funding transit operations and maintenance instead of purchasing goods and services from Gwinnett County businesses.
If this doesn't pass, is there a 'plan B'?
FACTS: In a 2010 study, the ARC analyzed various methods of transportation funding, from toll roads to raising gas or property taxes, to parking fees. The full report is available at: www.metroatlantatransportationreferendum.com/documents/bridging_the_gap.pdf
PRO: Theoretically, there are other alternatives. For example, you could raise the gas tax, driving up gas prices for Gwinnett commuters who already drive further than the average Metro Atlanta commuter. Estimates are that the gas tax would have to be raised by about 25 cents per gallon to generate the same amount that would be generated by this referendum. Some opponents to this plan also favor more toll roads, which has been politically unpopular with Gwinnettians when proposed in the past. Obviously many of these "other options" would meet significant criticism and opposition. However, the reality is that if this referendum fails to pass, it will be extremely unlikely that our elected officials will have the political will to take another shot at creating a new source of transportation funding anytime soon. And our competitor cities will have even more time to use our traffic against us.
CON: We have a multitude of options we can implement which are more useful and cost-effective. The next plan should do what T-SPLOST doesn't do, including creating a cost-benefit analysis on each project, project how operations and maintenance will be paid and keeping the autonomy of each county so that we control our own density.
I like Sen. Chip Rogers' idea of having separate referendums on mass transit and roads. We should not let highly expensive and woefully unproductive mass transit projects prevent us making significant improvements to our road network. Let the mass transit stand up to voter scrutiny on its own.