As time gets closer (July 31st) to the twelve regions in Georgia voting on the T-SPLOST sales tax proposal, the campaigns are heating up in the media and the public square. Most people who share my political views on other issues disagree with me on the need for the T-SPLOST. I believe that the people have a right to vote themselves this tax if they believe it is needed. What do I mean by that you might ask. First of all, although this is a state/regional issue, it is refreshing for a government to seek to use tax dollars in a fashion alluded to in the US Constitution:
“Section. 8. The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
….To establish Post Offices and post Roads; ”
A “Post” Road is what we have. How you pay for the post road varies. Most roads (specifically for this article, I am talking about freeways, Federal and state routes) are paid for out of a matching formula where some money comes from local sources and some from the federal budget. These sources are also tied to the gasoline taxes – both state and federal. This may be a simplistic explanation but it makes the point. One can see where as less gasoline is purchased the taxes collected dropped. It is also fair to note that if the gas tax is not indexed to inflation, the effect of the gas tax is also reduced. (BTW, Georgia’s share of the tax is changed along with the wholesale price per gallon on a quarterly basis I believe, unless the Governor overrides it.)
If one of these payment methods does not meed the need, and I can tell you with ease that it doesn’t, there has to be one of three things occur: (1) Needs are not met. (2) A percentage of trips need to be converted from automobile to transit, walking or cycle. (This is an article for another day maybe.) (3) Another funding source is needed to meet the need. Simple enough, right?
What’s wrong with (1)? Here are a few obvious ones – congestion/delay, potholes, decaying bridges (remember I-35 in Minneapolis); also indirectly related to this – emergency response of police/fire/EMS to incidents. Maybe a less obvious but critical is economic development. It is often not easy to pinpoint this issue from corporate double-speak in press releases, but it is understood in Atlanta, and other places with inferior transportation supply, that companies are sometimes choosing other cities to locate jobs because of the need for better freight transportation options and/or lower average commute times for their employees. Is it fair to suggest that the economic activity stimulated by new industry or corporate offices can help justify the spending on transportation?
As for option (3), Atlanta has had a toll on GA 400 for a number of years now and in fact the construction on GA 400 has been paid for. The controversy of continuing the 50 cent toll is another story in itself. Atlanta is already experimenting with congestion pricing on I-85 in Gwinnett County (the NE suburbs) and is now looking to do the same on GA 400, then I-75 and I-575 in Cobb County. Public opposition to the so-called ‘HOT’ (high-occupancy toll) lanes has been strong, but over time will probably become minimal as drivers adjust. HOT lanes however offer a local solution to a single roadway and is not considered a coordinated regional solution and/or plan.
To provide a more coordinated and regional plan, Georgia is looking on a regional basis to raise a one-cent sales tax for transportation (although the Atlanta region is the only one that you hear about and arguably the one that really matters, and the one for which the plan was intended.) This plan has been discussed in depth in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and referenced in this blog. There has been much controversy and opposition, but one thing I have not heard much if at all is how are other cities, or actually states, managing the same problem.
In my title lies the answer, Texas and Florida. Our one little toll booth pales in comparison to what can be found in Texas and Florida. Have you driven in Dallas-Ft Worth, San Antonio or Houston? How about Orlando, Tampa or Miami-St. Pete? If you have you surely had your ash tray stuffed with quarters. If you think the opposition to HOT lanes is strong, wait until Georgia begins toll roads. There is resistance to converting roads to toll (look at what happened when only one lane in each direction was converted to a HOT lane). In the long term the need is going to exceed the opposition and I predict we will see some toll roads in this state. John Oxendine (while running for Governor of Georgia) was pushing for a tunnel under Atlanta to connect GA 400 to I-675 and he was practically laughed off the stage, but some day it might not be so funny when it, or something as bold, happens.
The way I look at it, we can either tax ourselves now, and make some target solutions, that might delay toll roads for decades or for forever maybe…or we can do nothing and things will so bad the only thing we can do is turn to tolling entire roads. If we do nothing, things are going to continue to get worse, people and companies might leave and our economy will stagnate or even decline. Georgia, it’s your choice.