Transportation was on the mind of Georgians in 2012 – mostly because we couldn’t escape the advertising, events and media coverage of the 2012 Regional Transportation Referendum vote held on July 31st, 2012. Though we’d like to never hear the term “T-SPLOST” again, it’s important to understand what happened and what’s next.
We’ve filed this post under “planning”. Transportation is planned with extremely long time horizons – the DOT in your state can probably show you a map to describe what they think they’ll need in twenty, thirty, forty and fifty years to meet population projections. Transportation affects how we layout our houses, neighborhoods, retail shops and business developments. It affects how much time we spend isolated in our cars – that time is lost driving rather than doing something productive. It affects the cost of the goods and services we purchase. Transportation has a significant impact on us every day. We can’t afford to ignore it.
Since 1985, Georgia counties have been able to use a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) to gain the approval of Georgia voters to raise funds for specific projects. The funds are raised through an additional 1% sales tax. Rather than contributing to a county’s general fund, the SPLOST money is typically kept separate and allocated to a pre-determined list of projects with its own oversight. Georgia’s SPLOST law can be found in Title 48, Chapter 8, Article 3, Part 1 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated.
Georgia’s Regional Transportation Referendum, or T-SPLOST, was structured in a similar manner. It was created by the Georgia General Assembly (our state legislature) through the Transportation Investment Act of 2010. The 1% additional sales tax for transportation would be collected for ten years OR until the projected amount of money was collected – it wouldn’t be indefinitely extended or fund other projects. The projects would also have a citizen’s oversight panel to insure proper use of the funds.
On the surface, it seemed like an elegant solution to the need for more investment in transportation infrastructure. Georgia was divided into twelve regions in which cities and counties worked together to develop their project lists. In the end, only three of the twelve regions approved the additional tax. All three are in the central part of the state and they passed the tax with just over 50% of the vote. Sixty-three percent of voters in the region containing Atlanta voted against the additional tax.
We think it’s important to understand why the measure failed in 75% of the regions and we expected a proposed solution to emerge before the next session of the Georgia General Assembly in early 2013 so we’ve been collecting articles and notes to compile and share with you. Here’s our list of the seven reasons why the T-SPLOST failed in 75% of the regions, in order of importance:
1. It’s About Jobs!
The groups lobbying for the T-SPLOST made the discussion about jobs rather than transportation. The average voter repeatedly heard the the T-SPLOST would create jobs. The point was that a better transportation system would make Georgia more competitive with other states already improving their transportation infrastructure through similar programs. The jobs created in Georgia by the T-SPLOST investments would be permanent corporate, manufacturing and other jobs + the jobs to support a growing professional population.
After federal stimulus spending on “shovel-ready projects” that turned out to be short-term landscaping and other busy-work improvements related to transportation, many Georgia voters assumed the “jobs” would be construction workers leaning on shovels as they watch huge pieces of road work equipment. The assumption that the jobs would be temporary was devastating.
2. Here’s Our List of Projects for the Region…
Traffic engineering is complex – traffic is like a circulatory system. Each region developed its own list of projects. Each project on the list needed to be studied to understand its merits and impact on other projects. There wasn’t enough time to explain them all and how they were related.
The regions held open houses encouraging people to study the lists and ask questions though it’s hard enough to get a decent voter turn-out much less get people to come to an open house and ask questions about transportation projects. The shallow understanding of the public made it easy for opponents to steer the discussion by attacking certain projects, which impeached the entire list of projects.
3. Maybe You’d Like to Study Our Studies?
It was particularly frustrating to attend the transportation open houses to learn about the projects as the vote approached and learn that the studies for some of the projects wouldn’t be completed until after the vote. That seemed ridiculous – we wouldn’t know if we’re voting for light rail, bus rapid transit or some other solution until after the vote. You can’t get the studied completed in time for the vote yet you want us to trust you to spend hundreds of millions of our tax dollars wisely?
4. There’s No Plan B – Unless You Read the Legislation.
Part of the sales pitch for the T-SPLOST was “there’s no plan B” – an effort to point out that no other solutions were on the table and Georgians needed to approve the T-SPLOST to compete with other states. Anyone who skimmed through the legislation for the T-SPLOST realized that the plan B is in the legislation. If the vote failed, the responsibility for funding and setting the priority for transportation projects came back to the state. Creating a sales pitch that makes it seem like you’ve not read the legislation made it easy for opponents to cast doubt on the motives of T-SPLOST supporters.
5. I Voted for It Before I Voted Against It.
The state legislation that created the T-SPLOST was written and passed by the members of the Georgia legislature. As the T-SPLOST ran into political resistance in the regions, some members of the state legislature began to speak against the T-SPLOST in their districts even though they had voted to create it. There was no list of projects when the legislation passed at the state level – when the local governments created the list of projects for the region, state legislators could be critical of the list to create political cover from the prevailing mood of their constituents.
6. Trust Me!
Atlanta’s most well-known alternative to raising money for transportation through a gasoline tax is the toll booths on Georgia 400. The road connects central Atlanta with the norther suburbs. It was financed by the tolls collected though the toll booths were left in place long after the costs had been paid. Though the governor promised to remove the toll booths during the T-SLPOST campaign, Georgian’s had been taught not to give politicians additional ways to raise revenue – even if they promised to end the collection once the initial projects were financed.
7. Timing is Everything.
The Regional Transportation Referendum was held in a red (conservative) state just a few months before one of the most contentious presidential elections in history. The prevailing mood, indicated by abysmal popularity ratings of the US Congress, was that our government wasn’t discharging its duties efficiently or effectively. Holding a vote to ask for additional tax dollars in a terrible economy when partisan political campaigns were in high gear really hurt the chance for any meaningful discussion about the merits of the proposed projects.
Much of the nation was watching Georgia to see if the referendum would pass. The news in the week following the vote was disastrous for Georgia. Moody’s awarded Georgia a “credit negative” for the failed T-SPLOST vote. Even The Economist provided coverage of the critical vote with “Georgia’s ambitious infrastructure plans go down in flames”, though they did include the rather clever title, “A penny saved”. Atlanta’s local paper suggested “The L-O-S-T in T-SPLOST refers to public trust“.
What Are the Alternatives?
There are two alternatives that should be getting some attention in the course of any discussion about transportation. We think the first priority is funding. The gasoline tax isn’t providing enough revenue to invest in transportation projects so states are pursuing other methods. We think most Georgians voted down the sales tax with the expectation that the government should live within its means. The reality is that legislators will consider implementing other funding mechanisms like a motorist tax (taxing miles driven) and toll roads.
The other alternative is transportation methods other than cars. Light rail is attractive yet it’s fixed: once the tracks and infrastructure is installed, it can’t be moved. Buses have quickly emerged as a possible solution because they can be rerouted whenever necessary. Buses with comfortable seating, WiFi access and their own lanes along interstate systems can be a great alternative to sitting in traffic where each car is occupied by only one person going to work.
A Way Forward
The weeks after the T-SPLOST vote included lots of comments from the pundits and most politicians took a break to get some perspective about how to proceed. Georgia, like other states, already had a successful method of building infrastructure projects through its state Department of Transportation (DOT). Not getting everything on the T-SPLOST wish list wasn’t the disaster that some made it out to be – it was more of a political disaster.
Despite claims of self-induced paralysis in Georgia’s government and the vote leaving the governor in a bind, many people realized the value in the studies and project lists generated in preparation for the vote. The Atlanta Regional Commission announced it would refine its purpose and share its goals for 2013 before the end of the year to continue the cooperation and discussion from the T-SPLOST effort.
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation stepped forward to provide leadership when it shared its own transportation plan based on what we learned from the T-SPLOST effort. The GPPF plan summary in the local newspaper got some interest though the presidential races were still in overdrive. We’re hopeful that we can revisit the GPPF’s call for openness and sharing ideas now that we’re on the other side of the presidential election and we’re approaching a new legislative session.
We should all be involved in the decisions about transportation infrastructure in our respective states. Our legislators are right – an efficient transportation system is key to attracting business to the state and keeping the state competitive with others. It’s also in our best interest not to spend so much time in our cars. Our political leaders still need to address the points we’ve raised to make it easier for citizens to be actively engaged in decision making that has such a significant impact on all of us.
Thanks for reading such a long blog post! This is about three times as long as a typical post though we think it’s important to capture and share this information so we can refer to it in the future. As we mentioned, transportation has a huge impact on architecture so we’d love to know your thoughts. Please feel free to comment on this page and share this article.
Second image by Slyvar used under creative commons license.