Can the State of Georgia Save Us from Gridlock?

By David Benoit

All I want for Christmas is the Falcons in the Super Bowl! Not really. It’s not going to happen anyway, so I should stop thinking about it. But, do you know what I really want for Christmas? I would like not to sit in traffic anymore. Perhaps I could walk the city streets in a cold drizzling rain with pensive angst while listening to Chet Baker. I could pass by the restaurants of all the happy people and maybe wave “hello” to people I know. That’s what I want. And maybe Kasim Reed might make this little depressing utopia of mine a reality.

At a recent Politico Magazine event, our Democrat-in-name-only Mayor Reed spoke of a resurrection of previously failed efforts to fund public transportation in our fair City. The only problem is he may try and kick the can down the road with a shrug and an “I tried, y’all.” How would he kick this proverbial can down the road? Simple: let it go to referendum.

We Atlantans—we Georgians, for that matter—need our local and state leaders to suck it up and do what needs to be done now. Allocate the money and help us move into the future, and not wait the 10 years for the plan development process while we soak in a pool of our own tears due to broken government promises and pandering politics. Such lies have already permeated the psyche of the general public so profoundly that I hereby openly dare the State or City government to prove us wrong on our expectations of them.

So with that said, I give you two examples of states that have taken the leap and are paying for transportation to rid themselves of gridlock and provide ribbon cuttings that are damn well worth more than just a photo-op: Oregon and Virginia.

Virginia: Want to know what they did? They cut spending, audited and reformed the Virginia Department of Transportation (something we here in Georgia desperately need), authorized new bonds, used surpluses, issued new public-private partnerships for toll roads, created the Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank, and dedicated two-thirds of all undesignated surplus funds to transportation.

So, what does this mean in detail, you ask? Please see the below poetry:

  • Eliminates the 17.5 cents per gallon tax on motor fuels and replaces it with a 3.5% sales tax on gasoline and a 6% sales tax on diesel fuel

Increases the statewide sales and use tax by 0.3%

Increases transportation’s share of existing general fund sales and use tax revenues from 0.5% to 0.675%

Imposes a $64 alternative fuel vehicle fee

Partially eliminates the 2% titling tax exemption by increasing the rate from 3% to 4.15%

Dedicates future revenues from the Marketplace Fairness Act to transportation, public education and Virginia’s local governments

The final version of the legislation also imposes additional taxes and fees in planning districts meeting certain population, registered vehicles, and transit ridership criteria

In planning districts with over 1.5 million residents, 1.2 million registered vehicles, and 15 million transit riders, an additional 0.7% sales tax will be levied

In planning districts with populations between 1.5 million and 2 million residents, 1.2 million and 1.7 million registered vehicles, and 15 million and 50 million transit riders, an additional 2.1% sales tax on motor fuels will be levied

In planning districts with 2 million residents, 1.7 million registered vehicles, and 50 million transit trips, an additional 2% transient occupancy tax and a $0.15/$100 grantor’s tax will be levied

Bang! Do you like apples? Well, they got the numb-ahs! How do you like them apples? In short, these changes add up to a six-year increase of $17.2 billion dollars in transportation funding. In Atlanta terms: “That’s a lotta BeltLine.”

 Oregon. I would like to mention just three letters: VMT. The VMT is a Vehicle-Miles-Travelled fee that taxes you for the miles you drive. In adding this tax, the state of Oregon has dropped the gas tax at the pump. The way they saw it was that cars are getting great gas mileage nowadays and that was cutting into their take. Not to mention that millennials are driving 23% less than the previous American generation. When asked, “What is your most cherished product?” millennials answered, “My smart phone,” compared to all of the other generations whose most cherished product was their car.

“I asked for a car, I got a computer. How’s that for being born under a bad sign?”

Now, with the VMT system in place, Oregonians are only taxed for the miles they choose to drive. So, for a person like me, who only uses my car on weekends, this would be ideal. I only drive about 6,000 miles a year, compared to the national average of 12,000 miles (and climbing). Therefore I would be taxed much less than the average Atlantan.

There was a catch at first. When Oregon began the VMT program, the government issued a device that attached to your car’s odometer. The device wasn’t a tracking device, no more than your cell phone is; it was only a reading device. Nonetheless, the idea of something government-issued attached to personal property made people squirm. So, on the second go-round, the state accepted third-party devices manufactured by private firms as sufficient equipment for the VMT program. More people bought in.

The jury is still out on the dollars that the VMT program will bring the State of Oregon, but others are watching. Most recently, the State House of Representatives here in Georgia held a meeting on November 19th as to how to tackle our state’s dwindling transportation fund. When consultant Danielle Elkins, an expert on VMT program implementation, presented the Oregon model, she was all but heckled by the country bumpkin Representatives. Coming from an elected body that so obviously panders to a more libertarian wing, you would think the VMT concept would be music to their ears. Perhaps they need their wives to explain the obvious to them, and then they’ll get it.

The State of Georgia and the City of Atlanta need to get serious about who we are to the country and who we think we are to the rest of the “World Class Cities.” As an avid admirer of other cities who are dropping all cards on transportation, we simply can’t stand by on the sidelines and watch.

In Amsterdam, 57 percent of people use their bicycles to commute to work, compared to the one percent of Atlantans. In San Francisco, 34 percent of residents use transit to commute to work, while only 4 percent of commuting Atlantans use MARTA. These numbers are dismal, but I do have to say, it’s not our fault. It’s the State of Georgia’s.

I’m going to end this with one reason as to why. The State of Georgia Constitution was written with an amendment which states that all taxation received from gasoline sales is for roadway construction only. That’s classism right there. People of limited means are economically banished by the State of Georgia for any assistance as to a means of getting to work. Then the elected leaders from podunk wherever want to pawn it off as “not working hard enough.”

Our Mayor has a long road ahead of him in securing transportation funding for our City. I wish him the best of luck, and I will be in his corner. Or anyone’s corner, for that matter—anyone who wishes to provide the people of Atlanta with the opportunity of a better future for work, for life, and for our State’s economic survival. Because you’ve heard it before: without Atlanta, Georgia would be Mississippi.

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