Transportation Funding: Georgia Style

by Thomas Donoghue

I think I’m going to break this down in a nutshell. No fancy talk. If you want an in-depth analysis of the State Legislature’s recent transportation efforts, look no further than the Peach Pundit. But for the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on one particular part of the Peach Pundit’s analysis:

gas-price-money“In order to maintain local flexibility and control, counties and cities will each have the right to place up to 3 cents/gallon by vote of a city council or county commission. If the local governments wish to place additional cents on sales of gasoline a referendum from the local voters would be required.

All proceeds raised locally under this option would be required for use on transportation projects. This would help counties and cities focus on local priorities, either on their own or by partnering with the state for major improvements, as Forsyth County recently did to expand GA 400 using a local bond referendum.”

It’s like this: Had the TSPLOST referendum passed, the one percent sales tax would have garnished an annual return of $250 million a year for the metropolitan ten-county Atlanta area. That’s a lot of money. Think of it this way: the Eastside BeltLine Trail costs about $5 million per mile. That $5 million includes the underground utilities to hook up a street car on the fly, but with no amenities for the pedestrian and/or cyclist—no street lights, benches, and the like. The Southwest BeltLine Trail will cost about $10 million a mile because it’s getting all the bells and whistles that the Eastside Trail did not receive. From bizarro world, where the TSPLOST passed, the City of Atlanta and Atlanta BeltLine Inc. could have probably built the entire BeltLine loop, streetcars and all in about five years. But we don’t live in bizarro world, we live in the real world where we got bupkis.

ATL_CouncilWith the State Legislature’s proposal, each municipality would be able to legally add three cents per gallon of gas as a way of paying for transportation. Here’s part of the catch: the city governments have to pass this tax—the state constitution says so—which leaves the State free and clear and provides the Republican majority with their no-taxation record, leaving the municipal government’s city council holding the bag while the State pawns the blame off on the city. Thanks.

The real kicker is that the three cent gas tax would only garnish roughly $1.1 million a year for the City of Atlanta. Next to a piece of an annual $250 million, the gas tax doesn’t even compare. The way I see it is, with TSPLOST we could have the BeltLine in five years, but with the gas tax we could have a mile of sidewalk every two years. There is no comparison.

Second to the three cent gas tax is another three cent gas tax that the State is allowing municipalities to pass, only this time the raise has to go to referendum. We in the metro Atlanta area know how the voters feel about a vote to raise taxes. The TSPLOST taught us that. This is a classic case of Republican’s kicking the can down the road and not doing a damn thing as they pass and sign bad economic development policies and laws.

You’re probably wondering then, “Why does the state even need to get involved if it’s the municipalities that are passing the laws?” The fact is: the entire state is beholden to the Georgia constitution: “The motor-fuel tax is the largest excise tax, contributing about 4 to 5 percent of state revenues. The Georgia constitution specifies that the state must spend whatever amount is raised by the motor-fuel tax on roads and bridges.” Simple as that. The state has to let our cities spend our money in our neighborhood—which, coincidentally, has been the southern rally cry since, I don’t know, 1776. It’s nice to know they’re finally getting around to practicing what they preach.

To remedy the metro Atlanta economy and transportation woes, $1.1 million isn’t going to cut it. In fact, $1.1 million won’t even scratch the surface. One of these days, the Republican majority has to actually govern and make the hard, correct choices for our state. But I suspect the day they do will be the last day they have a say in this State government for a long time, and they know it too.

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