The TSPLOST – There are ways to get more road ‘bang’ for buck
SPECIAL PURPOSE LOCAL OPTION SALES TAX referendums for road improvements are old hat in Cobb County. In fact, Cobb voters three decades ago were the first in the state to pass such a local referendum.
Metro Atlanta voters now are facing a July 31 referendum on whether to pass a regional 1 percent TSPLOST for 10 years that, among other things, would result in a “premium” bus service in the I-75 corridor, or possibly a light rail line from the Midtown Atlanta MARTA station northward to Cumberland Mall.
The tax is projected to raise $6 billion for the region and around $1 billion for Cobb. No one doubts that a chunk of money that size could do wonders to improve local transportation. But there are ways of getting more road “bang” for Cobb’s tax dollars than the project list now on the table.
As with many SPLOST proposals, this one has awakened spirited opposition. Opponents of the tax warn the tax would not cover maintenance and operational costs of the bus and/or rail line, and that taxpayers would be on the hook for them essentially forever. They also point out that the corridor lacks the density to support a rail line, and note that even if passed, that the TSPLOST would have a negligible effect on commute times.
Meanwhile, the TSPLOST has metamorphosed from a transportation initiative into a stimulus program. Instead of congestion relief, the main reason to vote for the TSPLOST is that it would translate to more jobs and development, say the chamber of commerce types touting it.
With polls reportedly showing the TSPLOST in trouble, its increasingly desperate backers have amped up their overblown rhetoric, with Cobb Chamber CEO David Connell recently predicting that the failure to pass the TSPLOST would be “the worst thing that ever happened to Atlanta.” Really? Worse than when it was burned by Sherman? Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee was reported by another media outlet to have suggested that those who oppose the TSPLOST are racists, although he says the remark was taken out of context.
But such scare talk has hardly been in short supply from TSPLOSTers. Exhibit A is the caustic remarks at a Cumberland Community Improvement District forum July 12 by suburb-hating land-use planner Chris Leinberger of the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank. Leinberger said that metro Atlantans had “racialized” MARTA.
“The white suburban neighborhoods and places have completely ignored the economic development potential that MARTA could have been and will be in the future,” he added.
There’s no question the proposed rail line amounts to a “back-door” attempt by Cobb Chamber insiders, Lee and others to bring MARTA to Cobb. And there’s also no question that MARTA is a poorly run agency that Atlanta leaders could have fixed decades ago but instead gave a blind eye to.
TSPLOST backers could not possibly have found a less effective spokesman than Leinberger, whose tone-deaf comments boomeranged with the public and might have been the coup de gras for whatever chances the proposal still had here.
The vast majority of Cobb residents are not racists, no matter what D.C. liberals think. And people here don’t like being compared to members of the Flat Earth Society just because they don’t want to trade their car keys for a subway compartment or their spacious suburban house for a cramped urban flat.
THOSE PUSHING the TSPLOST have bungled the job despite their gargantuan $8 million war chest. They have muddled their message (is it congestion relief or a jobs program?) and even managed to fumble the project list. Cobb voters don’t know whether they’re voting for a rail line or a bus line. And even though the proposal now specifies the latter, the overwhelming suspicion is that if the TSPLOST passes they’ll be stuck paying and paying and paying for the former instead.
Better to vote down this TSPLOST and hope and pray that it also fails region-wide, than possibly come back in two years with an improved project list that can get the public’s buy-in. As it is, the bulk of the Cobb projects on the current list would likely be on a future local Cobb road SPLOST list if there were no such thing as a regional TSPLOST. Which begs another question: Why should Cobb abdicate control over its road program to the Atlanta Regional Commission or a regional roundtable in the first place? Who knows better than Cobb residents what our transportation needs are?
UNFORTUNATELY, Cobb has gotten little in the way of effective leadership on transportation issues from Lee, who for months and months declined to say what his top transportation priority for the county was, even when given multiple opportunities by this newspaper to do so. And the other commissioners (with the exception of Bob Ott, who strongly opposes the TSPLOST), have been just as absent as Lee, if not more so, when it comes to leadership.
Moreover, in a telling sign of the proposal’s lack of “legs,” many of the legislators who voted to put it on the ballot now say they will vote against it. That’s a good sign it might well be DOA come July 31.
If so, that won’t be “the worst thing that ever happened.” To the contrary. We could well wind up with a better project list next time around. And our crystal ball tells us there will be “a next time around,” and that metro Atlanta and Cobb, especially, will still be great places to live and do business even if this TSPLOST fails.
Moreover, it also tells us that metro leaders, and especially those in Cobb, will continue working to improve local transportation — even if this poorly conceived and sold TSPLOST fails.