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Plenty of reasons to worry about transportation tax proposal

The General Assembly’s passage of the Transportation Investment Act in 2010 began the process that culminates in a statewide July 31 referendum on whether to impose yet another optional 1 percent sales tax, this time to be levied on a regional basis.

Commonly termed TSPLOST, this proposed tax is entirely different from the local option sales taxes with which we are familiar. The differences aren’t just a matter of nomenclature, and I find a number of the law’s provisions troubling.

The special districts employed by TIA bear no relation to formulating a coherent transportation policy. Consider the district containing Athens, and a glance at the map reveals how disjointed the special district is for the purposes of transportation: Barrow and Jackson counties lie in the I-85 corridor; Newton, Morgan, and Greene counties lie in the I-20 corridor; Clarke, Oconee, Oglethorpe and Madison counties lie in the Athens metropolitan area; Barrow and Walton counties lie in the Atlanta metropolitan area; and Jasper and Elbert counties border middle Georgia and South Carolina, respectively.

Another problem with this approach is that individual counties have no ability to “opt-out” of their given special districts. The more populous counties of the districts can enact the tax simply on the basis of the votes of their larger populations, regardless of what less-populous counties may wish. It is telling to witness local governments, always eager to complain loudly about the usurpation of “home rule” by state legislators, eagerly acquiescing to this scheme on the expectation of the revenue they expect to get from it.

Speaking of which, 25 percent of the revenue generated in each of the special districts will be returned to those local governments to spend on their own projects. Such distributions will be determined by a complicated formula. Surprisingly, TIA does not specify that local governments publish lists prior to the referendum of the projects they intend to fund with the portion of the revenue allocated to them.

Additionally, TIA created a labyrinth of new bureaucracies. Assuming passage of the referendum, a Citizens Review Panel will oversee implementation of the project list. The law also created a Georgia Coordinating Committee for Rural and Human Services Transportation, a State Advisory Subcommittee for Rural and Human Services Transportation, and a Transit Governance Study Commission for the Atlanta area. An as-yet unspecified percentage of the revenue generated will be withheld by the state to fund these new agencies.

At both the special district and local government levels, depending on the particulars of each project, the Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission will contract with the Department of Transportation or the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority for “managing the execution, schedule, and delivery of the projects.” Actual construction may be undertaken by DOT, GRTA, local governments or “another public or private entity.” The potential for bureaucratic confusion and conflict are obvious.

Currently, the state picks up the tab for 90 percent of the cost of local road maintenance through the Local Maintenance and Improvement Grant Program. In the event that a special district votes the tax down, TIA stipulates that the district’s “match” will triple to 30 percent until such time as the district enacts the tax. This provision strikes me as tantamount to the extortion of local governments.

I acknowledge that more funding should be dedicated to transportation infrastructure — with traffic congestion in metropolitan Atlanta, and port facilities in Savannah, being obvious targets for such investment. My concerns, however, are not with the particular projects under consideration in the respective special districts, but rather with the nature of TIA’s specific details, only some of which I have commented on above.

• James Garland, a longtime resident of the Athens area, blogs at The Other Athens, www.theotherathens.blogspot.com

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