Georgia’s statewide transportation charade

Yesterday the AJC posted an editorial by Neal Boortz titled Our transportation record shows lack of leadership. He makes some excellent points so I hope you read the whole thing. Below are a few choice selections:

I’ve been reading the AJC’s coverage of the machinations surrounding the  multibillion dollar transportation infrastructure tax referendum scheduled  to descend upon us next summer. And so, a question: Considering the  transportation track record of the brilliant traffic planners and engineers  in the Atlanta region, do you really have the confidence to put a few  billion dollars in their hands for more projects and “improvements”?

Let’s just look at the record. First we’ll deal with that traffic monstrosity  known as the Downtown Connector. If you weren’t born here you probably don’t  know that what is now the Downtown Connector was supposed to be the route of  I-85. I-75 was supposed to come roaring in from the North along what is now  Northside Drive to cross I-85 around the airport. Someone decided we could  save some money by simply combining the two through the city. That certainly  worked out well, didn’t it?

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Pity also, if you will, the poor saps traveling down Ga. 400 toward downtown.  Your typical suburban families eager for an evening of fun at Underground  Atlanta. There our transportation wizards funnel four lanes of traffic down  to one for the transition to I-85 … and Lord help you if you cross the  gore, that white line separating the highways from the on- and off-ramps.  See you in court.

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The new tax is also supposed to fund some rail projects as well, right? Will  these projects be designed by the same geniuses who didn’t put a MARTA  station at what was then Atlanta-Fulton County Station — a station that  would now serve Turner Field — because Atlanta was afraid it would lose  parking revenue at the stadium? Can the people who made this decision be  banned from getting anywhere near even 1 cent of this new tax revenue?

Boortz is right. How can any rational person believe that the dysfunctional politicians, consultants and bureaucrats that got us into this mess will ever solve anything?

If you doubt me just consider that after months of political haggling the geniuses in charge have managed to compile a list which would spend more than 6 Billion Dollars without making any noticeable impact on Atlanta’s traffic problem. Look at the list yourself.

Notice anything strange? The state is trying to sell people on higher taxes for a plan that doesn’t even begin to cover the cost of the projects they are including!

The state list says that they will spend $172,000,000 to improve the exchange at GA 400 and I-285. But the cost of the project is projected to cost $450,000,000. The list also calls for $37,000,000 to bring MARTA to Roswell… but it projects the total cost to be more than $900,000,000. Transit advocates have been all excited about the inclusion of One Billion Dollars to expand MARTA into the I-20 and Clifton Road areas. But apparently it doesn’t bother them that the state expects it to actually cost nearly Two Billion Dollars. So even if those projects could relieve traffic the state would still need another Two Billion Dollars to get them all done.

But we are falling into a trap if we worry too much about the list anyway. It is an illusion. The project list will carry no more weight than a flyer handed out by a used car salesman.

The list to be voted on next year will not be a binding contract… on the state. When the state takes money from one promised project to cover the gap they have in another, taxpayers will have no recourse. Remember what they did with the GA 400 tolls?

So realize that the entire transportation tax charade is just one big, happy waste of time intended to get the “buy-in” of Georgia taxpayers and facilitate a new pipeline of money for the people responsible for our transportation mess in the first place. The same people that created the downtown connector and routed MARTA away from Atlanta Fulton County stadium will decide where Billions of dollars in extra tax money go and there won’t be a darn thing we will be able to do about it. Yay!

View from a Political Outsider – Georgia’s Transportation Tax

Jim Galloway’s recent Political Insider column in the Atlanta Journal discusses Georgia’s recently rejected “trauma tax” and how that rejection will impact the state’s proposed sales tax increase in 2012. I respect Mr. Galloway. His Political Insider column provides a great deal of insight into the world of Georgia politics… but being an insider has its price.

In the case of tax increases Mr. Galloway’s insider viewpoint prevent hims from seeing the issue from the perspective of the political outsider (otherwise known as a typical voter). As a political outsider perhaps I can help.

Right now there is a failure to communicate in Georgia. The communication failure stems from the fact that too many elected officials aren’t listening to the voters. Instead of listening to voters politicians spend their time listening to each other along with the bureaucrats and lobbyists that surround them. After talking amongst themselves this political class hammers out a mutually acceptable solution to whatever the perceived problem is and unveils it to the public. Of course the solution always involves confiscating millions of dollars from Georgia’s taxpayers so the taxpayers frequently reject the proposed solution once they find out about it. The whole process is a tremendous waste of time and a big part of the reason government rarely solves anything. If more elected officials juat made a point of talking to people outside of their echo chamber a great deal of time and money could be saved and some progress might actually take place. 

The recent trauma tax debacle is a perfect example of miscommunication between voters and politicians. I have lived in Georgia for 40 years and I have never once had a person tell me they wanted or needed more trauma centers in the state. But despite the fact that average people didn’t think there was a problem, some hospital lobbying group convinced Georgia’s political class that a problem did exist. Once the lobbyists convinced the politicians there was a problem they all got together and hammered out an agreement that was acceptable to them. As usual the solution called for Georgia’s taxpayers to cough up millions of dollars. So once they were satisfied with their solution the political class went to the people of Georgia. The voters weighed the option of paying millions of dollars to solve a problem they had never heard of or faced and said no. The whole process was a complete waste of time and money that could have been spent on one of the real problems facing Georgians.

 A similar process is taking place now in Georgia’s struggle to address transportation infrastructure needs. Both the voters and politicans seem to agree that Georgia needs transportation improvements in this case but the trouble is that the political class and the voters disagree on the solution.

The political class say they could fix the problem if they only had more money. What the political class doesn’t understand is that the voters don’t blame infrastructure needs on a lack of money, the voters place the blame on the political class. Taxes in Georgia are the 16th highest in all of the United States while transportation spending is 49th out 50. See the problem?

But Georgia’s political class won’t accept the fact that they have been the problem. Instead, the politicians and lobbyists  sat down together and once again hammered out an agreement acceptable to the politicans and lobbyists.  And once again their solution is to raise taxes… billions and billions of dollars in taxes. That solution must have sounded awfully good in their echo chamber because a few months ago the political class unveiled this genius idea to great fanfair and they patted themselves on the back so hard that Atlanta’s chiropractors must have made a fortune.

But the people that will pay for this enormous tax increase are not impressed, they are hurting. They face 10% unemployment while the other 90% are still unsure of the future. More than 12,000 Georgia homes were foreclosed in July. IRA accounts and home prices are going down while grocery and gasoline prices are going up. To make matters worse their federal income taxes are going up in a few weeks and they will have even less money to spend. Georgia voters are hurting and they find it offensive that political insiders have decided taxpayers need to pay billions of dollars more to fund transportation improvements. While transportation improvements might bring jobs to Georgia in a decade or so, the state’s taxpayers would have to cough up billions of dollars that could have gone to pay their mortgage or put food on the table in the meantime.

During Georgia’s recent economic boom transportation issues were a top priority for Georgia taxpayers. Voters pleaded for road improvements but the political class ignored their pleas and spent the money elsewhere. Now that the economy has tanked the roads are no longer the highest priority for voters. Money is the top priority now and the politicans find the shoe on the other foot. So as the political insiders plead for money to improve roads in the current environment I fully expect Georgia’s voters will ignore their pleas in return.

 You can read Mr. Galloway’ Political Insider column on ajc.com here: http://bit.ly/gqeLnw

(Added 12/2/10 ) P.S. I forgot to mention that Mr. Galloway conspicuously chose not to allow comments on the column cited above. It is the only recent column which doesn’t permit comments and I don’t ever remember seeing him block comments before. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

Georgia drivers as cash cows

In responding to one of my earlier posts      (https://gajim.wordpress.com/2010/02/25/marta-vs-roads-and-privately-operated-transit/  ) a commenter has pointed out that according to the Georgia Department of Transportation budget the DOT will only receive $688 million dollars from the motor fuel tax and that would only be 26% of the total DOT budget.

The commenter’s numbers were taken from this document published by the Georgia DOT: http://bit.ly/b3GBKh   I did not rely on that document for my numbers so the explanation below should clear up this understandable confusion.

The numbers used in my post came directly from the state of Georgia’s published 2010 budget numbers available online here: http://bit.ly/cIkk8c 

The state projects on page 5 of the budget that motor fuel tax revenues will be $894,250,037. The state also projects motor vehicle tax revenues of $298,968,200. These vehicle user fees combine for more than 1.2 billion dollars. It is true that the DOT only receives $688 million of the vehicle user taxes but that is because the state spends the rest elsewhere.

The Georgia DOT has a total budget of 2.6 billion dollars because they administer 1.9 billion dollars for the federal government as shown on page 2 of the GDOT document noted above. Ostensibly the federal dollars come from the money collected by the federal government every time a Georgia driver puts gas in their car and are then returned to the state.

To summarize, the state of Georgia budget document clearly shows that the state takes in 1.2 billion dollars from motor vehicle users and only spends $688 million dollars of state revenue on the entire  department of transportation. I hope this clears up any confusion.

In which we discuss MARTA and “equity”

Commenter: “I also have to re-stress the equity issue. In your response, you stated that you don’t want to “subsidize [my] choice” to take MARTA. What about the people who have to take MARTA? The poor, the elderly, those that can’t drive for whatever reason (legally blind, narcolepsy, DUIs, etc). Our nation has an obligation to provide them with a way to to get to the store, to work, to medical appointments. Yes, the road system works for most people, and I am happy that our taxes pay for roads. But it doesn’t work for everybody, and that is why public transit is needed.
Here’s an article from the American Planning Association showing how public transit, specifically MARTA, is needed to promote equity and availability of jobs, and has economic benefits because of this: http://www.nvc.vt.edu/uap/docs/TSpubs/sanchez_connectionpublictransitemployment.pdf ”

Response: So now your defense of MARTA is “equity”? What do you mean by equity? The dictionary defines equity as “the quality of being fair or impartial”.  How is MARTA fair?

You are apparently a healthy, gainfully employed person that makes the choice to take MARTA because subsidies from taxpayers like myself make it artificially cost efficient for you. According to MARTA you only pay 27% of the cost of your commute. Based on a $2.00 fare that means the actual cost of your trip would be $7.41 each way.  If the goal is “equity” then MARTA should charge people that aren’t disabled or disadvantaged the full $7.41 and use the money to provide better service free of charge to people that are less fortunate. We can agree or disagree whether that is a good idea but I don’t see how anyone could say it is less equitable.

You also claim that a report justifies “how public transit, specifically MARTA, is needed to promote equity and availability of jobs, and has economic benefits because of this”. I have thoroughly reviewed the report you identify and there is absolutely no evidence to support your claim in there. In fact the report clearly states on page 3:”Despite the lack of evidence, public transit system enhancements continue to be recommended to help solve central city unemployment problems” (emphasis mine). The report you refer to also says,”Certainly the study results do not indicate a causal relationship between increased access to public transit and increased labor participation.”

As I have stated before, governments and their dependent agencies are inefficient delivery systems. Even if the goal of MARTA were to promote equity and create jobs it is not an effective way of doing so.

In which yadda yadda yadda … MARTA

I continue to address the points raised by Paul in our discussion of MARTA:

Commenter:  “the voters themselves approved both the construction of MARTA and the 1% sales tax to maintain MARTA. Fulton and DeKalb voters chose to support MARTA, so I stand by my assertion that it is in no way a “drain” on taxpayers.”

Response:  I see no connection between the fact that voters approved the 1% sales tax in 1971 and your assertion that the tax is not a drain on today’s taxpayers. The fact that voters approved the tax makes it legal but it has no bearing on the fiscal soundness of that vote 40 years later.

Commenter: “In addition, it is not a “$350,000,000″ cost for taxpayers”

Response: You are right. MARTA will not cost taxpayers $350 million in 2010. According to MARTA’s fiscal year 2010 budget (available online) they project $476,932,780 in revenue from taxpayers. I had completely forgotten about the money coming from the federal government in addition to the sales tax. Thank you for pointing that out.

Commenter: “You quoted Beverly Scott, that she would “need a one-cent sales tax in the eight metro counties outside the Perimeter, plus 65 percent of an additional penny tax in Fulton and DeKalb just to keep MARTA running as it is.” In fact, this is the very plan that Republican Governor Perdue, as well as the Atlanta Regional Commission (sp.), support.”

Response: Governor Sonny Perdue’s plan is not being portrayed as an additional MARTA tax. The Governor says he is proposing another 1% tax on Georgia taxpayers as a solution to all of the transportation problems here in the state. Do you really expect voters in Gwinnett and Cobb Counties to approve an additional 1% sales tax on themselves to support a transportation system that doesn’t even serve them? And the extra tax won’t solve our transportation problems in Fulton and DeKalb Counties if it will barely keep MARTA “running as it is”. Now is the time for Metro Atlanta voters to find out the truth so we can vote on the tax increase intelligently.

Commenter: “We already have by far the lowest tax rates of any developed country.”

Response: Your statement is false. The United States does not have “by far the lowest tax rates of any developed country.” You can see for yourself at this link: http://www.worldwide-tax.com/index.asp#partthree If you have any evidence to support your claim please provide it.

Commenter:  “the majority of taxpayers in this two-county area are supportive of MARTA.”

Response: We will find out how supportive they are when the voters are asked to double their MARTA sales tax as part of Sonny Perdue’s transportation plan. A tax increase of 600 million dollars in metro Atlanta may not go over as well in this economy as it did in 1971.

I don’t have the energy to address the “equity” issue of MARTA tonight so I will break for now and pick up at this point later.

In which I respond to the towering genius of rude commenter Paul, part III

This post is a response to a commenter on my earlier post, Public transportation, solution or problem? You can see the original post and the comment in its entirety here: https://gajim.wordpress.com/2010/02/18/public-transportation-solution-or-problem/

Commenter: “As far as tax payer subsidies, who do you think pays for the roads you drive on? Billions and billions of dollars are spent on road infrastructure, and you’re not complaining about that. The 14th st bridge project alone cost over $100,000,000… just for the fixing of one bridge over the highway.”

Response: Thank you for raising this point. Proponents of MARTA often try to equate the cost of public transportation with the cost of building roads but let me be clear, the two things are completely different and to compare them shows a lack of objectivity.

We all pay for roads because they are a basic component required for our society to function. Every human in the United States depends on a roadway system. A woman can walk to the grocery store but the food gets there on a truck.  A man may not have a job but his unemployment check was delivered on a road. A person might take MARTA to Starbucks but there wouldn’t be any coffee without roads. Comparing roads to MARTA is like comparing water to arugula.

I agree with your assertion that road construction is often too costly but that simply illustrates the point I made earlier. Governments and their dependent agencies are inefficient delivery systems and should be tasked with the fewest responsibilities possible.

Commenter: “In addition, study after study by the CDC and Universites have shown the benefits of public transit. Atlanta has a high obesity rate and one of the highest asthma rates in the country, all of which are are tied to the automobile lifestyle. In fact, we have previously lost Federal highway funding because our air quality was so bad that it violated EPA standards.”

Response: It is easy for a person to claim validity by citing “study after study” but it is impossible to determine the veracity of the claim or the study without a specific attribution. I would like to point out that the CDC and the EPA are not independent, objective organizations. Both the CDC and EPA depend on federal funding for their livelihood and as such are political instruments.

That concludes my response to commenter Paul. I am glad that he took the time to comment because this is an important issue to the future our state. In the next few years Georgia is going to face increasingly difficult budgetary decisions and we will all have to make some tough choices. If you have anything to add to what Paul and I have written please feel free to leave a comment but play nice or it may not see the light of day.

In which I respond to the towering genius of rude commenter Paul, Part II

This post is a response to a commenter on my earlier post, Public transportation, solution or problem? You can see the original post and the comment in its entirety here: https://gajim.wordpress.com/2010/02/18/public-transportation-solution-or-problem/

Commenter: “MARTA’s hands are tied by the state.”

Response: Thank you for helping to make my point. Governments and their dependent agencies are inefficient delivery systems. It is unreasonable for a person to expect a governmental agency to provide any service as effectively as a private sector business. Public sector inefficiency is one reason our founding fathers tried to limit the federal government to a few, clearly defined responsiblities such as the building of roads which is clearly stated in Article 1 of the United States Constitution.

Commenter: “I personally do not own a car, and use MARTA to get to work.”

Response: I respect your choice to use MARTA. I just don’t like taking money from my family to subsidize your choice. I choose to own my own car and could not sell real estate without that car. Should you be required to pay an additional 1% sales tax to subsidize my car payment?

Commenter: “If MARTA did not exist, I would not be able to continue working, and would lose my job.”

Response: If MARTA doesn’t exist you would just quit going to work and get fired? You would not consider moving closer to work or taking a cab? You would stop working to support yourself (and your family if you have one)? Are you really trying to say that a resident of the greatest nation in the history of the world would be incapable of supporting themself without a taxpayer subsidized mode of transportation? That is just sad. And it is the mindset that is destroying our nation.

Comment: “Many many people depend on it, from people like me who chose not to own a car, to people who can’t afford a car, to the disabled and elderly, and those who just want to get to the airport or a sporting event without dealing with traffic.”

Response: Many people depend on MARTA precisely because a government subsidized pseudo-monopoly distorts the market. Private sector companies would gladly step in to fill Atlanta’s transportation needs but they can’t compete with an organization that receives $350,000,000 in tax subsidies every year.

Alas, beautiful sunshine and fresh air are calling me away from this computer screen so I will stop again for now. The forecast for tomorrow predicts possible rain so maybe I can finish this discussion then.

In which I respond to the towering genius of rude commenter Paul

This post is a response to a commenter on my earlier post, Public transportation, solution or problem? You can see the original post and the comment in their entirety here: https://gajim.wordpress.com/2010/02/18/public-transportation-solution-or-problem/

 

Commenter: “This is one of the most ridiculous things I have ever read.”

Response: I felt the same way about Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”. You’ll get over it.

Commenter: ” You say that MARTA is a “drain on Georgia taxpayers.” Are you aware that MARTA is the only large public transit system in North America that does not receive any state funding? This is a completely false and ignorant argument that is used over and over by those opposed to public transportation. MARTA is paid for entirely by ticket income and a 1% sales tax in Fulton and Dekalb counties”

Response:    I am aware that MARTA is funded primarily by a 1% sales tax  levied in Fulton and Dekalb counties. Are you aware that Fulton and Dekalb counties are in the state of Georgia?

Everything a resident of those counties buys costs us 1% more because of the MARTA tax. According to MARTA’s own budget projections that takes about $350,000,000 out of the pockets of Georgia taxpayers. You may believe that a 350 million dollar tax is not a drain on our state’s economy but I respectfully disagree. We have a subjective disagreement and that is okay. Calling my statement “a false and ignorant argument” simply displays your arrogance.

Commenter: “MARTA has already raised fares and reduced service, so the deficit will be reduced.”

Response:  I concede my time to the gentlewoman from MARTA, CEO Beverly Scott, “she would need a one-cent sales tax in the eight metro counties outside the Perimeter, plus 65 percent of an additional penny tax in Fulton and DeKalb just to keep MARTA running as it is”. You can read the entire article in The Beacon here: http://bit.ly/adRoQK 

Is MARTA starting to look like a “drain on Georgia taxpayers” yet?

Enough of this for now. Today is a glorious Saturday morning and I intend to enjoy it to the fullest.