The public transportation money pit in perspective

*Editors note:Please read the update posted below the original article*

The AJC has started a series of articles designed to give a comprehensive assessment of Georgia’s transportation situation as the state decides whether to raise taxes in the hope of solving the state’s transportation problems. The first article in the series is titled Atlanta at heart of area’s transit issues and you can read the whole thing here.

As the AJC continues their series I will examine their coverage from my own perspective and today I want to focus on the paragraph below because it illustrates beautifully how the absurd inefficiency of public transportation and the resulting cost to taxpayers is overlooked by proponents as well as those responsible for covering transportation issues.

One thing Atlanta wants to do, if the project makes the final list, is pump $861 million into 
MARTA to bring the “system into a state of good repair.” Tom Weyandt, Atlanta’s senior policy adviser for transportation, said MARTA currently has a $1.6 billion backlog on repair projects.

The current MARTA sales tax costs Dekalb and Fulton County taxpayers more than 300 Million Dollars a year but the system still has 1.6 Billion Dollars  worth of maintenance projects that they can’t afford to pay for? In these days of trillion dollar federal deficits people have become completely desensitized to astronomical numbers but let us take a moment to put 1.6 Billion Dollars in perspective. This is what 1.6 Billion Dollars looks like: $1,600,000,000.00.

According to the 2010 census there are now 420,000 people living in the city of Atlanta so that 1.6 Billion Dollars would be $3,809,524 for every person that lives in Atlanta. So after decades of collecting tens of billions of dollars in sales taxes, MARTA needs almost 4 Million Dollars from each man, woman and child in the city of Atlanta just to stay running! Since the average person in Atlanta makes about $50,000 a year, each resident would have to work 76 years just to pay for the repairs that MARTA already needs but it wouldn’t even begin to expand capacity, improve service or reduce congestion in any way.

The numbers being tossed around by public transportation advocates aren’t just numbers, they are money that has to be collected from people that are suffering double digit unemployment along with plummeting property values and skyrocketing prices for food and gas. Politicians and bureaucrats may treat numbers with nine zeros in them like play money but taxpayers are the ones that have to pay the bill so we need to keep this money pit in perspective.


Update 5/23/2011 7:30 p.m.

As some of you may have noticed my math on the post above was off by almost a trillion dollars and the result was a post which exaggerated the projected per capita cost to Atlanta residents a thousand-fold. Oops! It was a silly mistake which occuured because my calculator wouldn’t function in the billions and in my haste I incorrectly adjusted the numbers twice. I’d like to thank Michael Hadden for pointing out my error.

I do find it ironic that while trying to show how difficult it is to put transportation spending in perspective I actually ended up proving the point by illustrating how easily an error of 1000 percent could go unnoticed. I apologize for my carelessness and will immediately refund each of my readers a prorated share of their subscription fee. 😉

Update on the transportation tax increase

Today’s AJC includes an update on the wish list being compiled to sell voters on the sales tax increase proposed by the state of Georgia. The additional sales tax is expected to cost Atlanta metro area residents 8 Billion Dollars over ten years and the referendum will include examples of the projects that the money could be spent on.

So far municipalities around Atlanta have submitted over 29 Billion Dollars worth of projects that they want to include so there is going to be a lot of horse trading over the next few months as politicians are forced to give up on 21 Billion Dollars worth of projects. This should be fun to watch.

Below is the paragraph about North Fulton:

Notable no-show

All those north metro drivers who motor down to MARTA’s North Springs Station have spurred talk of extending the train line further up Ga. 400. But no one requested such a project for the referendum, according to the ARC. (At least not yet, as the state DOT has yet to weigh in.)

Since the President and CEO of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, Brandon Beach, is also the North Fulton representative on the Georgia Department of Transportation Board it will be interesting to see what is included after the DOT “weighs in”. You can read the whole thing here.

Alpharetta City Council’s Wish List for a Tax Increase

Tonight the Alpharetta City Council is slated to vote on the list of projects to include on the transportation tax referendum next year. Proponents hope that a list of possible projects will entice voters into voting for higher taxes on themselves. You can see the list of projects on the city website here.

I also suggest you read this article about the transportation tax issue in today’s Atlanta Journal Constitution. The AJC article doesn’t do a very good job of summarizing the list being presented to Alpharetta City Council tonight but it does give a valuable overview of the process. Below are a few random thoughts on the transportation tax proposal:

1. I don’t trust the state of Georgia to live up to their end of the bargain. After the DOT and State Roadway and Toll Authority arbitrarily extended the GA 400 tolls I came up with a phrase to express my thoughts on the matter: “Once you vote to give the government your money they will do with it what they damn well please.”

2. Supporters of the tax increase include most of Georgia’s business and political establishment who try to portray the issue as just another penny for a great cause. It is important that taxpayers realize all those pennies add up to 8 Billion Dollars. That works out to about $3,300 the average family of four in Georgia will no longer have to buy gas, food or anything else they need.

3. Supporters of the plan point out that the tax is only authorized for ten years. Let’s be realistic, there isn’t a chance in hell that the tax will ever go away. If you doubt me look at what Cobb County did to push through the SPLOST tax extension.

4. The business and political establishment in metro Atlanta are determined to expand inefficient and expensive train service. One way they hope to achieve this goal is by rebranding MARTA as a shiny new regional transportation authority run by GRTA. Somehow they think that will make it more palatable to suburban taxpayers. This recent front page article in the Alpharetta Revue illustrates what I mean. While the article uses the transit authority in Chicago as an example it failed to also mention that census numbers show people are fleeing the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois is on the verge of bankruptcy and the Chicago Regional Transit Authority will cost taxpayers about 1.4 Billion Dollars this year.

5. Land development companies and speculators will reap billions of dollars in profits while shouldering none of the burden for the transportation improvements which increase their property values. That is why local Chambers of Commerce and Community Improvement Districts will invest millions of dollars to promote the new tax on consumers.

6. There is still no relief in the proposal for taxpayers in Fulton and Dekalb Counties who already pay a one cent transportation tax for MARTA that costs us about $350,000,000 a year. Last year North Fulton mayors threatened to withhold support for the proposed tax increase if it continued to unfairly punish their constituents but the resulting political backlash left them noticeably silent since then.

There is no doubt that the state of Georgia has neglected our road infrastructure as tax revenues boomed over the past few decades. I just think it is a horrible idea to make up for that mistake by raising taxes now that people are struggling with high unemployment, rampant inflation and declining property values. The state’s political and business community disagree.

It will be interesting to see what the people of Georgia decide when the issue reaches the ballot box.

How much does Georgia spend on Transportation?

The state of Georgia expected to take in over 14 Billion Dollars of income taxes and general sales taxes for 2010. How much of that general revenue do you think they spent on roads?

Ten percent? Not even close. Five percent? Dream on. One percent? Nope. Try less than 1/10 of one percent. Yes you read that right. Out of 14 Billion Dollars in sales taxes and income taxes the state of Georgia spent a measly 15 million on the entire Department of Transportation.

That means less than 1/10 of one percent of those general taxes went toward maintaining and improving the lifeblood of our state. For perspective, the state spent more than 2 Billion Dollars on community health departments but .0075 of that for the roads that allow Georgians to get to the hospital and drugstore. The state did spend other money on the Department of Transportation in 2010. Fuel taxes or other money from the federal government made up 99.24% of the state DOT’s budget.

In 2012 the state of Georgia will ask voters to raise taxes on themselves because infrastructure needs are so dire the situation demands it. I submit to you that a lack of money isn’t the problem and raising taxes shouldn’t be the solution. If Georgia spent more than 1/10 of one percent of the 14 Billion they already collect on infrastructure there wouldn’t be a problem in the first place.

(Update 3/5/2011)

Regular reader Lee from asked for clarification on this post so I am adding the following explanation to hopefully clear up any confusion.

As I mentioned in the article more than 99% of the state DOT budget of approximately 2 billion dollars is funded by fuel taxes and federal money. Georgia drivers pay about 800 million dollars in fuel taxes for the DOT and the feds kick in the other 1.2 billion.

Based on that it appears a person who doesn’t drive a car in Georgia pays less than the cost of a round trip ticket on MARTA for the state’s entire Department of Transportation. Since the DOT is responsible for making sure groceries can reach stores, ambulances can reach homes and buses can reach schools that seems like a heckuva bargain.

The point being that instead of proposing another huge tax increase for transportation projects the state of Georgia should reevaluate the way they spend the 15 Billion already being collected.

Different party same plan

Yesterday I pointed out that President Obama’s Secretary of Education was on capital hill asking for a 68% increase in spending despite our presently catastrophic federal deficits. You can see that article here.

Today it is President Obama’s Secretary of Transportation on capital hill asking for ridiculous sums of money that the American people don’t have. According to this report in The Hill, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is asking for a 62% increase in spending and wants congress to raise taxes by 435 Billion Dollars so that he can implement a transportation infrastructure bill. Fortunately Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama is unsympathetic to the administration’s plan.

But if mean old Republicans won’t agree to higher taxes how will the federal government ever afford to turn hamlets like Alpharetta into livable centers? What will happen to sustainability and trains if the feds don’t have billions to pump into organizations like the Atlanta Regional Commission? Will people be forced to drive cars and live in those terrible neighborhoods with cul de sacs? The horror!

Of course an attempt to raise taxes during a miserable economy is something one might expect from Washington liberals. Too bad it’s the same thing being proposed by Georgia Republicans.