TSPLOST story time
It’s been a little while since we’ve discussed the TSPLOST and I think it’s time we take a look at the train wreck that’s coming towards us.
In case you forgot, or don’t spend as much time thinking about project lists and transit funding as I do, let’s rehash where we are so we’re all up to speed. Last year the Georgia state legislature passed House Bill 277 to give regions the option to pass a one cent sales tax for transportation purposes. This is referred to as a TSPLOST, a transportation special purpose local opportunity sales tax. The TSPLOST would go to a vote during the primary of 2012, which could be in August due to the redrawing of jurisdictions after the census.
Got it? Because we’ve only just begun.
The bill divides the state into regions which would vote on the tax. The Atlanta region is basically the ten core metro counties of Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Dekalb, Douglas, Gwinnett, Fayette, Fulton, Henry, and Rockdale. These regions are to then create a project list that the tax would fund and this list is essentially what voters will vote on. If the region creates a list that voters want, they will vote to tax themselves an additional penny for ten years to build that list.
The regional roundtable is comprised of a county commissioner and a mayor from each of those ten counties plus the mayor of Atlanta. The regional roundtable then voted an executive committee that will then create the project list for the roundtable to approve.
The list can be composed of anything transportation related, from the Beltline to light rail to commuter rail to roads, bridges, and the infamous tunnel under Atlanta. It’s all up to the regional roundtable. Jurisdictions within the region are to submit their project lists by
March 30th to be added to the pot for consideration. After that an unconstrained list will be created, the if-we-had-all-the-money-in-the-world list. That list is to be culled into the actual list to be submitted to voters in October of this year.
Sounds easy enough, right?
This process is plagued with problems.
When the regional roundtable met to elect it’s executive committee, the committee that would essentially decide the project list, the only true core metro representation it included was the mayor of Decatur. It went so far as to exclude Mayor Reed, of the city of Atlanta, who proceeded to tell the roundtable that it had essentially killed the bill. And he was right, the TSPLOST will not pass without the support of the residents Fulton, Dekalb, and the city of Atlanta who would be then paying two cents of sales tax for transportation. Why should they tax themselves more seeing as they’re the only folks currently paying into MARTA? And without being represented on the committee, who would guarantee they received their due consideration? One of the executive committee members resigned in order to give Mayor Reed a place on the board, but it doesn’t speak well for the process that we’ve already started off plagued with controversy.
Speaking of MARTA, HB 277 excludes MARTA from receiving any funds for salaries. That simply adds a bit more to the concept of why should the urban residents that vote to tax themselves for something that may not help them?
In other major flaws, the TSPLOST sunsets in ten years, which is about ten years shy of be twenty year minimum for projects to qualify for federal funds. Now the FTA has stated, to ARC I imagine, that this doesn’t necessarily knock the region out of receiving funds, but we would need to show an intention to fund these projects for the longterm. I’ll get back to this one later.
And not to be discredited, by any means, is the fact that the vote will take place during the primary, not a general election. A primary that will turn out more republican voters than democrats since the democrats will most likely be endorsing Obama for a second term while the republican nomination is up for grabs. Republicans are always less likely to vote for taxes, so voters will have to be encouraged to turn out to pass this thing.
So have I written the TSPLOST off yet? No, but the executive committee will have to do a damn good job at picking projects and advocates are going to have to amass a killer campaign for this thing to have a chance and folks are gearing up for just that.
What would constitute a good project list? I’m so glad that you asked! First and foremost, it should have the provision to improve existing MARTA service frequencies and restore previous levels of service. This would be quick to implement and would buy public support of future endeavors. We can’t go willy nilly adding service if we can’t maintain what we’ve got and other projects would take years to get up and running while this is fast, easy, and essential.
Next, my list would include improving the 75, 85, 20 interchange downtown. The TSPLOST will not pass without some road improvements, both sides need some win, and this interchange is murder. Improvements don’t mean interstate widening, though.
Third on my list, the Beltline. I would build the segment that starts at Inman Park, connects to the Beltline and on to the downtown streetcar, up to the Carter Center and along city Hall East to Ponce and down Ponce to the North Ave MARTA station. And maybe, depending on costs, we could run it up to Piedmont. The Beltline is a poster project for the city and needs these funds to move forward with transit. And that segment would generate the most ridership, in my completely inexpert opinion; it connects to the existing system and several popular destinations while going through the neighborhoods that seem to be the most excited about it.
Fourth, bike lanes and sidewalk improvements. Miles of it downtown and in midtown and everywhere for all I care. Designated, grade separated bike lanes.
Also commuter rail from the MMPT being built downtown into Clayton County and into Gwinnett to Lawrenceville needs to go in here. If there’s a little more money to spare, up to Cherokee County as well. Commuter rail benefits everyone, is bipartisan and reduces congestion while improving air quality. This one is a no brainer.
I’m pretty sure we’re out of money at this point, but if there’s more to spare, I’m throwing in the MARTA western extension from HE Holmes to 285. Anything else and the local jurisdictions can submit things. Maybe improving the Windy Hill portion of Cobb or some road improvement out 78 or some bridge improvements.
How will we operate these projects you may ask? I’m going with a three step approach to this one. 1. We’ll need regional governance of transit in the region or those commuter rail lines are going no where. Draft legislation has been proposed that would create such a body but it has yet to be dropped and may not be this session. Once that regional governance is in place, I recommend two sources of funding. 2. Local CIDs can chip in to fund the service in their areas. Those out in Cobb can help fund the operations for the commuter rail lines, same as Gwinnett. Municipalities can and should contribute to the operations of services for their areas. The downtown CID has committed funds to the streetcar, and it’s a great example. 3. Parking fees. The city of Atlanta should charge a fee for every car sized piece of pavement to go towards operations. If you refuse to take the commuter rail line in and you want to drive that BMW SUV from East Cobb then you should have to pay more than five bucks to pay downtown. This is how New York City generates funds for MTA, it both discourages drivers while encouraging alternative commutes. Win win. And maybe, one day, we can get some of the gas tax in Georgia to go to funding as well. Hopefully these two steps would show the Feds that we’re serious about transit and will qualify the region for additional funds.
Any questions? (please say no, cause I’ll just make up any answers)
Updates: two things I want to add. The first is to be aware that 15% of the funds generated from the TSPLOST will go local municipalities to use as they care.
The second is Clayton County. I forgot to mention earlier that they get service restored. Buses and BRT. O, and we need to give GRTA some money too.