Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Failure of the transit-roads sales tax measure in Metro Atlanta

More often than not, transit funding referenda succeed

Generally, the Center for Transportation Excellence, an organization that provides support for transit funding initiatives, finds that about 70% of pro-transit tax and bond referendums are successful, which is a pretty good rate of success, especially given the fact that most people in the US do not have great familiarity with transit, think it's mostly a social service for people who can't afford a car, and don't want to pay more taxes.

But yesterday in Georgia, 9 of 12 ballot measures for a transportation sales tax failed

Residents of 10 counties in the metropolitan Atlanta region yesterday voted on a tax measure, a transportation special option local sales tax (called SPLOSTs, these are a common taxing method in the State of Georgia to fund various types of improvements at the city and county level to which I was introduced when I did a commercial district revitalization framework plan for Brunswick, Georgia), designed to support a combination of transit and road improvements, including the visionary Atlanta Beltline project.

Georgia Transportation Investment Act of 2010

In 2010, the State of Georgia passed the Georgia Transportation Investment Act of 2010, which set up a process to put to the voters yesterday (July 31st, 2012) a 1% sales tax addition to fund local road and transit projects, with separate votes for each of the state's 12 regional transportation districts.

From "T-SPLOST fails in Middle Georgia, across much of state in the Macon Telegraph:

In 2010, state legislators authorized all 12 regional commissions statewide to hold T-SPLOST votes because revenue from the state gas tax -- the primary source for transportation funds -- was falling.

All 12 regions agreed to hold the vote, in part because if they didn’t vote or if it failed, the amount of matching money local governments have to put up to get state transportation funds will triple, from 10 percent to 30 percent.

If it had been approved, the measure would have increased sales taxes in much of Middle Georgia from 7 percent to 8 percent, starting Jan. 1, 2013.

Backers were counting on the $750 million it was expected to raise over 10 years to fund many of 76 projects on a regional list, pump about $187 million into local governments’ transportation funding and attract another $500 million in federal road money.

In order to pass, the T-SPLOST had to win a simple majority from voters in the region, regardless of how it did in any particular county.

According to "TSPLOST fails in Atlanta District, and most others" from WXIA-TV, the measure failed in 9 of the 12 districts, passing in smaller regions, but including Savannah, which has a decent transit system for a community of its size. The article includes the results from across the state.

Ad by Resource Branding & Design, Atlanta.


MARTA, the Atlanta area's heavy rail (subway-elevated) transit service, which has 45 miles of track serving stations, was originally to be funded by a sales tax from five participating counties. One county, Cobb, chose not to participate in the proposed Rapid Transit District from the outset.  After the failure of one tax referendum, two of the counties, Fulton and DeKalb, along with Atlanta, managed to pass the referendum and began building the MARTA system.  (One station, serving the airport, is in Clayton County.)

So the system is truncated compared to original concepts, and clearly the willingness to assess transportation related sales taxes in the region has a long, troubled, and trying history.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a pretty good piece, "Voters reject transportation tax," on the matter.  From the article:

The defeat of the 10-year, 1 percent sales tax leaves the Atlanta region's traffic congestion problem with no visible remedy. It marks failure not only for the tax but for the first attempt ever to unify the 10-county region's disparate voters behind a plan of action. ...

Results were still pending Tuesday night in the state's other 11 regions. The Transportation Investment Act of 2010, which set up the referendum, was touted to raise as much as $19 billion if approved district by district.

My take goes something like this:

1.  It wasn't a transit measure, it was for half road improvements, half transit.

2.  This was done (compromise) to get support from people who don't use transit.

3.  But at the same time, it reduced the interest of transit advocates in the measure, but without necessarily significantly increasing the interest of pro-road types in supporting the special sales tax either. (E.g., see "State NAACP urges ‘no’ vote on transportation tax" from Crossroads News.)

4.  Some of the region is served by the MARTA heavy rail, but because it only serves 2 of the 10 counties, with a soupcon of service in a third county, getting support from outlying areas is very difficult in the best of circumstances.

Witness how difficult it has been to get Loudoun County to continue to participate in the WMATA Compact in the Washington DC metropolitan area, and agree to fund a wee bit of the Silver Line extension beyond the Dulles Airport.  See past blog entries "Without the right planning "controls" you can't stop change: Loudoun County and rail service in Northern Virginia" and "Short term vs. long term thinking: transit, the Washington Examiner, Fairfax/Loudoun Counties vs. DC."

I don't know the Atlanta region that well, but I imagine similar kinds of sentiment and difficulty are present with regard to transit expansion and road funding in 8 of the 10 counties that were voting for the measure--trying to get yes votes from outlying communities somewhat disconnected from the core of the region and less engaged with the issue is almost impossible.

Talk about setting yourself up for failure.

5.  While it was probably necessary to draw on such a large region to generate a high enough level of sales tax revenue, it was likely a mistake of overreaching.  In short, the authorizing legislation was poorly developed.

For example, I'd have probably suggested for large districts such as metro Atlanta of having a primary and secondary district, so that investments in the core could be improved by the voters there, to prevent them from being overwhelmed by no voters in far suburban and exurban locations.

Image by Joeff Davis from Creative Loafing. 

6.  Not to mention flying in the face of anti-tax sentiment generally.  Yes, places across the country are approving transit-related tax and bond issues, but the most successful initiatives are transit only (Denver, Los Angeles).

Seattle has a bond funded measure, "Bridging the Gap," which provides a wide variety of transportation and streetscape related improvements, including road projects.  Last year, alleged failures to achieve all that measure set out to do was used, likely successfully, by opponents of a measure to increase funding for transit through an additional fee on car registrations.  See the blog entries "Seattle car registration supplemental charge not likely to be approved today by voters" and "Transportation election results not so clear cut."

7. But most importantly, the process in Georgia was not given enough time to be successful. (Don't forget the point that Urban Regime theory makes, that governance is about maintaining and sustaining efforts over long periods--multiple decades--of time.)

The idea of the Georgia Transportation Investment Act of 2010 ("Perdue unveils regional transportation funding proposal" from Creative Loafing) is not unlike how legislation in the State of Washington created the ability of local jurisdictions to create "transportation benefit districts" that could (1) assess a basic fee on car registrations without requiring voter approval; (2) for transit and transportation projects based on a specific work plan; and (3) could put to the voters ballot measures to add an additional registration fee beyond the basic fee.

Now to date I don't think any ballot initiative for an additional car registration fee for transportation projects has yet been approved in the State of Washington, but it's still early, it's only been about 5 years since the legislation set up this system. It takes time to build support for such measures.

The kind of all of nothing approach in Georgia doesn't make sense. E.g., from the AJC article:

Gov. Nathan Deal's office told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he would now take a central role in transportation planning for the state's metro areas, and he would not support a sequel to Tuesday's referendum.

The reality is that is an incredibly shortsighted decision.  Getting these measures passed are hard. But what can you do when you don't control the process, when it is set up on what is an arbitrary schedule that flies in the face of how you go about successfully initiating substantive social change. Also see "Nathan Deal’s Plan B: Governor intends to step into transportation vacuum" from the AJC.

The point is to keep plugging away.

For example, the Portland yellow line Max extension was supposed to go to Vancouver, Washington.  So it required successful referenda not just in Oregon but in Washington State too.  They failed.  Then an Oregon only measure failed too (because the service crossed county lines, such votes were required).  Finally, the city of Portland just created an Urban Renewal District, sold bonds based on future tax revenue increases anticipated from property value increases and new development and built the line.

Now, many years later, there is talk to extend the line to Vancouver...  Similarly, Virginia Beach ended up not agreeing to participate in the Tide Light Rail line that was to serve Norfolk and Virginia Beach.  Norfolk went ahead with it, and now that the line is successful, Virginia Beach wants to be included.  We'll see if the funding referendum passes later this year...

Lessons: the same as the lessons* from the 2010 election cycle
* "Transportation election results not so clear cut."

My lesson from this would be to focus on smaller geographic areas.  Lead from success.  Make sure your sustainable transportation programs (transit, walking, biking) are wildly successful, and grow them out.

Right: AP photo of pro TSPLOST posters, Atlanta.

It takes longer, decades-lifetimes, but in an automobile-centric society, where most people, especially higher income people, get around by automobile, it's very difficult for people to confront their deep-rooted privileging of automobility, and their fear of challenges to their way of life, which is how they interpret walking, biking, and transit, as the other, as a challenge to how they think the world should live.

As controversial as the Silver Line extension is, and no, I don't think it should be the #1 heavy rail extension priority in the WMATA system, and the Purple Line as well--not really controversial but people who don't want a rail line in their backyards are making it out to be--the reality is that the Atlanta region needs to see transit and expand what they have now before they can get 8 other counties to begin paying into changing how future generations get around.

We can talk all we want about the depletion of oil and rising gasoline prices, but right now, the average person doesn't see that as real.  They've adjusted their lifestyles to afford $4 per gallon for gasoline, and as long as price increases are leading to the extraction of oil from more difficult places but the rise in price makes it worthwhile, supplies are going to remain somewhat steady in the intermediate term, and they won't have the economic cues that they need to have in order to consider changing their behavior.

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