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Special interests have turned TSPLOST into a future tax trap

Posted by on November 23, 2011
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By Ron Sifen

Cobb legislators are calling the TSPLOST projects list a “bait-and-switch.“ (In a previous column I described it by saying that the TSPLOST had been “hijacked” by special interests.) 
Last week, the Cobb Legislative Delegation had a series of meetings with local officials in Cobb. As the MDJ reported Nov. 16 (“Lawmakers befuddled by Lee’s list for TSPLOST”), several of our legislators expressed their dissatisfaction over the TSPLOST bait-and-switch.Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) said, “We have a $6 billion bait-and-switch. It was sold as traffic relief. It’s being delivered as economic development and transit transformation for Atlanta.”Rep. Rich Golick (R-Smyrna) had this to say: “Cobb County in late March produced an unconstrained list full of projects that would help get people from Point A to Point B. Between late March and Oct. 13, something changed. The priorities of some local officials went from relieving traffic congestion … to something very different.”

Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) expressed similar concerns.

Over the last few weeks, several other Cobb legislators have also strongly criticized the TSPLOST projects list.

Some TSPLOST opponents are trying to blame the legislators for passing such an imperfect bill in the first place. While I agree that the legislation has imperfections, and I hope the legislators will amend the legislation in the upcoming session, I really do not agree that the legislators are to blame for the misguided projects list.

Local elected officials plus the chambers of commerce around the region plus the influential CIDs were all pushing the legislature to provide some sort of new funding source to alleviate traffic congestion in metro Atlanta. The legislature had no reason to expect bad faith.

The legislation allowed economic development projects, because that was relevant and appropriate for the other 11 regions in Georgia. In metro Atlanta, the outcry was for funding to alleviate traffic congestion. Legislators did not anticipate that the TSPLOST would be hijacked by special interests and that billions of dollars would be diverted away from projects that would alleviate traffic congestion.

We need to give our legislators the benefit of the doubt about the past. But taxpayers also need to let our legislators know how important it is that they do something to fix the TIA (Transportation Investment Act, which authorized the TSPLOST) in the upcoming legislative session. Unfortunately, that is going to be a lot more difficult and complicated than it seems.

The legislator who may have the best and most workable answer is Sen. Chip Rogers (R-north Cobb).

Rogers has pointed out a different problem with the TSPLOST, and it is a problem that is perhaps the most devastating problem of all. He says that the biggest mistake the legislature made in the TSPLOST legislation was not prohibiting new projects that would have large future operating costs.

So, even if some of the TSPLOST money is being set aside for 10 years of transit operations, there is still absolutely no realistic, identifiable source of funds to continue operations once the TSPLOST funds run out, without huge tax increases for taxpayers in the region.

The TSPLOST projects list has morphed into something that is not really just a 10-year tax to pay for special projects. More than half of the projects list will require huge ongoing operating costs forever, and absolutely no identifiable source of funding, other than imposing huge new permanent taxes on the region’s taxpayers.

The TSPLOST has turned into a future tax trap.

The Legislature should amend the TIA to prohibit any projects in the Atlanta region that would require future operating costs. Projects that would have maintenance costs, but not operating costs, would be OK. Any projects on the current projects list that would require future operating costs would have to be removed from the projects list, and replaced by projects that would not have operating costs.

The Legislature should also provide direction to the Roundtable to focus on projects that would have the greatest impact on alleviating regional traffic congestion.

The necessity for this amendment is unfortunate, because some transit projects could have been beneficial, if they had been designed to provide fast trip times for suburban commuters. However, if the Roundtable had not perpetrated this bait-and-switch, diverting so much money away from alleviating traffic congestion, this amendment would not have been necessary.

To partially offset the consequences of these changes, the Legislature could allow the TSPLOST to provide a source of funds for operating costs for existing transit. The Legislature might want to put a limit on this of somewhere between 5 percent and 10 percent of the total, to prevent some new bait-and-switch.

Taxpayers should let our legislators know that they need to take appropriate steps to fix the TIA.

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