“Pull the plug” on TSPLOST botch

The View From The Ridge: Somebody needs to say it by Dick Pettys, InsiderAdvantageGeorgia

Somebody needs to say it: the governor and the Legislature should pull the plug on the proposed local option sales tax for transportation before it goes before voters in the primary election next year. They should take it back to the drawing board with an eye toward re-submitting it when financial times are better and the state has gotten its transportation act together.

With the economy in a mess, tolls set to go on the new express lanes on I-85 and Atlanta voters facing the choice of accepting still-higher water rates or voting to renew their special water and sewer tax, the timing is terrible for the metro district, which is key to the entire state’s transportation network. And it isn’t too much better for the other districts around the state.

Whether you were a fan of his work or not, the recent resignation under pressure of Vance Smith – the Department of Transportation’s third commissioner in four years – surely suggests to all that the state lacks stability in the agency responsible for putting asphalt on the ground.

But unlike the days when legislators had to go hat in hand to the powerful “Mr. Jim” Gillis, the DOT isn’t the only player in transportation anymore. It’s just one of several.

Since 2009, when the Legislature aided by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue clipped the DOT’s wings, we’ve had a director of planning – appointed by the governor – to design the state’s transportation vision and also to work with each of the state’s transportation districts to develop a list of projects that would be funded by the proposed 1 percent T-Splost (Transportation Local Option Sales Tax) should it pass in one or more or even all of the districts.

But I’m wondering where that has gotten us. It appears from news accounts that the biggest region – Atlanta – may be about to rip itself apart because of territorial concerns among its various cities.

The AJC reported recently that suburban mayors in the district are beginning to complain about Atlanta-centric projects like the Beltline boondoggle and the proposed rail line from Cobb County to midtown Atlanta – projects they say would suck needed dollars away from their own pet projects.

Finally, of course, we have the State Road and Tollway Authority in the mix. That’s the group that’s putting the tolls on express lanes on I-85. Those lanes formerly were free so long as you had two or more people in the car.

Taken altogether, this is a terribly disjointed way to deal with an issue as vital as transportation. It begs the questions of who’s in charge and do they know what they doing?

It didn’t have to be this way.

Back in the 70s, somebody should have whispered in the late Gov. George Busbee’s ear that the idea of growing Georgia through foreign investment was great but that we needed a planning system in place to get ready for the growth.

In the 80s, then-Gov. Joe Frank Harris proposed a sweeping plan to manage growth. Some of it was passed but some of the key components either weren’t passed or have been allowed to lie fallow. Impact fees, for example, always seemed like a good idea to me. The guys who built all the apartments and the homes at will across the state should have been required to pay a fee to help build the schools, hire the cops and manage the traffic their developments would bring. It wouldn’t have come out of the developers pockets, of course. It would have been passed along to the homebuyer. Why we didn’t do that I don’t know.

Former Gov. Zell Miller, who deserves kudos for much of what he did during his administration, didn’t do so good in planning. He let the Harris initiative drop without further attention.
So much for planning for growth.

As far as transportation governance, every governor has tinkered with it but in recent years former Gov. Sonny Perdue was in a unique position at one point during his term to build a lasting legacy by revitalizing the state’s road and providing a clear vision. It would have required much more political muscle and much more time from him to achieve that goal but unfortunately he didn’t provide it.

And so we are at a point when SRTA is about to put tolls on 16-miles of hitherto-free lanes on I-85, the DOT is hunting for a new commissioner, the metro area’s cities and counties are sniping at the proposed list of projects to be funded by the 1 percent local option sales tax (should it pass) and the economy is lousy.But maybe there is hope.

Gov. Nathan Deal recently formed a transit task force to look toward streamlining and coordinating the individual transit systems in metro Atlanta, and that surely indicates an interest in transportation as a whole.
Maybe he’s the governor who will fix our transportation problems and thereby ensure a lasting legacy. He could do worse.

That’s the view from the ridge.

Editor’s Note: Dick Pettys covered the Georgia Capitol for The Associated Press from 1970 to 2005 and then served as editor of this publication for five years. He is now editor emeritus and has moved to the northeast Georgia mountains, where he has built a house on a ridge. He will be contributing a column a week, appearing every Monday. The opinions are his own and may or may not represent the views of InsiderAdvantage, its staff and its management. Agree or disagree with this or other columns? <dpettys@windstream.net>

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