Kicking the tires on the T-SPLOST

Special to The TelegraphJuly 29, 2012 

Our regional transportation SPLOST appears on the July 31 ballot. Some notable people oppose the T-SPLOST. I’m no automatic defender of SPLOSTs myself, having publicly opposed the 1995 roads program SPLOST as ill conceived (it included, for instance, the silly super-sizing of Forest Hill Road), as well as the 2011 “hodge-podge” SPLOST, which included a number of expensive baubles that we didn’t really need, while insulating our political leaders from having to make tough decisions about their bloated budgets.

But this T-SPLOST is different. For several good reasons, voters would be wise to endorse it. First, the proposed T-SPLOST would fund key transportation infrastructure improvements.

Of local note are improvements to the poor Interstate 16/Interstate 75 interchange; airport runway extension to facilitate bigger planes for freight delivery and airplane maintenance; improvements to our rail freight infrastructure to help Middle Georgia emerge as a modern freight hub; and widening the notoriously congested Bass Road. The complete list reads like a regional all-star lineup of thoughtful infrastructure projects.

Second, Georgia taxes gasoline at the lowest rate in the entire country, 7.5 cents per gallon. Those gas taxes are supposed to fund transportation infrastructure, but Georgia’s dead-last rate of gas taxation does not support sustainable transportation infrastructure in our state by national standards. Most of the projects on the T-SPLOST list can’t be carried by the gas tax alone.

Third, Middle Georgia’s transportation needs are especially acute because of its economic and geographic characteristics. Middle Georgia’s sprawling size, low population density and lack of private economic vitality put a premium locally on better transportation infrastructure to connect Middle Georgia better, both intrastate and interstate.

Fourth, though there is some inevitable imbalance when the proposed investments are viewed through the narrow lens of county-by-county “returns,” the list of projects still makes sense overall from the perspective of the common good throughout Middle Georgia.

The entire region would be benefited by the runway expansion at the airport, improvements to the rail yard and ramping up the I-16/I-75 interchange, because those investments would help us regionally to move toward being a more plausible freight and distribution hub.

That would position Houston County in particular to avoid overreliance on federal military spending. Besides, all counties in this region will benefit disproportionately because shoppers from outside the region will also be contributing to the fund.

Fifth, assuming more spending on transportation is warranted, and deficits are fiscally irresponsible, a sales tax is more than just another form of taxation, because such a tax would be more widely shouldered than income or property taxes.

A decreasing portion of the citizenry pays either income or property taxes in any substantial degree. A wider swath of the citizenry pays some share of sales taxes, and to that extent, a sales tax is fairer.

Sixth, the transparent T-SPLOST offers a partial antidote to the hidden, unprincipled processes of project selection that have long afflicted transportation planning in Georgia. We presently are captive to broken institutions like the unelected Georgia Department of Transportation, Macon’s dysfunctional transportation decision-making body called MATS, and that dark power behind much transportation decision-making in Georgia, the private transportation “consulting” firm of Moreland Altobelli.

Seventh, a “no” vote on the T-SPLOST would be worse than the status quo. A rejection of the T-SPLOST would raise the expected local share of transportation funding from 10 to 30 percent; delay any progress on the most needed infrastructure improvements at least two years; and signal to outside analysts that Middle Georgia is incapable of providing the infrastructure improvements that growing businesses expect from their potential host communities.

SPLOSTs are usually a mixed bag. Our region’s proposed T-SPLOST, though, is about the best deal for the public of any SPLOST that I’ve examined. I’ll be voting yes.

David Oedel is a professor of law at Mercer University law school, where he teaches, among other things, about transportation law and policy.

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