Last week’s defeat of the TSPLOST in all but three regions of Georgia brought to mind lots of adjectives: resounding, final, overwhelming, crushing, and, possibly most appropriate, inevitable. Putting a complex, multi-part, and long term list of projects on the ballot for voters to digest, research, and then vote on is not something that Georgia has ever done before.
Unlike California, where referenda on budget and taxing policy issues are common, such votes are rare down here in the Peach State. Add to that the climate of extreme distrust in government that permeates base voters in both parties (who makes up the lion’s share of primary voters) and this perfect storm could be seen coming from miles away.
However, the result leaves us very little wiggle room, politically or practically, for a “Plan B”. Folks who think a defeat of the TSPLOST would mean coming back with a roads-only list, a transit-only list, or some other list don’t understand political reality. Folks hoping for a motor fuel tax increase or something similar will also be disappointed to learn the ball just ain’t gonna bounce that that way. There’s no political will to do that, in either party or in either chamber.
A defeat in every county in metro Atlanta and an overall 63% no vote in our region does not create the type of political environment to attempt the same idea again. Especially not with the Tea Party claiming most of the responsibility for the defeat.
At this point, the short priority list of the GA400/285, Spaghetti Junction interchanges, and the deepening of the port in Savannah represents the top three priorities to get done with funds available. It’s the governor’s job to lead on this, which I am happy to see Governor Deal accept, unlike former Governor Perdue. I look forward to helping in any way possible to see that these three projects get top funding priorities.
That said, we do need to find a way to move forward that represents more than “triaging” the problems of traffic and transit. For Atlanta and Georgia to remain regionally, nationally, and globally competitive in job creation and retention, we have to come up with a solution that will work and we must embark on a sustained education effort to explain to constituents why it’s needed.
Navel gazing about why this TSPLOST vote failed in metro Atlanta doesn’t move us forward. In the middle of the recrimination popping up about the failure of the campaign, we’re still faced with long commute times, decaying infrastructure, and an overburdened, under-diversified transit system.
The facts still haven’t changed. Stopping the tax did not move Atlanta forward. It’s just delaying our progress while other cities in the nation move on with their own development plans. The cost of no TSPLOST isn’t just that nothing changes about congestion and transit, or worse, that both continue to deteriorate.
It’s the perception nationally that Georgians aren’t interested or willing to compete in a global economy by investing in our infrastructure. This can be seen in the “credit negative” that Moody’s, the credit ratings agency, gave Atlanta the weekend after the TSPLOST failed. You have to either be growing or dying, and we aren’t growing.
However, there is a silver lining to this decisive rejection: voters know their “No” vote doesn’t mean “Never” to transportation investment. Now, political leaders need to react accordingly. This will elevate the discussion back to policy circles where, unlike referendums, emotional arguments have less sway. We have to educate ourselves and our constituents.
Gwinnett has had the experience of having both a TAD referendum and an ESPLOST referendum rejected, only to come back after making the case to voters, not for 8 weeks, but for two years, in the case of our TAD vote. Ultimately, both were approved by the voters at later dates. Politicians, community leaders, and activists need to start now, building that educated consensus in the middle so that whatever comes next, even if that’s years away, is something that voters trust will work and therefore support, despite living in these hyper partisan times.