T-SPLOST: Plan B? Not this year

They’re still thinking. Or they asked for action but were denied. Or maybe they didn’t ask; they can’t remember. In any case, action would have been futile.

This year’s legislative session ended with no steps to ease the lives of the region’s commuters, despite the assurances of those who campaigned last year against the T-SPLOST with vows of a better solution. According to them, the reasons cited above explain why the promised Plan Bs were no-shows.

“I haven’t seen any meaningful action at all,” said Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, which raised millions to promote the $7.2 billion regional transportation sales tax. “The people who beat the drum so loudly on T-SPLOST have come up way short, with nothing as far as I’ve heard.”

Meanwhile, in one year, the average Atlanta-area commuter wastes 51 hours stuck in traffic, costing the region $3.1 billion in wasted time and fuel, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll after the referendum, more than 60 percent of respondents said traffic congestion is a major problem, and they are willing to pay for the right fix.

Some Plan Bs advertised during the campaign included restructuring the gas tax or empowering counties to voluntarily band together to fund transportation projects. Another was to simply come back in 2014 with a new and better project list for the 10-county Atlanta region the Legislature created for the purposes of the T-SPLOST. (The same law that defined the region held out the option of a re-do.)

Foes of the T-SPLOST touted their alternatives via television and radio broadcasts, blog posts, debates, local papers and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We can solve this in other ways. There is a Plan B,” then-Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, a key leader on the conservative opposition, said at one forum.

In fact, none of those ideas came close to success in this year’s Legislature, which ended last week.

In tax-related committees, at least one proposal to relax rules on transit funding got some traction, but it wouldn’t have raised new money.

As for the transportation committees? “Never came up,” said House Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla. His counterpart in the Senate, Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, echoed: “Not a word.”

Where are they now

Rogers has since left the Senate for a state-funded job in broadcasting. He was still a senator during the fall period when legislative leaders set their 2013 priorities, however, and he remained long enough to have filed a bill in advance of the session. He did not return messages last week.

Other opponents did introduce bills, but most say they didn’t press to get a hearing. In any case, the bills wouldn’t have raised new money on their own.

Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, spent last spring slamming the tax, the projects on the list, and the regional structure. Nevertheless, he repeatedly vowed, as in an East Cobb forum reported by Patch.com: “We can come back in two years with a project list that’s worthy of our support.”

That was one of the most powerful Plan B arguments, because the law expressly allowed for it. However, such a re-do would have required a legislative vote this year to set it in motion, according to regional analysts. That didn’t happen.

Setzler now says he never favored a re-do. He meant that lawmakers could come up with a new structure under which counties could form their own transportation regions, and he did sponsor such a bill, HB 195.

That bill never got a hearing, but Setzler’s not exercised about it.

“I think since the vote there has emerged a desire to take a year to kind of take stock of where we are,” he said.

Not worth revisiting

The fact is, any Plan B would have had a steep hill to climb, given Gov. Nathan Deal’s disinterest in considering such alternatives — which he made clear before the T-SPLOST vote.

That didn’t stop opponents from claiming that a Plan B would work.

In one of the arresting developments of the campaign, Tea Party activists teamed up with the Sierra Club to agree on possible alternatives: Let the gas tax rise with inflation, and use it on mass transit as well as roads, or create a mechanism for less sweeping tax referenda.

Yet last week Tea Party Patriots leader Debbie Dooley said that after a couple of initial conversations last year, she did not lobby for Plan B this session.

“We know what we would agree to,” Dooley said. “But Gov. Deal said that there would not be a Plan B.”

Dooley is not famous for acceding to Deal’s wishes. In fact, she mobilized public pressure to dissuade Deal from rescheduling the T-SPLOST vote from July to November, when it was thought to stand a better chance. He found a tea party revolt on his doorstep, and chose to back off.

Dooley acknowledges her past success with a chuckle. But now her group can only follow rather than lead, she said, because putting together a regional transportation solution is complicated, and the tea party doesn’t have the resources alone. “We are more than willing to work on Plan B, but we have not been contacted by anyone,” she said.

Liberals, too

One of tea party members’ prime complaints about the T-SPLOST was that half the money would go to mass transit, including MARTA. But many transit advocates opposed the list too, saying there wasn’t enough transit.

Dooley’s cohort, the president of the Sierra Club, Colleen Kiernan, and Neill Herring, who lobbies for the club, said they are working on solutions that don’t require legislative approval, such as drumming up support for transit funding in Clayton County. As for the legislative session, they said they were focused on ethics bills, and besides, committee chairmen stood in the way of Plan B.

“What are we, nine months out and suddenly it’s our fault? None of us are even elected,” Herring said. “I can’t work miracles.”

Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat, said during the campaign that he’d sit down to work on next steps the day after the referendum, if it failed.

One of his ideas was voluntary small regions that could cooperate to bring forth a new tax vote. As this legislative session ended, Fort initially blamed state leadership for stalling his bill.

“You’re going to have to talk to the Republicans as to why I didn’t get a hearing on that,” he said.

Further reporting revealed first that Fort hadn’t asked for a hearing on the regional transportation bill (he was too busy pushing a transit bill, he said), and then that there was no regional transportation bill (he forgot to file it, he said).

The transit bill Fort did introduce would have allowed the car rental tax to be used for mass transit. The session ended before it came to a final vote, but that could happen during the 2014 session.

Even if it had succeeded, Williams of the Metro Atlanta Chamber said, “It’s peanuts. Pennies. Pennies when the problem demands billions.”

What next

Some skeptics have suggested that the whole T-SPLOST exercise was just a cover for politicians who wanted to look responsive to commuters but didn’t care if the measure passed.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, an early sponsor of the legislation, denied that charge.

“That’s such a cynical view and it’s so wrong,” Ralston told the AJC. “We were trying to respond to Georgians that are sitting in congestion in metro Atlanta and other areas and looking towards some economic development.”

Ralston said residents can rest assured that discussions are under way about next steps.

“The answer to transportation is new roads or more mass transit,” said Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, said. “Both those things require money.”

Opponents of last year’s effort, Balfour said, argued that traffic would still be terrible in 10 years had the tax passed.

“Well, as I sit in traffic today, I wonder how bad is it going to be in 10 years with nothing done,” he said. But no matter how bad it gets, he and other lawmakers said, the magnitude of the T-SPLOST’s defeat means it will be a long time before legislators venture to try again.

That leaves transportation initiatives largely up to Deal.

He and the state’s transportation staff are trying to figure out how to focus what money there is on a few highway projects, such as new optional toll lanes and the interchange at Ga. 400 and I-285. His budget also includes state money to keep some commuter buses running.

One bill that did pass this session put even more leverage in the governor’s hands. It eliminated an old requirement that federal transportation money be divided up by political district rather than by transportation priorities.

As to supporting major new funding, Deal said on the last day of the session, “That remains to be seen.”

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