The Campaign for Transportation Investment in Georgia
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Transportation is the focus of the latest issue of CSG’s Capitol Ideas and the lead article takes a look at what’s likely to be the most closely watched transportation ballot measure in the country this year. On July 31st, Georgia voters in 12 regions around the state will head to the polls to decide whether to approve a 1-cent sales tax increase that would fund a list of carefully selected transportation projects in their region. For the article, I spoke with Todd Long of the Georgia Department of Transportation as well as representatives of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce-affiliated Georgia Transportation Alliance and Connect Georgia Campaign, who are working to encourage support for the regional sales tax referenda. There wasn’t room to squeeze everything into the magazine so here’s some more of what they had to say.
Georgia Department of Transportation - Director of Planning
…on why Georgia went with the regional referenda/sales tax model.
“The reason we’re doing this is the current funding mechanism for transportation is not adequate in Georgia to meet all the needs. If you want to get performance out of your system, you have to invest in your system and we haven’t been doing that. In fact, we did a long time ago but we’ve not been doing it lately and therefore we need more investment. How you get that investment was a legislative issue. They passed this bill and that’s what we’ve got to work with. They could have given us money out of the General Fund. They could have raised the gas tax. They could have done a lot of different things. But they passed this legislation to allow this (regional) sales tax. But one of the reasons they did the sales tax though is because the model for the gas tax is in trouble. And it’s in trouble for a couple of different reasons. One is you and I are driving more fuel efficient cars so the mileage per gallon of the average American is going up and up and up … The other side is that problem really has been masked because we’ve been driving more and more as Americans. The curve of how many miles Americans travel goes up every year. But the last two or three years, it’s been flat … Of course a lot more Americans are living in urban areas. There are all kinds of stats that show that. Well, people who live in urban areas actually drive less. They might spend more time in their car but the number of miles they drive is actually less because they’re riding transit or they’re living within five or 10 miles of work. So when Americans drive the same or less and they drive more fuel efficient cars, revenue for transportation goes down or stays the same. So that’s a problem not just for Georgia but for every state in the country. That’s why a lot of states are watching what happens in Georgia to see what we do. Some states are considering raising the gas tax. Well, raising the gas tax, you could do that. But the problem with raising the gas tax is that increase gets basically washed out over time with increased fuel efficiency of cars …
I think the gas tax is probably one of the best user fees we’ve ever had in this country. But do you know how transit—(the Federal Transit Administration)—across this country is funded? It’s funded out of the gas tax … So that’s not a user tax. We’re paying a gas tax for our roads but a lot of our money is going towards transit. So a sales tax is kind of universal. Everybody (who) buys something, that product is using the transportation system to get there. So even a guy who doesn’t have a car but he lives in a condo and he buys, let’s say, a TV. Well, that TV got to his condo somehow or other. So he’s paying a fee partly for getting that product to the end market. That’s how I look at it.”
…on the project selection process.
“Starting about a year ago we developed criteria for project selections and worked with local governments and worked with the (12) regional commissions … They had these groups called roundtables, which were basically locally elected leaders and we worked with them on the criteria. We developed and approved the criteria for the project selection. And then we started analyzing potential projects. And we went through a very detailed process spelled out in the bill of project selection. And by October of last fall … each of the 12 regions finally adopted their list of projects for the voters to consider on the vote which is July 31st this summer …
We had 12 regions. Atlanta represents about 45 percent of the potential money that would be raised, so 55 percent of the money (would come from) the other regions … Each of the regions is different and has different thought processes and visions on what should be on the list … Those meetings actually went a lot better than the Atlanta meetings. The Atlanta meetings were fine but there was a lot more debate in Atlanta between transit versus roadways. And of course out in the rural areas, transit wasn’t a huge item for them at all. So they were just debating which road projects to put in there.”
…on whether it’s necessary to make voters aware of local benefits of infrastructure investment to convince them to pay more in taxes.
“That’s probably one of the biggest selling points. I could go to those regions out in the rural areas and say ‘hey look, every dime you raise in your region stays in your region. This is not going to Atlanta.’ And when I told them that, they really perked up and they liked it a lot. Of course the people in Atlanta … I could tell them the same thing: ‘hey listen, none of this money’s going to rural Georgia …’ In the rural areas, it’s all about jobs, economic growth, some congestion. But these guys, particularly in southwest Georgia, they’re really hurting for jobs and job growth. So paying that extra penny tax is not as big a deal for them in my opinion … Bottom line, they feel like they’re getting some kind of job in return potentially.”
…on who is involved in the campaign to convince the public to support the referenda.
“Of course (the Georgia Department of Transportation as a state agency is) not allowed to advocate … But the chambers (of commerce) are kind of taking the lead on the campaign. And in Atlanta, the metro chambers have countless organizations that they’re working with … There must be 30 or 40 groups in there. … In the rural areas, the Georgia Chamber is handling those 11 regions outside of Atlanta … Both of their messages are a little bit different. Georgia Chamber is more about jobs and economic development. Atlanta is about those as well, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a lot more about congestion relief and providing options for travel. In other words, instead of riding in a car, you can ride in a train or a bus.”
…on whether there’s a backup plan for transportation projects in Georgia if one or more of the referenda fails.
“Well the Plan B is we still have a federal aid program. That’s not going to change. But the timeline on which these projects get delivered gets strung out for years and years and years. That’s the big issue.”
…on lessons learned from the process so far.
“Having local governments choose the projects was very important … Allowing an ample amount of time to pick those projects. We might could have used another month or so not in most areas but like in Atlanta, it was a race to the finish, trust me. I think if we hadn’t had the deadline we might not have even gotten done, though. We’re kind of glad there was a tight deadline, which forced all these elected officials to really come together. They probably met a dozen times. You think about how hard that is to get all these elected officials to the table for hours on end. It wasn’t easy … Make sure your ballot language is good. Spell out this whole aspect of making sure the project list is clear, understandable. It’s not over yet so I might have a lot (more) lessons learned after July.”
Georgia Transportation Alliance - Executive Director
…on how the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and its affiliates came to be involved with the campaign to encourage support for the referenda.
“I was hired by the Georgia Chamber and started on November 1 (2011). Last year, the Georgia Chamber created a new affiliate of the Chamber called the Georgia Transportation Alliance and really that was a recognition that there was a need for the business community to be directly involved in helping to improve transportation in the state of Georgia … They recruited me to come up from Florida. For the past nine years I had been president of a similar organization called Floridians for Better Transportation or FBT that was based in Tallahassee and active in the Florida Chamber of Commerce. So the notion was we needed to be creating an organization that was an advocate for transportation but from a business perspective—a broad-based business coalition of all different modes of transportation and recognizing that transportation’s important to our economic future as well as our present and the bottom line is you don’t have to make your living directly from transportation to benefit from transportation. Every business in Georgia benefits from it. So that was kind of the operating dynamic. So what we did then was create a campaign arm of the Georgia Transportation Alliance called the Connect Georgia Campaign.”
…on who from the business community is supporting the campaign.
“Well, you’ve got the Georgia Chamber and then a whole host of businesses in Georgia: Georgia Power, just a whole host of businesses all across the state that are involved with us and more joining every day … A broad business coalition that’s an advocate for transportation but from a business perspective … They understand it helps the business climate. What I always tell folks is transportation is really not about asphalt, concrete and steel. It’s about people. It’s about jobs for people. It’s about economic development that will help them in the long run. And it’s about moving people safely around the state of Georgia. And so, that’s where the business community really gets it in Georgia and gets to the point where they’re willing to put their money where their mouth is and create this Georgia Transportation Alliance and recruit me to come up from Florida and pay me accordingly. I’m encouraged by that or else I wouldn’t be here.”
…on the importance of the outcomes of the regional referenda to the future of transportation in Georgia and the constituencies the Chamber and its affiliates represent.
“I think it’s critical. The simple fact is … the reason other states not only in the Southeast but all across the country are watching Georgia is because almost every state is in a similar situation. We all know that the gas tax is declining as a revenue source. We’re in the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. And so people are wondering ‘what can we do?’ We know we’ve got declining revenues and yet transportation is literally the lifeblood of every state’s economy. So we’ve got to address it somehow. But how do you do that? That’s why I’m so intrigued and encouraged by what Georgia is trying to do. They have the courage to ask their voters ‘are you willing to help fund this by a penny sales tax increase for a specific (length) of time—10 years—for a specific set of projects that were decided upon not by folks in the state capital or in (the U.S.) Capitol, but by local officials?’ So it’s a great idea because you have local people deciding what projects are most important to us in our region and in our local counties and then the locals themselves will decide at the ballot box yes or no. And if they say yes, the local people will be the ones who enjoy that benefit for the next 10 years. And correspondingly folks who don’t say yes to it in my view will have to suffer the consequences of that for the next 10 years. And I think when people begin to understand the positive benefits of this they’ll be inclined to say yes …
Georgians, once they fully understand the benefits of this, will recognize that a yes vote means that Georgia as a whole will be more competitive than our neighboring states—or our competitors. And then also when you drill down—because this is on a region-by-region basis--those regions that vote yes will have a leg up from a competitiveness standpoint for the next ten years. So, both of those messages are very persuasive and very powerful.”
…on the potential impact of infrastructure investment on job creation.
“In the abstract (and lacking) any other information, it’s easy for anyone to say ‘gosh, I don’t want to vote for another tax.’ But just like any purchase we make in life, we don’t want to make the expenditure unless we understand what we’re getting in exchange for that and that’s the case here. This is not about asphalt, concrete and steel. It’s about more jobs, safer roads, and the fact that (it’s) 100 percent local. In those 11 regions outside Metro Atlanta—the ones that we’re responsible for—75 percent of the money stays right there in that region and then the other 25 percent stays right there in your individual county. So that’s a good news story for a state and for a region that are needing hope. I saw a headline in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution within the past month or two and according to economists from the University of Georgia, they were saying that Georgia’s employment levels should not rebound to pre-recession levels until 2020 … So the message there is don’t look for any significant improvement for the next eight years. Well … if I was in a surrounding state that would be pretty daunting news. In Georgia, it’s still sobering but at least we have an option to cast a vote in favor of ourselves later this year in order to help turn our economy around, help create jobs, help provide safe mobility for our citizens and our family members. And the fact that it’s all local and we’ll even have local citizen advisory boards serving as a watchdog. Man, that’s a great news story.”
…on whether there’s a backup plan for getting transportation projects funded if one or more of the referenda fails.
“The phrase that everyone uses is there’s no Plan B. This is the option and … this is actually kind of a new model for taxation of essential government services. Rather than the general tax dollars going to the state Capitol or the (U.S.) Capitol and people having little to no idea what they’ll be used for or when, in this case they know up front which projects will be done. And so it’s terribly important but I think a very innovative approach that in some ways Georgians have been using for education and other local initiatives for a number of years and it’s been very successful. So that model is now being applied more than just locally to the 12 regions around Georgia. We’re optimistic and the real key there is for Georgians to understand the benefits here and I think once they fully appreciate it, they can make a fully informed decision and they’ll say yes.”
…on lessons learned from the process so far.
“The takeaway for other states is be very local, be very transparent and have accountability … Folks want to know what it is (they’re) buying—so truth in advertising. They’re going to see a list of projects that are popular in their area … If you total up all the votes throughout the state of those regional roundtables—from something on the order of 319 people … you only had about three no votes. That’s overwhelming consensus that these are legitimate projects that are needed in the regions. So there is local consensus there and then you have transparency because everyone can see what the projects are, everyone could go to the roundtables, and then you have the local input deciding yes or no and then you have local citizen review panels after the fact to hold the folks accountable for what they voted on. So transparency, accountability and local orientation are three important takeaways in my book.”
…on the importance of bipartisanship in the campaign.
“In my years in politics and most of that in transportation politics, I never once have seen a Republican bridge or a Democrat road. It’s bipartisan and that’s really the nature of this and you see that all across the board and it’s exciting. You see the (Republican) Governor of the state of Georgia and you see the (Democratic) Mayor of Atlanta and a whole host of folks who are coming together all in favor of this because it’s the right thing to do … Someone a long time ago once said that ‘status quo’ was Latin for ‘the mess we’re in.’ Well almost every state’s in that same mess. The question is ‘what are you going to do about it?’ And a lot of other states don’t have the same opportunity that Georgia does so we hope to take full advantage of this and hope to be a model for a lot of our sister states.”
Connect Georgia – Campaign Strategist
…on what the Connect Georgia campaign entails.
“The Georgia Chamber and the Transportation Alliance assembled a bipartisan mix of political consultants who have had lots of experience in the state of Georgia and other states but also when it comes to passing referendums. We have (local) sales tax options that are passed a fair amount … in Georgia, specifically for capital projects and infrastructure and recreation purposes—parks and also for school systems. We’ve all had experience doing that … The key to passing those SPLOSTs—or what we call Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax campaigns is making sure the public understands what they get for that penny. The key to passing these referendums across the different regions is keeping them hyper-local so that people understand there’s a direct correlation—that this sales tax is going to go directly to this. What’s unique about this opportunity is there is no slice of it that’s going to go to D.C. or to Atlanta. This money is going to be raised locally and then spent locally in those regions. That is a unique paradigm when it comes to raising revenues and then spending revenues. But overall, the theme of the campaign is ‘more jobs, more safety and 100 percent local.’”
…on how infrastructure investment will make Georgia more competitive.
“Obviously infrastructure spending is good for the economy but we see this as a competitiveness (issue). Obviously the economic downturn will reverse and it’s a competition out there and states like Georgia have been very successful in the past in competing for businesses, whether big or small, and being a place where entrepreneurs want to come and build businesses and we feel that having this network of transportation and this vision of development for the next 10 years is critical. And as these states turn the corner and move hopefully to a better economic environment, we think that is going to be very important for Georgia to be in the forefront of the growth and development for the next several decades.”
…on how the project selection process went.
“Generally a county commissioner when they want to try to get a transportation project funded has to go through this cumbersome process, deal with the state legislature delegation, the department of transportation, all those stumbling blocks. And here you have an example where we had these roundtables where the county commissioners met in groups and they decided what projects were of regional impact, regional importance to these 12 different regions, selected these projects and they had public hearings on the projects, they had tremendous public input. And so it’s a real example where you have at the grassroots level people deciding on what transportation projects take priority. And then … they’re deciding if they’re going to fund these specific projects. There was some input, suggestions from the state transportation agency but in the end the vast majority of these projects were chosen at the local level … And then the supervision of the projects will be done by local citizen advisory boards in each region. So it is unprecedented to have a situation where in a lot of ways the state government is secondary to the whole process of selecting, building and supervising these projects …
Different regions have different needs and different constituencies. This is 12 different campaigns and we’re responsible for the 11 campaigns outside of the metro (Atlanta) region. Part of the reason why we’re running local campaigns … There is an overall message that moves most people but then the specific projects for each region are different and so communicating what the projects actually are and how they’ll affect people in their daily lives is very important to getting them to accept and want to pass this referendum.”
…on the importance of transparency in the process.
“Having mechanisms in place where people can hold their local officials accountable and have a clearly defined list of what the projects are that they’re voting on. In this atmosphere where the public distrusts government so much, I think having as much transparency as possible is going to be absolutely critical to being successful here.”
…on the importance of bipartisanship in the process.
“We’re a bipartisan team … We recognize that this is not a partisan issue. 2012 is going to be a very partisan year but economic development, transportation, job creation—they’re bipartisan (issues). The Georgia Chamber certainly recognized that this is not about ideology, this is about jobs and building a better future for the people of Georgia … This is about public policy that crosses any political divisions.”
Connect Georgia - Campaign Strategist
…on the importance of the referenda being successful.
“The bottom line is that this is the single largest economic development opportunity in the state of Georgia’s history since the Atlanta airport opened. It’s also potentially the largest combined economic development opportunity for any state in the country in the next year when you talk about $19 billion in direct transportation investment. And at the end of the day, this entire opportunity is about real job creation not mythical job creation both in the short term and the long term. It’s about road safety and repair. And it’s about local communities being able to control their transportation destiny locally.”
…on how the messages of the campaigns in support of the referenda differ between regions.
“Traffic congestion is still an important part of the message in the exurban counties that make up our regions outside of Atlanta. So there are a number of exurban counties in regions outside the Atlanta region where traffic mobility is critical. In every one of the regions outside of Atlanta, logistical mobility is still a big issue and big part of the message because everywhere in Georgia, they know that the jobs of the future are going to be part of the logistics industry. Every county benefits from the airport and from the ports of Savannah and Brunswick. And so logistical mobility is a part of the message … Outside of the major metropolitan area, every voter in Georgia already believes and knows that development of highways and transportation infrastructure are their best opportunity for new jobs, for new companies relocating a manufacturing facility or a logistical facility or some kind of new plant of any type. That’s what’s ingrained in our counties outside of metro Atlanta. It’s not just traffic congestion but for them it’s much more of transportation infrastructure leads to the recruitment of new jobs.”
...on whether the chances for the referenda are hurt by the vote being on the primary ballot rather than the general election ballot.
“The issue with the date being July 31st is the arbitrary nature of the voter profile in a primary. So it creates real disparities between certain regions because some regions have a historically high voter turnout in primaries and others don’t. And some regions have more activity on other parts of the ballot than some do. So by having it on July 31st you’re just creating an arbitrary disproportionality of the vote whereas in November, you have everybody coming. That’s the real distinction there. What the data shows is that it can pass in all regions if the voters are informed about the actual project lists—which are popular outside of Atlanta—and that all the money stays locally. The difficulty comes in being able to articulate who’s coming on July 31st. We have four Congressional primaries going on in Georgia that are kind of spread out. Well, in those areas, you’re going to have some higher turnout than you are in other areas and so it creates this kind of unfair advantage for some regions over others if you pick a primary date as opposed to doing it in the general election. You also have some critics here—the Tea Party in Georgia wants all SPLOST elections moved to November. So it’s an odd dynamic where even though many of the Tea Parties oppose these SPLOSTs, they do support the (referendum) being in November because they would like to see the larger number of people actually vote on this.”