Why I’m voting for T-SPLOST

In my City Talk column today, I publicly stated that I will be voting for the Transportation Investment Act, commonly known as T-SPLOST (a special purpose local option sales tax for transportation projects).

Today’s column looks briefly and really broadly at the 9 counties outside of Chatham that make up the Coastal Region. A majority of voters in the 10-county region will have to approve the tax before it will be implemented. As I have argued at Peach Pundit, I expect a majority of voters in Chatham County and Savannah to approve the additional 1 percent sales tax for 10 years, but I expect the referendum to be defeated rather handily in the rest of the region, which has a strong conservative lean. I have written about the partisan tendencies of all 12 regions in the state in this post at Peach Pundit.

In other recent Savannah Morning News columns, I wrote about the projects within the Savannah city limits and in the rest of Chatham County.

There are all sorts of objections to the T-SPLOST system, which I don’t really like.

But consider the following:

  • In recent years, local transportation priorities have been far different from those set in Atlanta. That’s our current system, and it’s a bad one. Would we really have prioritized the widenings of Whitfield Avenue and Middleground Road over other projects? I take Middleground Road all the time, and it’s sure a pleasant route with so little traffic, but the widening added three — yes, three — stoplights, didn’t include a bike lane, and spawned further ongoing costs because someone now has to pay for the care of the median.
  • With the T-SPLOST, we have a clean list of projects (go here or here to see the regional list) created through a transparent political process. I don’t like everything on the list, and I’m sure you don’t like everything on the list. But politics is about the art of the possible.
  • I wish there were more transit projects on the list and more pedestrian/bicycle projects. But there’s some real money for Chatham Area Transit that did make the final cut — $65 million — and advocates for alternative transportation and Complete Streets can put pressure on local officials to use discretionary funds for those sorts of projects. The city of Savannah would get $52 million that is currently planned to be spread out across the city and used for safety, repaving, and sidewalks. In the downtown area, where sidewalks have already been greatly improved in recent years, some of that money could go toward significant pedestrian enhancements in areas of heavy use.
  • There could be a Plan B if the T-SPLOST referenda around the state are widely defeated, but I’ll tell you what that Plan B will be: Republican grandstanding about taxes and a refusal to raise the gasoline tax, thus leading to continued cuts for local project funding. Desperate for safer bridges on the road to Tybee? Desperate to get out of the train-induced gridlock over on 21? Desperate to see some forward movement on Project DeRenne? You might quite literally have to wait a generation to see those projects completed without the T-SPLOST.
  • As the state’s population and political power is increasingly in the Atlanta area, we’ll inevitably see less and less money being sent to the rest of the state.
  • Opponents will counter that some projects have been promised for years, so why should we trust the system now? Maybe we can’t trust the system, but this is a different system. The money in this region will be spent in this region.
  • What about the latest SPLOST, in which Savannah voters were promised two big items — an arena and a new police headquarters — that there’s not money to pay for? Simply put, the city of Savannah made a bad bargain with the county in those SPLOST negotiations all the way back in 2006 and dramatically overestimated future sales tax revenue. I’m relatively confident that planners have not made the same mistakes with the T-SPLOST list.
  • Yes, the additional 1 percent sales tax will hurt consumer spending along the coast. But there are considerable costs to having roads and bridges that are unsafe or obviously inadequate — and those costs will increase as the regional population grows.

As I note in today’s column, I’m not an easy sell on special purpose sales taxes like this. I voted agains the latest E-SPLOST and ranted about it recently here on the blog.