Give this the green light

Investing in transportation now paves brighter road toward future

We often talk of “saving for a rainy day,” and indeed it’s important to gird yourself for hard times such as we’re experiencing now.

But by the same token, wouldn’t it be smart to prepare for the good times, too – to make them even better?

Today’s down economy won’t always be with us. How can we best position ourselves for a better future?

The state of Georgia is giving us precisely that opportunity: Voters in each of 12 regional transportation districts, including the Augusta area, will vote in the July 31 election on whether to create a 1-cent transportation special purpose local option sales tax – the proceeds of which would be used exclusively in each region.

In the case of Augusta, if voters in our 13-county region approve the TSPLOST, we’ll be funding $841 million in area road projects over 10 years. Statewide, the projected investment in transportation would be nearly $19 billion over the 10-year life of the program.

It is, as Georgia Transportation Alliance Executive Director Douglas J. Callaway says, bigger than the ’96 Olympics – and perhaps “the best economic development opportunity in the past 35 years.”

The TSPLOST would help replace gasoline tax revenues for road construction and maintenance, funds which are declining because of more fuel-efficient cars and more conservation-minded drivers. The TSPLOST would be equivalent to a 25-cent-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax.

And because it is a sales tax, it also would be paid by anyone who transacts business in the state, spreading the burden as much as possible.

The TSPLOST also would give local communities utterly unprecedented influence over what major road projects are performed: Each region’s road project list has been put together by local officials, after input from the public. Each penny raised would stay in the region. In fact, it gets even more local than that: while 75 percent of the funds would be used on “regional” projects, 25 percent would be used by each local government for local projects.

One other side benefit to the TSPLOST, which is huge: The regional approach, wisely approved by the 2010 General Assembly, has encouraged more regional cooperation than we’ve ever seen. The regional approach has made us see the magic of collaboration better than ever.

“I’ve seen more regionalism through this effort,” says former Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce Chairman Phil Wahl, “than I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

Moreover, the magic of the regional approach is that no one from Atlanta or anywhere else in the state will impose the tax on us. It’s an investment we will decide to make ourselves.

Of course, the flip side to that is important to bear in mind: While each region is cooperating internally on these road projects, they are simultaneously competing against one another region-by-region. If one region’s voters reject the tax – and they can’t vote on it again for at least two years – but a neighboring region
approves its TSPLOST, then the second region has a competitive economic development advantage over the first.

Among the keys to economic development – freedom, property rights and education – is transportation infrastructure. The future will go to those who can transport goods and people the most efficiently.

That’s never been truer than today – especially in Georgia, which will soon see increased commerce coming from the ports in both Savannah and South Carolina, as harbors there are dredged to make more room for international cargo ships.

Opposition to the TSPLOST has emerged among our friends and neighbors, and it’s perfectly understandable. No one likes new taxes, and never more than now.

 

But we respectfully submit to our friends who oppose the TSPLOST that their objections are largely emotional and, as a result, will be as transitory as the current economic climate.

In addition, we would argue that not all taxes are created equal. Some are more burdensome than others; certainly a hardly-noticed sales tax is preferable to a big increase in fuels taxes, or to income or property taxes for that matter.

And some taxes are simply more productive than others. As opposed to a tax keeping the gummy wheels of the government bureaucracy moving, a transportation tax, like an education tax, is an investment in ourselves, in our economy and in our future.

You also have to take into consideration how committed we have been historically to that future. Amazingly, Georgia is about third in the nation in population growth, yet near rock-bottom in transportation investment: Only Tennessee spends less per capita.

As for the timing, what better time to jump-start the economy than when it really needs it? Fully implemented, the TSPLOST statewide would produce an estimated half-million jobs over 10 years. But, of course, those jobs will be mainly paving the way for more jobs to come, as the private sector blossoms from an improved infrastructure.

Besides, there has never been a better time to hire a contractor. It won’t get any cheaper.

Advanced voting for the July 31 election, open to any registered voter, actually begins Monday.

We know it’s difficult to see the future when we have to focus so much on getting by today. But it won’t always be that way.

Let’s plan now for a sunny day.

Complete list of area T-SPLOST projects

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