Weighing the Effects of Public Buy-In

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Earlier this month, residents in the Atlanta region voted down a 10- year, 1 percent sales tax measure which would have raised about $7.2 billion dollars for the region’s transportation plan.  Now without that anticipated revenue, stakeholders may have to rely on other strategies such as tolling to relieve the region’s congestion issues and new rail development.  While this tax would have raised much needed funding for transportation projects, finding new funding strategies isn’t the real issue.  The issue is why residents were not on board with a tax that would help make their lives easier?

An unsuccessful attempt at new taxes to fund essential public projects isn’t a new problem.  It’s politically risky to propose much less institute a tax from policy makers.  We see this even at the federal level where Congress and the Administration have consistently not increased the gas tax to the Highway Trust Fund.  The last increase took place in 1993 and was a nominal increase, not a percentage increase and not an increase that adequately took into account the rising costs of transportation operations and maintenance.  But taking politics out of the equation, from a voter perspective, simply put, a general distrust from the public in their government and how they manage existing revenues, as was the case in Atlanta, can discourage opportunities for new revenues.  As constituents are met with constant struggles in their usage of a public system, simply throwing more money at the problem to fix it is not considered a go-to remedy.

While it makes sense for voters/taxpayers to feel this way, policy-makers, practitioners and others “in the know” are well aware that fiscally speaking, transportation projects are not adequately funded – for maintenance or new development.  With process-oriented pieces such as state limitations and regulations, regional consensus building, environmental testing, and just overall thoughtful, comprehensive planning, these factors can slow down transportation projects and drastically increase the cost of them.  In addition, sometimes it is hard to sell a large, up-front initial investment despite the potential long-term cost savings that

However, other regions have been able to successfully institute taxes for their infrastructure projects.  Look at Measure R in the Los Angeles county region.  Measure R is a half-cent sales tax, first passed in November 2008, which would fund projects to relief traffic and upgrade the transportation network in the region.  The structure of this tax is different from the sales tax in the Atlanta region.  Functioning as an infrastructure bank of sorts, the region would borrow an anticipated $40 billion which the tax is estimated to collect over its 30 year lifespan.  The tax would be collected over 30 years and would be used to pay back the anticipated $40 billion in revenues to the US federal government.

One of the reasons for the failure of the tax measure in Atlanta could lie in the lack of public-buy in for it.  In Atlanta, residents simply did not trust that this tax would have been appropriately used by policy makers to address some of the regions pressing transportation needs.  That, coupled with a less than spectacular campaign which received opposition from groups who would be likely to support a tax to fund transit, such as the Sierra club, created even more ambivalence about the effectiveness of this new tax.  Additionally, while trust in government is vital, it is crucial that voters are aware of why local leaders are making these decisions.  Yes, there could always be better management of funds at all levels of government.  But given the current state of the nation’s transportation system and needs not keeping pace with revenues, the public needs to be informed of this simple fact: what is currently in place, isn’t enough even with better government control and oversight.  We need more investment in a system that is used by all.