Atlanta Taxpayers Defeat Mass-Transit Tax Hike

For a host of weird reasons, liberals are obsessed with central economic planning. Even if they have not yet promoted a major central planning model for the entire U.S. economy, they take every chance they get to plan our lives at a lower level. Public education is a big example in terms of how much money is involved, but no other planning effort appeals emotionally to liberals like mass transit. Whenever they get their hands on a new mass transit project, they go in to it with absolutely no connection to the real world. This is why every mass transit project they take on ends up in deep budgetary trouble, such as the very burdensome transit system in Minneapolisthe sugar-coated light rail project in Cincinnati, the excessively costly metro expansion in suburban Virginia, the hilariously expensive commuter rail line in Nashville, or the grand mass transit plans in Atlanta.

The Atlanta project has been the subject of a major political battle over the past year. When I first wrote about it a year ago, no voters had yet had their say on whether or not to go ahead with the project. In October last year, as the debate in Atlanta was heating up, I noted that:

What guarantee do Atlanta taxpayers have that this project is not going to become a permanent burden on their shoulders? What guarantee has the crowd of backers issued that the new mass transit lines will pay their own operating costs? No such guarantees exist, of course, and so for a good reason: government-run infrastructure projects never pay for themselves.

In November voters in Macon, not far from Atlanta, approved the one-cent higher sales tax. But today the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that the rest of the voters allowed a say on this issue have determined that this sales tax hike was, after all, not a very good idea:

Distrustful of government and riven by differences, metro Atlanta voters on Tuesday rejected a $7.2 billion transportation plan that business leaders have called an essential bulwark against regional decline.  The defeat of the 10-year, 1 percent sales tax leaves the Atlanta region’s traffic congestion problem with no visible remedy. It marks failure not only for the tax but for the first attempt ever to unify the 10-county region’s disparate voters behind a plan of action. “Let this send a message,” said Debbie Dooley, a tea party leader who early on organized opposition to the T-SPLOST tax measure. “We the people, you have to earn our trust before asking for more money.”

Congratulations, Atlanta! It is refreshing to see that voters actually turn down tax increases, and it is particularly refreshing that people in and around Atlanta did not fall for the rhetoric that the world would come to an end if they did not approve of this tax hike. This, of course, does not stop local statists from pledging to tell the people that “wrong answer, try again”:

Kasim Reed, who fought years for the referendum as a legislator and as Atlanta mayor, rallied supporters gathered at a hotel in downtown Atlanta. “The voters have decided,” Reed said. “But tomorrow I’m going to wake up and work just as hard to change their minds.” … “It’s heartbreaking,” said Ashley Robbins, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit, one of dozens of organizations that worked for the referendum. She predicted a loss of valuable young workers to the region’s economy. “If Atlanta’s not the region that we want, the young energetic people that drove these campaigns are going to leave.”

Exactly. Behold all the thousands of 20-somethings in Atlanta now sitting at their neighborhood Starbucks, sipping their lattes, declaring with one voice that “if we don’t get to ride a light rail or a natural-gas powered bus to work, then we’re all packing up and moving to Seattle.”

Yeah, that’s very credible, Ms. Robbins.

Results were still pending Tuesday night in the state’s other 11 regions. The Transportation Investment Act of 2010, which set up the referendum, was touted to raise as much as $19 billion if approved district by district. Leaders with the Metro Atlanta Chamber, which pushed to create the referendum in the Legislature and then poured millions into a campaign to pass the tax, did not immediately return telephone calls. 

If the Chamber of Commerce in metropolitan Atlanta thinks this is such a good idea; if their member businesses are so desperate to build more mass transit; then why in God’s Green Georgia don’t they cough up the money and fund it themselves? If they think that all it takes is a one-percent charge on all sales-tax covered consumer spending in the region, then why not take the equivalent out of their own business revenues?

Shirley Tondee, a Brookhaven Republican, thinks the region must do something to solve constant transportation woes. But she voted against the T-SPLOST anyway. “I just don’t trust that government is going to take the money and do what they say they’re going to do,” the retired sales representative said outside her precinct. Robert Williams, a 59-year old electronic technician and a Decatur Democrat, is skeptical too. But in the end he voted yes. “It was a struggle,” he said. However, “we need to be able to grow. Traffic is one of the things that employers do take into consideration when they’re thinking about where to bring jobs.”

Let me, again, remind everyone of Cato Senior Fellow Randy O’Toole’s excellent research on the history of mass transit. He has firmly established that mass transit worked a lot better when it was in the hands of private businesses. It is time to return it there, to the hands of those who know how to make it work, how to make it profitable without tax funding and how to make commuters and other travelers happy.

Again, congratulations, Atlanta.