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Metro Atlanta’s Sales Tax “Savings” Will Come at a High Price

10:52 AM EDT on August 2, 2012

It's rare that a region attempts a transportation vote as potentially transformative as the one that took place Tuesday in Atlanta. And even though voters elected not to act -- voting down a package of 157 transit and road projects totaling more than $7 billion -- that doesn't mean nothing's going to change for this sprawling, southeastern metropolis.

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Many are sorting through the possible implications. The Naked City blog, reporting from Charlotte, called the defeat "terribly disheartening," but predicted the region's leaders wouldn't give up on the issue. The Congress for New Urbanism and Richard Layman focused on where the campaign went wrong. Adie Tomer at The New Republic and the Brookings Institution says residents of greater Atlanta are going to find themselves paying for this decision, even without the tax hike:

Besides missing out on major new projects, the voters’ rejection poses some other problems in the immediate term. Without the extra revenues, Atlanta’s leadership will have difficultly leveraging newly expanded TIFIA funds from the federal government. Instead, they will cede the advantage to other metros with referendums on the books. Advantage: Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Oklahoma City.

Just as importantly, the region’s transportation bill still rose this morning -- but with no new projects to show for it. According to our own reading of Georgia’s Transportation Investment Act of 2010, any district with a ‘no’ vote would cause their local responsibility for state transportation maintenance and improvement grants to rise from 10 percent to 30 percent. That’s right, Tea Party activists: you’re still paying more.

Now, Atlanta’s business and residential leaders need to wait at least two years for a follow-up vote. And while the national record is strong for referendums passing on follow-up tries, Atlanta’s 63 percent rejection suggests TIA supporters have quite a bit of work to do. Those supporters can start with an information campaign; Atlanta’s regional residents need to know more about the costs of inaction, and how investments in one locality can benefit residents and businesses of the whole region.

The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that Atlanta commuters spend an average of $924 a year just sitting in traffic jams. Nobody likes paying taxes, as the Georgia Tea Party so deliberately highlighted in this case. But driving, especially long distances and in heavy traffic, isn't cheap either. Now, as in the past, many of the region's residents will have little choice but to spend their time and money idling on congested freeways, or waiting long periods for the next bus.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Stop and Move reports Amtrak ridership in California continues to climb, most dramatically in the region where the first phase of high-speed rail construction is scheduled. The Fast Lane announces an awesome-sounding new federal program that will train governors in livability principles. And Let's Go Ride a Bike shares details on Nashville's coming bike-sharing system.

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