Transportation Tax: The Best of the Truths, Rumors and Gridlock
By Willoughby Mariano
Published on Friday, July 27th, 2012 at 1:00 p.m.
The road to Tuesday’s monumental transportation tax vote is paved with truths, rumors and innuendoes.
Leave it to the Truth-O-Meter to inspect every bump and crack in the pavement. Since spring, PolitiFact published nearly two dozen stories checking statements about the 10-year, 1 percent sales tax, otherwise known as T-SPLOST. It could raise $8.5 billion over 10 years, after inflation.
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Both sides got it wrong some of the time. Statements by supporters and opponents often fell short of True.
And once Election Day is over, we expect the rhetoric to continue. Metro Atlantans love to gripe about traffic.
Bring it on. We could go for miles and miles.
State Sen. Vincent Fort: Taxes on groceries and medicine will rise under a plan to improve roads and rail for metro Atlanta.
Fort used this claim to explain why the proposed transportation tax is unfair. The Democrat represents a district that stretches from East Point through parts of Atlanta.
"We shouldn't be putting a sales tax on people's food and medicine," Fort said in a television news story that aired on CBS Atlanta (WGCL-TV) on July 21.
We consulted the 2010 legislation that made the referendum possible, talked to tax experts and called the state Department of Revenue.
We found the transportation plan would impose a regional tax on groceries such as a loaf of bread or bananas. Groceries are exempt from the state’s sales tax, but local governments are allowed to tax them.
It also would tax over-the-counter medications such as the aspirin you took for the headache you got from listening to the transportation debate rhetoric.
But prescription drugs would remain tax-free.
Fort earns a Mostly True.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed: The state of Georgia has lost 200,000 total jobs and 50,000 construction jobs since May 2007.
Reed, one of the most vocal advocates in support of a regional transportation sales tax, argues that the plan would jolt the region’s economy by creating jobs for people working on those transportation projects.
He made the statement about lost jobs in a July 17 news conference.
PolitiFact Georgia went to the most commonly used and dependable source of labor data, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In May 2012, the most recent monthly BLS data available, an estimated 3,930,000 Georgians were employed. In May 2007, the number of Georgians employed was 4,139,000, the federal data shows. The difference: 209,000.
In May 2007, the BLS said about 222,700 Georgians were employed in the construction industry. In May 2012, the number dropped to an estimated 141,300 Georgians. The difference: 81,400.
Reed actually underestimated the construction jobs lost.
Overall, we rate his statement as True.
Fayette County Commissioner Steve Brown: A proposed tax to fund transportation projects would spend $90,000 to take a single vehicle off the road during the morning and afternoon commute.
Brown thinks the transportation tax would be a waste of money, and said this during a July 12 forum hosted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Experts often take into account impacts on the economy, the environment, traffic flow, safety and even noise when they tally the costs and benefits of a transportation project.
We found Brown’s more simple approach may vastly overstate and understate the problem at the same time.
It does not take into account the fact that the transit infrastructure will last for generations. Plus, over the long term, it might not reduce congestion at all.
Brown and fellow transportation tax foe Bob Ross also based the calculation on a transit cost estimate that’s open to accusations of cherry-picking.
Furthermore, even Brown and Ross think their own number falls short.
Brown’s claim is wrong on various levels. It earns a False.
Former state lawmaker Terry Lawler: "There is no Plan B" if the transportation referendum is not passed by voters.
The monumental voter referendum to increase the sales tax rate to pay for dozens of transportation projects across metro Atlanta has voters asking whether they can have a do-over if the proposal fails.
Lawler gave this answer at a meeting organized by the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation. He is executive director of the Regional Business Coalition of Metropolitan Atlanta.
His main point: If there is another referendum, the project list wouldn’t change much.
There is a possibility lawmakers could decide not to try another referendum, which could mean there might not be a Plan B.
But the 2010 state House of Representatives bill that authorized the referendum does offer the option of another vote if this one fails Tuesday. The project list could change, but it’s unknown by how much.
We give Lawler a Mostly False.
Citizens for Transportation Mobility: A government analysis shows under a proposed transportation tax, "metro Atlanta will create or support an additional 200,000 new jobs, including jobs that are maintained year over year."
This group backs the 1 percent sales tax to overhaul metro Atlanta’s roadways and transit. It used this statistic in a Georgia Trend magazine advertising supplement to make its point.
The data comes from a report by the region’s planning agency.
We found that this claim misleads the typical reader into thinking that the planning agency predicted the overhaul would create 200,000 jobs in the next few years.
But those are "job years," a measure equaling one job lasting one year. It will take decades to reach the 200,000 mark.
It would be more accurate to say that the overhaul would create or sustain an average of 7,120 jobs each year for 40 years.
Citizens for Transportation Mobility: The average Atlanta resident "spends an extra $924 each year in additional gasoline and wasted time."
This pro-transportation tax group based this claim on a report by the Texas Transportation Institute. Since 1982, the institute has released an annual Urban Mobility Report that examines traffic in hundreds of American cities and metropolitan areas.
The institute used a detailed formula that examined travel time during peak (rush) hours in Atlanta, how much gas was wasted and the amount of time lost while not at work or being late to the kids’ track meet.
Our research found that the assumptions it used were reasonable.
We talked to researchers who are critical of the estimate. There’s no criticism about the $924 figure, but there are critiques about how the Texas Transportation Institute reached its conclusion.
The TTI research is thorough, but it is based, in part, on estimates.
We rate this claim Mostly True.
Libertarian Party Executive Director Brett Bittner: Taxpayers subsidize 80 percent of each MARTA trip.
Bittner said this in a May 2 Marietta Daily Journal story about opposition to the regional transportation referendum.
MARTA pays $413.8 million in operating costs.
The agency projects fare revenue this year of $130.3 million – 31 percent of its operating costs. Local and federal government chip in $239 million in taxpayer dollars.
The service rounds out its revenue pie with some other sources of income. Advertising on buses, parking fees and land leases bring the non-taxpayer funds to $152.1 million.
MARTA tapped its reserve fund to plug a $22.7 million hole in its operating budget.
With figures in hand, the rest is just math: Taxpayers subsidize 57.8 percent of MARTA’s operating costs.
Bittner was significantly off in assigning 80 percent of the costs of a MARTA trip to the taxpayer. We rate his claim as Mostly False.
Georgia Sierra Club Director Colleen Kiernan: "For every one mile of light-rail track that will be built, 16 miles of new road capacity will be built."
Kiernan used this factoid to explain why her group opposes the upcoming transportation referendum.
To prove her point, the Sierra Club sent PolitiFact Georgia a spreadsheet with about 70 projects that would increase the number of lanes of some roads or make them longer.
The road projects would increase capacity by 367 miles, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission, the region’s planning body.
But the plan also includes other transit options, such as bus projects. In all, the ARC said there is an additional 371 miles of bus service on the list.
Kiernan’s claim is essentially correct, but it needs a bit of context to move higher on the Truth-O-Meter.
Under our rating system, Kiernan gets a Mostly True.
Atlanta Tea Party Patriots co-founder Debbie Dooley: "Statistics show that more people at this time telecommute than they ride carpools, mass transit, bicycle or walk."
A tea party leader who opposes a tax to overhaul metro Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure has some ideas of her own to ease traffic congestion. This one involves no taxpayer funds being spent, and it’s already growing popular, she said.
There’s little research on telecommuting, and much of it is several years old or questionable.
According to recent U.S. census data, in the Atlanta area nearly 78 percent of commuters drive alone. Carpool was second at 10.9 percent, and telecommuting was at 5.1 percent.
Nationwide, the percentage who use public transit (5 percent) was slightly higher than those who worked at home (4.3 percent).
In this case, Dooley’s overall thrust of her statement is correct, but including carpools into the mix takes it down a notch or two on the Truth-O-Meter.
Our ruling: Half True.
Citizens for Transportation Mobility: "When housing and transportation costs are combined, Atlanta’s cost of living -- typically perceived as relatively low -- ranks as 7th worst out of 51 metros nationally."
We fished around for data on Atlanta’s cost of living and found a new but widely used measure called the "H+T Affordability Index." The methodology was peer-reviewed and published by an academic journal in 2008.
Our analysis of this data found that metro Atlanta ranks as the 16th-most-expensive area in the country.
The typical metro Atlanta household spends more than 52 percent of its income on housing and transportation combined. This is higher than the national average, which is slightly more than 51 percent.
Sixteen out of 51 isn’t great. The ranking reinforces Citizens for Transportation Mobility’s overall point that transportation costs significantly add to the cost of living in metro Atlanta. The group supports the transportation referendum.
But it’s not as bad as said.
It earns a Half True.
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