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Persuading voters to back next year’s tax referendum to help unclog the region’s roadways may be tough. Divvying up the cash is no cakewalk, either.
Area leaders have asked for billions of dollars in transportation projects they think the region needs, but the proposed 1-cent sales tax can’t pay for all of them.
In fact, it won’t even cover most of them, Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker said.
"Let's keep in mind that less than one-tenth of Atlanta's transportation needs are covered in this referendum," Bodker told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a recent news story.
Less than one-tenth? But won’t the tax rake in billions of dollars?
Before we address Bodker’s claim, let’s take a quick detour into the complex realm of transportation planning.
Since the effects of a single project can cross city and county boundaries, much of the region’s transportation planning is handled by the Atlanta Regional Commission. The planning body helps area governments with issues that need regional coordination, such as clean air, water and aging.
As part of its duties, the ARC drafted Plan 2040, which maps out transportation, land use, environmental, economic, housing and human service strategies covering the 18-county area for the next 30 years.
Plan 2040 estimates what the region needs, what it will cost and how much it can afford. It found that the region needs about $126 billion in transportation projects. It can probably pay for about $60.9 billion, according to a Plan 2040 report.
As the ARC formed transportation plans for metro Atlanta, state legislators worked to find ways to fund needs across Georgia. Their efforts resulted in the 2010 passage of the Transportation Investment Act.
This legislation created special regional transportation tax districts across the state, including one in metro Atlanta. This district includes 10 counties: Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale.
A roundtable made up of Atlanta-area elected officials must come up with a list of projects for the taxing district that can be completed with money from a 1-cent sales tax. If voters back the tax in a 2012 referendum, it gets levied and construction begins.
Atlanta-area jurisdictions have submitted $22.9 billion in eligible projects they would like to see funded by the referendum. The roundtable is trying to cut the list down to an affordable level.
This brings us back to Bodker. As mayor of Johns Creek, he thinks the referendum has a better chance at success if leaders promise to use the money to build road projects.
We asked Bodker how he determined that the upcoming referendum would cover "less than one-tenth" of the region’s transportation needs.
Bodker was talking about money, he told us. To get the "one-tenth" figure, he compared the amount of revenue the tax is expected to raise with the estimated cost of building the projects metro Atlanta needs.
Through Plan 2040, regional planners calculated all the projects the area needs would cost some $120 billion, but the referendum is estimated to bring in only $7.2 billion, Bodker said. That’s less than 10 percent.
The federal government will likely match some of the money metro Atlanta raises from its tax, boosting the amount of transportation projects the region can afford. Still, most of the region’s needs will remain unmet.
We checked Bodker’s figures with those from the ARC, and they are very close. But there’s one small hitch.
A state economist determined that, depending on economic conditions, the 1-cent sales tax could raise between $6.8 billion and $7.2 billion in 2011 dollars, according to ARC documents. Since the current Plan 2040 draft says the region needs $126 billion in projects, the potential tax revenue does amount to "less than one-tenth" of the need, as Bodker said.
Furthermore, projects that make the roundtable list will receive only an estimated $6.1 billion of the tax revenue, an ARC spokeswoman said. The remainder will go to localities. The $6.1 billion figure is also less than 10 percent of the regional need.
The hitch is that Plan 2040’s cost estimate defines the Atlanta region as an 18-county area. The state Legislature designed the planned referendum to cover a smaller, 10-county region. Determining how much of the $120 billion would address needs for the smaller 10-county region is problematic because major projects can affect traffic in multiple counties.
That said, this quirk does not render Bodker’s statement inaccurate. It may have been more precise for him to say that the 10-county referendum funds less than 10 percent of the 18-county region’s needs, but we think it’s safe to say your average voter doesn’t parse regional definitions this closely.
We therefore rule Bodker’s statement True.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "North Fulton mayors map strategy for transportation tax," June 16, 2011
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Transportation wish list sliced to $12.2 billion," July 7, 2011
Atlanta Regional Commission, "Plan 2040 Regional Transportation Plan," accessed July 14, 2011
Atlanta Regional Commission, sales tax revenue estimates, accessed July 13, 2011
Atlanta Regional Roundtable website, accessed July 14, 201
Interview, Mike Bodker, mayor, Johns Creek, July 5, 2011
Interview, Julie Ralston, director of communications, Atlanta Regional Commission, July 11, 2011
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