The following talk is adapted from the one given by the Cobb Taxpayers Association Chairman, Lance Lamberton, before Government Accountability Task Force on November 29, 2021 in Marietta, Georgia
If I were to give a title for my talk this evening, it would be 14 reasons to oppose the mis-named Mobility SPLOST, but before I do that I need to provide some basic background information on what this SPLOST is and how it came into being.
The genesis of the Mobility SPLOST came about as a result of two pieces of legislation sponsored by two Republican state legislators. The justification was that counties in the Atlanta metropolitan area need to spend more on transportation and transit to meet anticipated growth in the area and to provide better connectivity from county to county and throughout the region. The first part of the M SPLOST was HB 170 which allows up to a one percent increase in our current 6% sales tax for 5 years and could be used for what we traditionally think of as transportation infrastructure such as roads, bridges, sidewalks, bike lanes and trails. The second piece of the M SPLOST is the transit SPLOST, passed under house bill 930, also can be up to 1%, but could be up to 30 years. So, if both SPLOSTS were to pass in a public referendum, our sales tax could go up from 6% to 8%, which would be a 33% increase. So here are my 14 reasons why you should oppose this SPLOST.
- It will cost the average taxpayer in Cobb approximately $200 per year for each one percent increase in the sales tax. You then need to ask yourself if you will be getting four hundred dollars’ worth of value per year, (assuming an 8% tax rate) either in the form of using more public transit yourself and leaving your car in the garage, or in the false promise that it will reduce traffic congestion and commute times.
- Proponents of the Transit SPLOST express a lot of concern for low-income people. In fact, I spoke with one County Commissioner who told me that the Transit SPLOST is not for the purpose of improving mobility and reducing trip times but to make sure everyone in Cobb has decent transit options. Yet an increase in the sales tax has a disproportionate impact on the poor, where a much larger portion of their income would go towards paying the tax than it would for the more affluent.
- The County has completely failed to assess the need for a new transit SPLOST, if in fact that need is measured by those who lack “decent” transit options. For example:
- How many people lack transportation options?
- Can that # be verified?
- Who are these people? Are they in Cobb or people who want to come to Cobb?
- How does this demographic get around now without the Transit SPLOST?
- And finally, how much are taxpayers being asked to spend for each person in need? Are there not other ways to meet that need without spending up to $8.3 billion over thirty years? I don’t think it is too far fetched to claim that if we were actually to get accurate numbers on this score that it might be far less expensive to give each one of these needy individuals a new Toyota Prius, although I’m not recommending that we do that.
- No matter what direction the County would like to go with the Transit SPLOST, none of the options would reduce congestion, and more likely would make it worse! If it decided it wanted to go the heavy rail route and expand MARTA from the Bankhead station to the Cumberland Mall area, it would serve, by their own estimates, only 5% of Cobb commuters (other estimates are as low as 1%) and would cost billions. More likely they would opt for a massive expansion of bus service and build a number of bus rapid transit routes (BRT). Now with respect to having more buses lumbering around Cobb, have you ever noticed how they impede traffic? When they stop to pick up and drop off passengers, traffic has to either stop or figure out a way around them. Multiply that problem with more routes and greater frequency of service and you have more congestion. With the BRTs they would operate on their own dedicated lanes, thereby taking away valuable real estate from private vehicles, and would also be designed so that traffic lights would change as they enter intersections, meaning private vehicles would have to contend with extended wait times while the BRTs enjoyed preferential treatment at your expense.
- The current bus system is already very much underutilized. Putting more bus routes out there running at more frequent intervals would only multiply the problem and lead to even greater levels of wasteful government spending.
- Technology will likely make any mass transit project obsolete before the first truckload of concrete is poured. For example, driverless cars would eliminate the most expensive component in ridesharing services such as lyft and uber: the driver. In that regard the County is looking to implement a subsidized ride sharing program with these companies which would be a fraction of the cost of its current FLEX bus system, where the subsidy per rider is a much as $50 per trip. A partnership with these services would also greatly expand the areas served, the hours of service, and the efficiency of the service being provided. Several months ago, the Cobb Taxpayers Association met with the Cobb DOT to lobby for the elimination of FLEX and replacing it with the ride sharing program, but those FLEX buses keep on running nearly empty, when they run at all.
- Other technologies are also being brought online to further reduce the need for mass transit in urbanized environments such as the proliferation of electric scooters that sprung up almost overnight in Atlanta. There are some parts of Cobb where that would work as well, but they have encountered resistance from our municipal governments over safety concerns. My response to that is to think creatively about how to address those concerns, and recognize that any mode of transportation has inherent risks attached to it, including just walking.
- If the Transit SPLOST was passed, it would take the operating subsidies for Cobb Community Transit out of the general fund, but that savings of $750 – 800 million over 30 years would not go towards property tax relief, but would be repurposed to other “vital” needs, because according to the majority on the Board of Commissioners (BOC), the County is, and I quote, “just barely getting by with the revenues it is currently receiving.” On this issue I take particular exception. Right now the County is taking in more money from all revenue sources than at anytime in its history due to dramatically increased property values and an expansion of the tax base due to residential and commercial growth. Moreover, the federal government is throwing gobs of money at the County such as $147 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, where they are even surveying residents on how they should spend this windfall. It is time, at long last, that the County find a way to live within its ever-growing revenues and stop trying to foist more and more taxes on us like they are trying to do with the M SPLOST.
- Despite the massive expenditures that would come from a Transit SPLOST, it would not even begin to achieve its stated goals of getting people out of their cars, because no matter how you cut it, public transit is a much more time-consuming way to get around then in or on a private vehicle. Bottom line is that public transit just doesn’t work well in a suburban environment where the overwhelming majority of us live in single family occupancy, detached homes. One of the problems with mass transit in suburbia is the assumption that other people will use it so that you can more easily get around in your own car.
- Unfortunately, when it comes to that issue, the dirty little secret behind the push for mass transit in Cobb is not increased and better mobility, but economic development along mass transit routes, with property owners along those routes hoping to reap a windfall in increased property values; what economists call rent seeking, and they hope to do it with your tax money.
- Another driving force behind the push for mass transit is environmental extremism, or what is now commonly known as the green new deal. There is even a grass roots group in Cobb that explicitly pushes for mass transit because they think cars are bad, owning our own single family detached home is wasteful, and so they want to force us out of our cars and into apartments and town homes where we will have no choice but to use public transit, and downsize our homes and our lives, all in the name of saving the environment. And they want to make radical changes in our zoning laws to help bring about those results.
- Mass transit expansion in Cobb will help make our County politically more progressive, which in this context means advocacy for more government spending, taxes and regulation. Apartment dwellers who primarily rely on public transit to get around generally don’t vote in the interest of fiscal conservatism. The push to urbanize the County is a sinister effort to make Cobb a democrat party stronghold permanently and unalterably. And while the Cobb Taxpayers Association is non-partisan, we take exception to any one party seeking demographic changes to solidify and consolidate their political base.
- With respect to the transportation piece of the misnamed Mobility SPLOST, this would only result in an even bigger SPLOST slush fund then what we already have. The current one percent County SPLOST is more than enough to meet current and future needs provided that the wasteful expenditures currently in the SPLOST were reduced or eliminated.
- And finally, the pandemic has shown us that many of us no longer have to drive to and from work every day, and that we can tele-commute instead. This has had the effect of reducing traffic congestion, thereby eliminating the need for many of the transportation projects that were on the drawing board during the pre-pandemic era.
Those are my 14 reasons to oppose the mis-named Mobility SPLOST. At this point, you are probably asking yourselves what exactly will be put on the ballot for us to consider? When will it be put on the ballot? And how much will it cost us? Will it be a quarter of a percent, a half a percent, or a full percent for each SPLOST? In this regard, I think the proponents of the M SPLOST are kind of treating us like mushrooms; you know, feed us a bunch of garbage and keep us in the dark. It is my belief that they want to spring this SPLOST on us at the latest possible moment, which I believe has to be no later than July of this year to be put on the November ballot. And the reason for that is to give us as little time as possible to mobilize against it, because they have resources that will dwarf opposing groups like the one I represent by 100 to one or more based upon past fights we’ve had in Cobb.
And the proponents are formidable. They include 3 or 4 commissioners on the BOC, the Cobb Chamber, the three CIDs in Cobb, the rent seekers I mentioned earlier seeking economic development windfalls, the entire apparatus of the Cobb County government, and the engineering, consulting and construction companies that are all chomping at the bit to win multi-billion contracts at your expense.
But before you lose heart, let me remind you of what happened in Cobb in 2012 with the 10-year transportation SPLOST they tried to pass with all the Kings horses and men lined up at the feeding trough. It went down to defeat by a greater than two to one margin. And more recently they tried the same thing in Gwinnett County, not once, but twice, and still they got beat.
Just as a sidebar to what happened in Gwinnett and to give you a little insight as to the kind of tactics our opponents engage in, when their SPLOST proposal was defeated in a specially called election in March of 2019, they immediately declared that it was an unfair vote because not enough people knew about it. To overcome that problem, they held another vote during the general election in November of 2020 and got beat again. I think they’ve finally given up.
And you know something? If we can win in Gwinnett, then I have cause for optimism here. But we can’t win on a hope and a prayer. The organization I represent, the Cobb Taxpayers Association, needs your support. The Franklin Roundtable and the local chapter of the Association of Mature American Citizens is already on board, and I hope I can count on official support and resources from the Cobb County Republican Party. That would be a really big deal in that it has never happened before, but I’m seeking to change that. Wish me luck.