The Fayette Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, the Chamber Government Affairs Committee, and a broad cross section of Chamber business leaders have spent considerable time considering the facts and issues associated with the upcoming Transportation Referendum vote on July 31st. It has become clear that the current level of transportation funding is not sufficient to keep up with the infrastructure needs of the Atlanta area today and in the future. Therefore, the Fayette County Chamber Board has voted to support the upcoming transportation referendum and encourages residents to learn about Fayette County’s current transportation priorities and issues, to examine the options for funding infrastructure improvements, and to vote “yes” on the transportation ballot initiative on July 31.
Clearly, there is a strong desire from business leadership to insure our county and our region has a well-functioning transportation infrastructure to keep our economy and our quality of life positive and growing. Our employers depend on getting their goods and their people in and out of Fayette in a safe and timely way. An astoundingly high percentage (74.2% according to 2010 Census data) of our employed residents work outside of the county. Likewise, a huge percentage (66.5%) of our Fayette businesses’ employees reside outside of Fayette County. When we lose reasonable mobility, like the logjam that occurs each workday at the Interstate 85/State Road 74 interchange, our jobs, our tax base, and our ability to attract and retain residents are at risk.
While local economic development professionals and community leaders are working hard to attract more companies with high paying jobs to our community, the current and foreseeable future reality is that a majority of our employed residents work at jobs outside our county. The jobs at Hartsfield Jackson Airport, at corporate offices around the region (e.g. Coca Cola; UPS; Home Depot; Georgia Power) and at high-level state and federal positions associated with our capital city, Atlanta, require Fayette citizens to travel across county lines. At the point the commute becomes unbearable, we risk our commuting residents choosing to live, and spend their dollars, elsewhere. Should we reach this tipping point, the economic impact of large scale loss of high income residents would be significant to our county, affecting our real estate market, our tax base, the dollars spent at local businesses, and ultimately will hamper our ability to afford the amenities associated with our quality of life.
A prime example which illustrates the transportation challenge Fayette County faces is the Interstate 85/SR 74 interchange. Because it falls outside our county line in South Fulton, we do not have control of development in that area or how priorities are assigned to improving that interchange. Currently, it is included in the ARC’s long range Transportation Plan, but there is neither funding nor commitment of any date to begin construction. Passage of the transportation referendum will dedicate funding and insure completion of the project in the next decade. At the projected growth rates for traffic in that area, if improvements are not made (and associated funding committed), it will become untenable for commuters, local businesses and residents who must access the interstate to get to work, the airport, sporting events or other destinations beyond our borders. Compounding the issue is Coweta County’s growth, adding additional cars and trucks to the interchange; expanding truck traffic in the logistics centers near the interchange; and additional commercial traffic at new gas stations and restaurants opening along the corridor. The bottom line is we believe this corridor, and the I-85 interchange are strategically critical to Fayette’s mobility, and ultimately to the health of our community and it needs to be improved as expediently as possible.
Chamber leaders agree there are some significant issues which have to be addressed in the very near future:
1) Fayette County has a Transportation Plan which was revised and formally adopted in 2010. The plan articulates the transportation priorities across the county for the future and provides a roadmap for maintaining and improving our infrastructure going forward. We believe it is imperative that our elected leaders reach consensus on appropriate timing and funding for the priorities laid out in the plan, and to then direct staff to move forward with implementation of the plan to that schedule. If the priorities in the plan are not correct, it is incumbent on our leaders to again update the plan and commit to a path forward. If passed, the 15% discretionary funds from the T-SPLOST could be used to fund some part of those agreed upon priorities.
2) Fayette’s population is one of the most rapidly aging in our region. Transportation and mobility for this growing demographic must be considered and associated issues must be addressed by our community if we are to continue to be a healthy community with options to age in place. The solutions are complex and the process for addressing them should be inclusive of both public and private organizations. We cannot ignore this issue.
3) Our workforce, both our residents living here and the employees of local businesses who live elsewhere but work here, are a vitally important asset to our community. We must work constructively within Fayette, and with other communities outside of our county, to address transportation issues which have an impact on the mobility of our goods and employees. If we fail to deal with these transportation issues and do not somehow fund the required infrastructure, we will inevitably fail to adequately prepare our community for the future.
In light of these issues, the Fayette Chamber supports passage of the transportation referendum this July to address the needs. A key factor in our analysis is that Fayette will be a net beneficiary of the referendum. In other words, Fayette County will receive direct benefits from projects totaling more money than its residents will put in. The data clearly indicates that just accounting for projects within the county’s borders and the 15% of funds that are to be returned to the county for yet to be determined projects (this could be roads, cart paths, or other uses of the county’s choosing), Fayette will receive 92.5% of the dollars it remits. When three additional projects just outside our borders are incorporated, including the I-85/Hwy 74 interchange that we cannot address on our own, that return jumps to 123%. Receiving $1.23 in value of directly beneficial projects for each $1 funded by Fayette is a good return on our investment, by any analysis.
Moreover, making the investments now is critical for several reasons. First, the cost of the projects will only go up in the future. The earlier we address them, the less it will cost. Second, by making these investments, projects in Fayette County and throughout the entire region will be eligible for federal matching funds. This means that we will be able to leverage the investment to garner additional resources to address the problems that otherwise would not be available. Said another way, not passing the referendum means we leave those federal dollars on the table for other communities in other states to use to compete for new businesses and jobs. Finally, with current unemployment rates exceeding 8%, the infusion of approximately $8 billion into the economy will create jobs and generate investments in goods and services that will help all businesses, including those in Fayette County.
The Chamber recognizes that there are critics of the referendum and the project lists. Some opponents argue that the referendum is merely about transit. The Chamber carefully analyzed this claim and determined that this is an overly narrow view of the comprehensive transportation package. Based on the actual project list, facts, and the law, we find:
- The referendum has no projects that result in the creation of passenger rail in Fayette County. None. In fact, current law does not authorize MARTA to be built in Fayette County (Georgia Code § 32-9-14(d)).
- Fayette County will receive $1.23 in tangible local benefit for each $1 collected in Fayette, so the county will not be subsidizing transit projects in other counties. If anything, other counties will be subsidizing projects that directly benefit Fayette.
- Roughly half of the total dollars generated by the referendum will be spent on transit outside of Fayette; nearly half on other transportation projects. Those communities that wanted passenger rail expanded in their communities included it in their project lists. Fayette did not. This is a perfect example of “home rule” and local control at work.
Others contend that the referendum creates a permanent tax. A review of the transportation referendum, as codified in the Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2010, confirms that this is simply not the case. If approved, collections for the infrastructure projects will last for ten (10) years and only ten (10) years. Unlike the GA 400 extension, the collection of revenue through the transportation referendum cannot, by law, be extended past the specified 10 years. Beyond that, a totally new referendum would have to be presented to and passed again by the voters. Absent further public approval, there will be no continuation of the assessment. This is similar to the 2005 Fayette TSPLOST which was only authorized for five (5). Once it expired, a separate vote was required and the citizens were given the opportunity to decide on the merits of the new proposal. This time, the second round of projects proposed in the Fayette SPLOST did not pass and the tax ceased to exist.
Finally, some opponents suggest that the referendum will lead to a loss of local control, with some arguing home rule is completely eliminated. The Chamber considered this matter closely as an important matter for the self-determination of Fayette County. The facts are these:
- Fayette County officials, with public input, provided the list of projects that are now part of the referendum. No projects recommended by Fayette County were kept off the list; we got what we requested.
- Fayette County officials, with public input, will be able to decide where and how the 15% of the funds that are returned to the county will be spent. No other counties or other officials will decide where those dollars are targeted.
- A Citizen Advisory Board will oversee the projects to make sure that they are done consistent with the project list, a fact that led WSB’s Clark Howard to endorse the referendum.
Thus, the elected officials closest to the people were able to propose projects, with public input, and will be afforded the same opportunity with the additional 15% of funds returned to the county if the referendum passes. Therefore, Fayette County retains local control for Fayette County to decide what is best for the county. Likewise, there is enough of a regional aspect for Fayette to benefit from projects outside our borders that we cannot address on our own.
In conclusion, Georgia currently ranks 49th among states in spending on transportation while collections of the motor fuel tax that funds transportation projects continue to decline. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has recently added a new terminal which will bring more people and more business opportunities to the area; the Savannah port is being deepened to handle more cargo which will be transported on our roadways; and the Atlanta area is projected to grow by more than three (3) million additional people in the next three decades. Transportation dollars are dwindling and the stress on our infrastructure is growing. The passage of this referendum will generate economic opportunities for Fayette County and the entire region, will create jobs, will lessen congestion saving commuters money and time that can be better spent with their families, and will be a shot in the arm to the lagging economy. The time to act and show leadership is now. The Fayette Chamber believes that supporting the referendum, with its positive return on investment for our community, is in the best short and long term interest of the businesses and the citizens of Fayette County.